Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VI No. 3 July 1997

Steve Morris: The Power of One

by William Rossiter, CSI President

Have you heard the depressing statistics about the decline in worldwide fisheries, the overwhelming pillage of the oceans by modern fishing fleets, the bleak future for growing human populations, and of course the impact on whales, dolphins, and other marine life? Do you find it so depressing, in fact, that you tend to turn away; what can we all do? Most of us leave it to nations, treaties, and authorities to stop the slaughter.

But what can they do? The recent CITES COP 10 meeting in Zimbabwe (see related article) emphasized the escalating conflicts between nations over the use of living resources. An ongoing effort to empower UN General Assembly Resolutions 51/35 and 51/36 and to ratify the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty (which the U.S. has still not ratified) highlights the inability of nations to control the rape of the oceans. While the officials dither the destruction continues. What's the future going to be like for coming generations?

Some people don't leave it to others to act. Searching the Internet looking for help, Steve Morris, an American businessman and avid diver, found CSI's web site and contacted us on 11 May. He reported that two "high tech" wall nets had been discovered by dive operators in a pelagic migratory channel near Tangkoko-Batu Angus-Dua Saudara Reserve near the northern entrance to Lembeh Strait, NE Sulawesi, Indonesia. He had found proof that since March of 1996 the secret operation had caught at least 1,424 manta rays, 18 whale sharks, 312 other sharks, 4 minke whales, 326 dolphins, 577 pilot whales, 789 marlin, 84 turtles, and 9 dugong. We posted Steve's comments to several scientific and environmental networks and within days information about the Taiwanese fishing fleet that was using these US$100,000 nets, and the market it was providing, was being assembled and passed around the world. Passed not by organizations, agencies, or governments, but by individual people contributing their time, expertise, and concern. The Internet made communication so rapid between people with diverse talents and shared concerns that results and reactions were fast, coordinated, and successful. The Taiwanese operation was reported to have increased its fleet from one fiberglass skiff to include three much larger ships, making trips two or three times a day to each net, some days working on a 24 hour basis due to large catches. Apparently everything that was caught ended up on someone's plate, even deep into China. Scientific assessments defined potential populations at risk. A cadre of experts with connections to the Jakarta Government ensured that the details were known at the highest political levels. Taiwan's trade was being scrutinized clandestinely, and even DNA analysis of tissue samples was being involved. Within days one of the nets was reported gone, perhaps because of the sudden publicity.

There was no evidence that the Indonesian government knew what was going on in their waters. They had been one of the major co-sponsors of the 1995 United Nations conference on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, agreeing to all eleven Articles implemented. A group of local landowners, businessmen and concerned residents had joined efforts in March and established the Lembeh Strait Preservation Society. LSPS illustrated the difficulty with communications in this new battle arena as, not knowing about the Internet effort until June, they thought they were fighting the nets alone. On 26 May 1997 the Environmental Impact Management Agency enforced the regulation and stopped the fishing company's destructive activities. The Taiwanese crew was deported, the ships are sitting idle in Bitung harbor and the case is before the Indonesian court system. By early June the net's support structures had been made useless, presumably by "local fishermen" and others. LSPS continues to lobby the government to declare northern Lembeh Strait and the adjacent area a national marine park, and to encourage marine research in the Strait in order to document its uniqueness.

The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) was also meeting in June. Many efforts, particularly CSI's Kate O'Connell who was representing the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society at CITES, brought the details of this illegal and destructive fishery directly to that forum. Although only some of the affected species such as whales and dolphins were covered by CITES, others such as fish had long been under debate, and this issue was made more public at a significant time. CITES had been struggling for years on the issue of highly migratory marine species and how to regulate trade. At COP 10, by secret ballot, Japan prevented a Working Group from being formed to study the problem. Even if the species were listed enforcement of the trade seems impossible. The alarming rate of destruction of marine resources is a major world problem. Collectively we don't have much time to control it. How can regulations and treaties be enforced in a world where modern fleets roam undetected, scouring the oceans of anything that can be caught? This rape of the oceans is caused by people who are not responsible to any government, and have no concern for what they do other than to make money. At least two other traps are known, one operating near Gorontalo. There may be three others operated by the same company. If CITES, other treaties and agreements, and the best intentions of governments can't stop them, can anyone?

Look at what Steve Morris did, and all who joined his effort with whatever time and experience they could offer. For this specific crisis two web sites were established at <http://mamba.bio.uci.edu/~pjbryant/bio65/indon97e.htm> and <http://www.focus-asia.com/home/fejj/>. These updated sites will now continue to educate and alert people about the nets and other pirate fisheries. That may just make the difference. Could caring people like Steve and the many others be the possible solution? Can community leaders, dive operators and tour companies realize that they can fight this war that may otherwise destroy their business? Can divers, ecotourists and literally anyone use their witness to alert others worldwide, and save what they care about? The Internet communicates so rapidly and so widely that the publicity alone might solve the problem long before any government or agency even reacts officially.

Individual empowerment has cultural implications, and it is not experienced by many. All over Southeast Asia people are aware of these fisheries, but afraid to comment or act. The Internet is available to only a small number, with its own culture, and huge growing pains. You may not understand it (ask a child), or may be intimidated by it (as I am). However you have probably heard that anyone can communicate with anyone "on line" about anything, perhaps to a fault. Steve Morris brought together hundreds of people who will never meet, rapidly empowering a collective of concerned individuals, and at least temporarily solved a conservation crisis. We can now define part of the Internet culture as a weapon for concerned individuals to fight for what we care about, around, over, and in spite of organizations, agencies and governments. Thanks to all who joined in, and particularly to Steve Morris, who taught us a valuable lesson.

Right now the same Internet techniques by individuals are being used to substantiate allegations of corruption in Hawaii. The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, under NMFS, administers the Pelagic Fisheries Management Plan governing fishing in U.S. offshore waters. Previous and recent actions by the WPRFMC have allegedly shown a detrimental conflict of interest and abuse of authority. Fishing interests recently opposed the Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary, and the Governor approved only a portion of the designated Sanctuary area. But WPRFMC's long history of pro-fishing interests has allegedly ignored real protection and enforcement affecting marine wildlife by extending permits for commercial purposes, and overlooking violations including the killing and/or shooting of whales, dolphins, the endangered Hawaiian monk seals, and protected bird species. We shall see.

Go to next article: CITES: A Whale of a Meeting or: Table of Contents.

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