by Lina Vergara Huilcamán

In 2010, the population of Atlantic Bluefin tuna had fallen by 90 percent. Together with swordfish, this is a species at risk of extinction but in high demand – especially in Japan, where 85 percent of it is used to make sushi – which made the population of Bluefin tuna fall by 70 percent compared to fifty years ago. In 2011, with the MV Steve Irwin, we freed eight hundred Bluefin tuna from nets floating between Libya and Italy.
At the Plemmirio Protected Area (Operation Siracusa), some twenty volunteers line up along the coast every month to protect and defend dusky groupers and sea urchins from illegal fishing. They patrol the area and work together with Italian law enforcement agencies – such as the Financial police, the Coast Guard, the Carabinieri, the State Police, the Environmental Police and the Park Authorities – to keep everything under control. A long time ago, dusky groupers thought that scuba divers were predators, now they don’t flee from them anymore and many species are repopulating the area. Six years ago, we used to say, with resignation, that illegal fishing would never stop; now, instead, resignation has turned into determination. Many people have decided to become warriors ready to defend their sea. We cannot leave the responsibility of what is happening to others, we have to be part of the change, just like what happens with civil responsibility.
In 2016, we came to the Aeolian Islands with Sea Shepherd ships to act against illegal fishing and the worst of fishing activities: fishing with ‘spadara’ driftnets (Operation SISO), left hanging in the water and transported at random by currents. They can be from five or six kilometres long and up to forty. And they capture and kill any creatures they meet, earning the nickname “walls of death”. Just imagine an endlessly long wall carried by the wind, which kills anything it meets and which you cannot escape from. The ‘spadara’ driftnets kill turtles, whales, sharks, tuna, swordfish…
SISO is the name of a sperm whale who was killed by one of these nets and subsequently transported by currents, and whose body was found along the coast of Capo Milazzo, Sicily. Last year, thanks to Operation SISO, we confiscated a driftnet six kilometres long at twenty-five miles from the coast which contained forty sharks, of which thirty-nine died and only one, a blue shark, was still alive and able to return to the sea, showing us that there is still hope.
It is not honest fishermen who use driftnets, but “profit pirates”, members of organised crime groups, who, in addition to breaking fishing rules (made to protect the species reproductive cycle), harm the honest fishers who can’t keep up with their low market prices. Consumers must know where their food comes from and boycott the products that come from organised crime and do much harm to our society and the sea.
With Operation SISO we also take care of cleaning the beaches and the seabed in the first five metres of water, in addition to retrieving ghost nets: nets that have been lost or abandoned at sea by fishermen and continue to fish for eternity. Much of the plastic in the sea comes from fishing activities and abandoned fishing gear. We also take care of finding and retrieving FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices), which consist of a polypropylene cord anchored to the seabed, up to two or three kilometres deep, at whose end on the surface many plastic cans and palm leafs are tied. In this way, fake islands are created, around and below which fish gather, hoping to eat. There are tens of thousands of FADs, from which illegal fishermen capture an entire food chain, from the largest fish to the smallest. In addition to being illegal, FADs also pollute the environment: we’re talking about a million and a half plastic cans abandoned in the Mediterranean alone in the last thirty years. Not to mention polypropylene: seven hundred thousand kilometres of plastic cord that will remain forever in the sea. In the last three years, we have reclaimed almost one hundred and fifty FADs from top to bottom. Instead of cutting the cord, we have retrieved it all by rolling it up with a roller and an internal combustion engine we call FAD killer.
FADs are used in the waters of the Aeolian Islands, around Sicily, Malta and as far as the Straits of Gibraltar: Southern France, Algeria…
to be continued…