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What gives Greenpeace the right?

I’m here in the high arctic waters off Svalbard (78º N; way up there!) as a guest for a few days aboard Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise. I wonder if we’re doing the right thing. We’re here because warming waters have brought cod and other valued fish northward, and upon them are huge fishing boats capable...

I’m here in the high arctic waters off Svalbard (78º N; way up there!) as a guest for a few days aboard Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise. I wonder if we’re doing the right thing.

We’re here because warming waters have brought cod and other valued fish northward, and upon them are huge fishing boats capable of following to the end of the Earth, dragging the nets that have ruined seafloors and depleted fish in many parts of the world.

We are here to call for a balance between exploitation and protection. We’re here “bearing witness,” which means getting close to working trawlers and taking lots of photos.

But while zooming around trawlers in our speedboat, a troubling thought kept recurring: What gives us the right? Is it wrong-headed to want to protect the seafloor? Here are these ships catching food for people and we’re saying, “This far, no further.” They want food and jobs and money. We speak of deep anemones and sea-pens; we worry about fragile corals.

Are we doing something valid or just harassing these fishing crews? Are we doing enough good to justify it? Where is the line?


Spanish fishing trawler. Credit: Carl Safina
Spanish fishing trawler. Credit: Carl Safina

I shared my thoughts with Captain Mike Fincken, who has been with Greenpeace for 20 years, 10 years a captain. He’s South African. To avoid compulsory 2-year military service during the violent era of Apartheid, he spent 13 years at sea. He’s been arrested for participating in a blockade to prevent a coal ship from entering Rotterdam Harbor. He says that two days in a windowless cell where the fluorescent lights were never turned off was a good experience—quite enough time to see what it was like in jail.

He surprised me by saying that he and the rest of the crew and the Greenpeace organization itself are always asking themselves the same question I was asking: Are we doing the right thing? Is it necessary? I admired that openness and honesty. So we talked.

Captain Mike Fincken and 3rd Officer Helena DeCarlos. Credit: Carl Safina
Captain Mike Fincken and 3rd Officer Helena DeCarlos. Credit: Carl Safina

We talked first about people getting hurt. Captain Mike told me that when Greenpeace’s ship Rainbow Warrior was sunk in New Zealand in 1985 by the French Secret Service, the French made no attempt—no anonymous phone call—to warn anyone to evacuate. The crew aboard was having a birthday party when a bomb attached to the hull exploded, killing a photographer. Thirty years later the diver who attached the bomb apologized. He said he’d been lied to, that he’d been told that the ship was sponsored by the Soviet Union.

And what was Rainbow Warrior doing in New Zealand? It was sailing into waters where the French were exploding atomic bombs in the atmosphere, trying to disrupt those explosions and stop the destruction of tropical islands and the radioactive fallout.

So who were the criminals?

Mike says Greenpeace takes great care to avoid hurting anyone. Here on this cruise, Greenpeace notifies fishing ships before launching our photographic boats. They don’t ask permission but they make a courtesy call. The boats might not welcome us (though some are in fact friendly), but they know we aren’t here to physically disrupt anything.

Daniella Montalto has the Spanish boat on Channel 10. Credit: Carl Safina
Daniella Montalto has the Spanish boat on Channel 10. Credit: Carl Safina

The main game here is a long one: provide the documentation to support efforts to protect large areas here before the seafloor is in fact ruined by trawling, as has happened elsewhere. And already, major seafood catchers have voluntarily agreed not to expand into untrawled areas. And mega-retailers including McDonald’s have agreed not to buy fish from companies that violate the agreement. So if McDonald’s thinks this is right—.

Mike told of having protested “monster boats,” fishing ships 350 feet long. They fish off West Africa where governments are in no position to protest or enforce their waters. They don’t even raise the nets but send vacuum hoses into them so they can keep catching 24/7. Most of the fish are turned to fishmeal, converted to livestock feed and fertilizer.

During those protests the crews attached large buoys to the net to, yes, interfere with the fishing, fishing that is so damaging that well-functioning governments do not allow those trawlers in their waters. One of Greenpeace’s boats got its propeller tangled in the net and flipped. The incident caused Greenpeace to reevaluate its safety protocols.

Mike says that Greenpeace has never hurt anyone and never aims to harm property. They take the “peace” in their name seriously. They evaluate risk before launching actions, to ensure no injury. Their actions are mainly theatrical, hanging banners and the like.

And for safety reasons they tend these days to avoid any contact with fishing operations. (Greenpeace is widely confused with Sea Shepherd, which has rammed fishing and whaling boats—and been rammed—and undertaken other actions designed to damage property and so disrupt the ability of the boats to continue their operations. While I admire Sea Shepherd’s nerve and share their anger, I don’t support some of their strategies because I suspect they’re counter-productive. Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd are wholly independent.)

This ship itself had been impounded after the crew attempted to hang a banner on a Russian oil rig in the Arctic, and its crew imprisoned in Russia facing sentences of 5 to 10 years—for hanging a banner (they were pardoned after a couple of months). Later an international court found Russia’s capture of the ship illegal, because Greenpeace’s ship had maintained the legal distance from the oil-rig.

Returning from photographing trawler. Credit: Carl Safina
Returning from photographing trawler. Credit: Carl Safina

A German photographer on board with us is banned from the U.S. for life. During the days of the U.S.’s “star wars” plan to put orbiting bombs in space, he had taken part in a protest. The protesters sought to delay the launch of a dummy missile by sneaking onto a military base to plant balloons that would get in the way of the missile and prevent the launch.

Balloons, not bombs—wouldn’t that be nice. But he’s banned from the U.S. I can think of many things that should get people banned. Balloons aren’t one of them.

So governments and laws aren’t always a good guide to who is right and who is wrong and what speaks to justice. And if you protest, governments and despoilers will sometimes push back hard. Life isn’t always fair or just. Sometimes someone has to say so, and show a path to better ways.

So is it wrong to peacefully—though sometimes dramatically—protest activities that cause much harm to the living world and our life-support systems?

In these waters and shores we are cruising, walruses had been hunted to near-annihilation. Then whales. Then people came for coal. Now it’s fish. This is why our mission—keeping an eye on what’s happening, showing and sharing what it’s like here, advancing a conversation about keeping some places safe from humanity—can be useful at this time.

The ship carries a totem gifted by Canada’s Kwakiutl Nation during a mission to protest nuclear testing. So, what is to some illegal harassment is to others the sacred mission of peaceful warriors.

Greenpeace is simply trying to say, with photos, “Go slow. Leave some.” That’s all.

6 tons of fish caught in two hours. Credit: Carl Safina
Six tons of fish caught in four hours. Credit: Carl Safina

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Carl Safina’s recent bestselling book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel is newly out in paperback. See Carl’s TED talk here. He is Stony Brook University’s Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity, and founder of The Safina Center.

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Meet the Author

Carl Safina
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.