NZ and Pacific Dive mag cover 5 Aug 2012_0

Dive NZ / Dive Pacific magazines – August/September – Issue 131

Read the published interview:

Dive Magazine (DM): Pete what are the objectives of your new conservation project in Africa? 

Pete Bethune (PB):
East and West Africa have a growing problem of pirate fishing by foreign vessels. The region is estimated to have over US$1bn stolen annually without quota. As illegal fishing has increased, it has impacted more heavily on local populations. It displaces artisanal fishermen who in many cases have no other option for employment. It takes away what is the dominant form of animal protein for local population, in many cases forcing them to target local endangered land wildlife. It also takes away one of the few options the countries have for foreign exchange earnings.

Most governments there realize this of course, but funding for enforcement is not easy. When average income is say $5 per day, how can a government, already struggling with civil war, famine, AIDs and drought, fund half a million dollars for vessels and tactical hardware? The short answer is they cannot. The result is rampant and uncontrolled pirate fishing.

In terms of fishery state, it varies from country to country, but in most, they are now under enormous pressure. A single trawler may take the equivalent catch of 1000 artisanal fishermen. So it doesn’t take many to severely impact the fishery, and hence, the local population.

If you take Somalia as an example, their fishery was largely cleaned out in the late 90s by a relatively small number of industrial vessels. In a country like Somalia racked by civil war, weapons are relatively easy to come by, and some entrepreneurial types put the fishermen and weapons together. It wasn’t long before piracy became their fastest growing industry. Since then, Somalia has descended into one of the most lawless coastlines on earth, and many other countries in Africa face a similar fate if their fishing industries are not saved from foreign poaching.

The pirate fleets are from many countries. By far the biggest culprit is China, with the rest being a balance of Spanish, Portuguese, Greek and Taiwanese. The target catch varies, and can include prawns, reef fish, shark, and pelagic species such as tuna.

I spent some time there last year, and after witnessing the problem first hand, I decided to get involved. We’ve worked on a number of elements to provide assistance. Firstly, we’ve assembled a team of specialist ex-military personnel into a crack unit to provide surveillance, tracking, boarding and arrest of pirate fishing crews. The unit includes personnel drawn from Navy SEALs, Delta Force, Army Rangers and SAS units. So they are a formidable force.

Secondly, we’re providing a range of advanced hardware. This includes the 7.7m Sealegs Amphibious Assault Vessel (AAV) recently launched in New Zealand. We’re also developing a UAV for flying reconnaissance, and investing in a range of tactical gear.

Thirdly, there is a TV show around our work. The current series is ten episodes, of which one is already completed, and the remaining nine will be filmed later this year. The show will help to showcase pirate fishing globally, and hopefully encourage NGOs and western governments to provide additional financial aid to help combat pirate fishing in Africa.

Finally, we’re assisting governments in the development of robust legislation to protect their fishery. One result of additional enforcement is it encourages foreign companies to negotiate quota contracts in Africa. Our goal is to ensure these are fair to the local country, and ensure suitable compliance into the future.

DM: Do you have support of the local authorities and fisherman?

PB: We are working with legitimate enforcement agencies. This varies in the country, but typically it involves the ministry of fisheries and the ministry of defense. But may also encompass police, coastguard and other departments. All our activities are conducted within the laws of the country. It is important we build long term relationships in Africa, and to do so, it is important we operate within the legal framework afforded us.

Local fishermen generally are extremely supportive of our work. We are arresting the very people depriving locals of their livelihood, so once they understand what we are doing, they get in behind us. In many cases they give us valuable intelligence. And we are mindful to nurture those relationships. We do see some less-than-ideal fishing practices from artisanal fishermen and this is a shame. As an example, many use net size down to one inch, whereas most countries banned anything less than four inches year ago. So we will try and encourage better practices, but we are careful not to upset the very people we are there to protect.

Some countries have the starting of enforcement. Some may have a vessel or two. A small AIS system. A radar system on key locations. But it is far from a full solution, and pirate fleets take advantage of this.

DM: Do you expect any resistance to what you are trying to do from local people or business based in Africa?

PB: We don’t expect much in the way of problems with local populations. Thus far they have been very welcoming of our efforts. We do however expect to come under pressure from the foreign companies who will see us as a threat to their business. Pirate fishing makes lots of money. It is the third largest illegal trade behind drugs and weapons. And the companies don’t give up their ill-gotten gains easily. There is also the odd element of corruption locally. Africa is a poor place, and corruption finds a foothold in such conditions. So I wouldn’t be surpised if that comes into play sooner or later.

DM: I understand you are currently doing a trip to put together sponsors to help fund this project.

PB: We have a number of sponsors already. The Amphibious Assault Vessel for example was sponsored by Sealegs, BRP, SIMRAD, Ocean Covers and Trevor Hansen. We are still getting sponsors on board, but mostly this is for tactical hardware. I’m in Germany next week for example, looking to lock up another three deals. I have a couple fundraisers in the US as well. It is a good cause and people and companies are happy to support. The fact that we are working with legitimate government agencies helps a lot in this regards.

DM: What part will television play in achieving your squad goals?
PB: TV plays a major role. It allows us to get the story out to the world of what is really happening in Africa. It educates the public on the issue, and that in turn can lead to political pressure. It would be nice to see western governments assisting properly in Africa, rather than just sending bags of rice. Secondly, it helps our sponsors get value from their involvement. As an example, take the Sealegs boat. It is the best amphib we could get by far for what we want to do. Nothing else in the world came close. And it is all made in Auckland. That boat will be all over the TV series, and we’d like to see Sealegs sell a ton of them into the US after our series airs. Missions like ours are very unforgiving, and we are reluctant to take anything poorly engineered. So we are very focused on getting the very best we can. But to get this gear sponsored, companies look for a return. The TV series offers that. The TV series helps with funding through location fees as well. The other area TV can help with is opening doors. When you have a fully funded TV series underway, people are a lot more inclined to listen to you.

DM: What is the make-up of the personal of your squad?

PB: It is a team of 12, with six in the Amphib. This is effectively the boarding team. These guys are seriously hard-core, and will kick the ass of anyone who tries messing with us. Then we have a Unit Commander, Security, Liaison Officer, Logistics, PA and Fixer. Then the film crew is about 8-10. Plus around ten local staff., So all up we have a team of around 30 personnel.

DM: How much preparation/training will the squad do before you depart?

PB: The good things is most of my team are already highly skilled. They are all familiar with NVG, weapons, intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, covert operations… But the proficiency level varies. Also, members bring specialist skills. We are focused to see these spread through the unit so the team ends up with very diverse skill sets and core capabilities. We are already in training. We just had a camp in Colorado for example. Today I can hardly move.

Training is on going, and even when we arrive in Africa, every week will see extensive periods of training. Missions to take down hostile vessels in open seas are amongst the toughest and most dangerous any military unit can tackle. And this will be trained and practiced many many times. We are also training on some new things that my operatives haven’t seen before. So it is a constant learning curve.

DM: What are your main concerns when confronting the illegal fisherman?

My biggest concern is they will decide to take us on. My job is to take my unit to Africa, and bring them all home safely. My second job is to capture and arrest foreign vessels fishing illegally in Africa. If we board their vessel and they are tempted to pull weapons on us, then I do fear it will end badly. But that is the risk we face. We are not prepared to sit by and see what are basically criminal gangs, continue to steal from countries that can least afford it. But it is difficult challenge we face. It is vitally important we have the best personnel we can get who are able to deal with pressure situations, that we give them the best in tactical hardware and training, and then once deployed, we must be prepared to say no. If a situation gets too dangerous for us, the best thing to do is back down.

DM: How important is it to capture as much video as possible when confronting illegal fisherman?

PB: Video and still are crucial evidence to be used in prosecution. Also, live video is very compelling in convincing people and governments this cause is worth fighting for. Some video we’ve already shot is appallingly graphic. We screened the pilot episode to a select audience in Los Angeles, and half of them were crying at the end. Video can be a powerful tool to influence people.

DM: There could be major risks to you and your squad’s personal health. Are you prepared for the possible eventuality that someone may get seriously hurt during confrontations with the fisherman?

PB: We have a combat medic with us, plus extensive supplies of medical stuff. As an example, all Operatives have a personal medical kits and trauma pack that goes with them. The vessel has a decent first aid kit including saline and many drugs. Plus a more extensive pack at HQ. We have taken various vaccinations against all manner of tropical diseases. We are also on low dose antibiotics for malaria, plus a few other things. And care is taken, especially with water. Africa is a dangerous place in so many ways. And medical support can be a long way away. For sure there will be some injuries and health issues faced there. Just the nature of what we are attempting and the locations will see to that. Our goal is to keep these to a minimum, and to deal professionally with whatever we do face.

DM: How important was it to have support from New Zealand boat manufacture SeaLegs, and the other suppliers that helped design and fit out the 7.7m RIB for your African project?

PB: Sealegs, BRP and the other sponsors were so supportive of the campaign. David McKee-Wright, the guy who founded Sealegs, he called in all the main companies who help build their boats. He got them all in his office and said “this is Pete, this is what he wants to do, and I need all of you here to donate your products and services so that he gets a free boat.” It was amazing to have a guy like David endorse us so strongly. And all the companies signed up then and there. It is very humbling to have people support you so strongly. And especially when it is a cause half a world away. I was worried people wouldn’t care because it is Africa. But in reality, Kiwis do care. And in some ways we offered those companies a way to contribute. And hopefully we’ll repay their support in the future.

I like to build long-term relationships with sponsors and donors. Take SIMRAD as an example. Peter Maire of Navman, way back in 2004, said I could just take anything I wanted from their product range for Earthrace. He still supports my work personally today. And the company Navman got purchased and sold a few times since then, to its current form of SIMRAD. And all through that they have remained loyal to me. When I went to see them for some hardware for the Sealegs, they just listened to the plan and then wrote up a list of gear they wanted on the vessel. It is important you talk to your sponsors not just when you need something from them, but also when you have something for them.

DM: What would be your squads “dream achievements” so that you could say this campaign’s objectives has been achieved?

PB: The first measure is basically our success in catching poachers. To have 20 vessels impounded, crews captured, arrested and prosecuted, and catch confiscated – I’d settle for that. In terms of TV, to get all 10 episodes on cable in North America and Europe, and with decent ratings would be a nice result. And if we do all that, I’m pretty confident we’ll pull in the necessary sponsors and funds to continue with a new campaign next year. It would also be nice to see local enforcement teams taking over from us. Part of our focus is to train local units in reconnaissance, surveillance, intelligence, and at the end of all that, board and arrest the bastards stealing from them. To see that all happening in local units that we’ve trained will be an awesome result.

DM: What do you children think of their dad’s efforts to make the planet’s people more aware of what is happening to the other creatures that inhabit this blue globe with us?

PB: My girls are very supportive of what I do. I know they miss me at times. And having dad away so much is not easy on them. But they are amazing girls and I am very lucky to have them. I was worried in Japan that they would be embarrassed having their dad portrayed as a criminal on TV. But in the end they were really proud of what I’d done. It is important to stand up for things. My girls believe that. And in many ways, my determination to do it, well I see that same streak in both my girls, which I’m really proud of.