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April/May 2007
School of Fish
The Satya Interview with Toni Vernelli


As Oceans Coordinator for Greenpeace Canada, Toni Vernelli talks about the biggest threats to sea life and what we all can do about it. From fisheries to whaling, pollution to global warming, our oceans and the life that inhabits them are under attack. And as a longtime animal advocate, previously working with PETA and Viva!, Toni feels that fish often get a bum rep, and aren’t seen as the amazing individuals they are.

While Greenpeace’s fastest ship, the Esperanza, was searching for the Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean, Toni Vernelli discussed with Sangamithra Iyer her concerns about whaling, the impact of the globalized fish trade, and the amazing parental and mating behaviors of cichlids.

I understand one of your ships is in the Southern Ocean trying to interrupt the Japanese whale hunt. Can you give us an update on that?
The Japanese sent three harpoon ships and a big processing ship to the Southern Ocean around Christmas. This year they are aiming to kill 935 minke whales and 10 fin whales, which are classified by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as endangered. Fin whales are one of the largest whales on the planet, second only to the blue whale. Amazing creatures.

You mentioned that they are going after almost 1,000 whales, and I read on your website about 4,400 tons of unsold whale meat remain in freezers in Japan. Why are they hunting more whales, when there isn’t a market for the meat they already have?
Actually, 69 percent of the Japanese public are against whaling, especially in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary.

A small number of people in the Japanese fishery department are the ones that keep it going. They actually make quite a lot of money out of the whaling, even if there is no market for it. They call it scientific research. They want to see which fish species the whales are eating and how much. One of their arguments for whaling is that whales are responsible for fish decline. But minke whales and fin whales are filter feeders and not responsible for eating the fish stock.

They also say they are monitoring numbers. Well, how do you monitor numbers by killing individuals? No one believes it is actually for research purposes. I think that’s the loophole they use because [whaling for] research is allowed under the International Whaling Commission, but the IWC has made it very clear it has no interest in information being gathered from this “lethal research,” so to speak. And Japan has actually never offered the information to them either. I don’t think anyone falls for it [especially since] most of the whale meat is put up for sale for human consumption.

What is the hope for the Esperanza?
To try to get in between the harpoons and the whales and stop the Japanese from killing them. Our campaign really is three-pronged. We have the Esperanza down in the Southern Ocean with two of our campaigners from Japan on board. We’re also putting pressure on like-minded anti-whaling countries in the IWC to vote against the resumption of commercial whaling at their next meeting in May and to recruit as many other countries who will vote with us in this. Last year the vote came very close to the moratorium being overturned. But Japan is actively recruiting small developing countries, offering them financial incentives like building schools and much needed facilities, so they join the IWC and vote alongside them and Iceland in favor of whaling.

We’re also putting a lot of effort into engaging the 69 percent of the Japanese public who are against whaling. We are trying to get them to speak out and tell their government they don’t want this being done in their name. Our Japanese campaigners have just launched this brilliant website called Whale Love Wagon ( It’s based on this really kitsch Japanese TV program called Love Wagon. It’s getting loads of hits and has been very well received. It’s good for us to be out there saying we’re not anti-Japan, just anti-whaling. We know the majority of the Japanese are anti-whaling too.

As Oceans Coordinator for Greenpeace Canada, what do you think is the most pressing issue facing our oceans today?
Certainly by far the biggest threat facing our oceans is fisheries. The combination of over harvesting and destructive practices has depleted sea life on this planet. There are some very scary statistics actually. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are either over or fully exploited. That alone is staggering and it isn’t even taking into account the damage a lot of fishing gear does to the sea bed, coral reefs, sea mounts and incredible deep sea ecosystems.

At the World Social Forum in Nairobi this year, Greenpeace released a report entitled “Trading Away Our Oceans.” Can you talk about the impact of trade liberalization on aquatic creatures?
Basically, Western countries have taken all the fish and are now buying the fishing rights to African countries. This leaves very little fish left for the African communities, a lot of whom actually rely on these small coastal fisheries for their livelihoods and feeding their families. This is a huge problem. The governments of these countries sell the fishing rights to help pay off national debts but then the local people don’t have any fish to eat.

At the moment there are import tariffs imposed. Some fish exporting countries like Canada are pushing for these tariffs to be removed, so our fish would be more competitive in the EU. Countries like Canada that theoretically have good fishery management should still be able to keep their fish stocks healthy because we have a management system in place. But other countries, poorer developing nations, don’t have a management system in place. The worry is they will go out and fish purely for export and not use it to feed the local communities. And they will fish and fish until the fisheries have collapsed.

A lot of small fish eaten by the communities along the coast of some African and Asian countries aren’t really worth a lot in the international market. These fish would make suitable food for fish farms, but because of these import tariffs, it’s not really financially viable for countries to import these small fish as fishmeal. The worry is if the import tariffs are dropped, then it will become economically viable, and it’s highly likely that even the small fish will be sold off to the rich countries, and the poor countries will be literally left with nothing.

Like domesticated land animals, fish (both farmed and wild-caught) are often killed in their infancy. Can you talk about that?
Some of the deep sea fish people eat like orange roughy can live to be more than 80 years-old. Obviously the nets catching them are completely indiscriminant, so you will get juveniles.

Even cod, which don’t live that long, are not reaching maturity, and yet they keep fishing them at the same pressure level. So the cod caught are smaller and younger to the point where they haven’t had a chance to breed. Then you end up with collapse, like off the Grand Banks 10 years ago where they show no signs of coming back.

With the recent report in Science (November, 2006) about the collapse of world fisheries by 2048, and a growing awareness about overfishing and pollution, many environmental groups promote “sustainable seafood guides,” as opposed to questioning the consumption of seafood in the first place or promoting a reduction or elimination of aquatic critters from our plates. What are your thoughts about this?
Well, personally, I’m a vegetarian. Greenpeace’s policy is that we definitely need to eat less fish. Fish consumption just can’t continue at the rate it is. Certainly in most developed countries it is on the increase and has been for several years because of all the omega-3 stories and how important it is to feed your children fish.

We also want supermarkets to implement sustainable seafood procurement policies so they only buy seafood that comes from a population that is doing well and are harvested in a way that isn’t going to damage the environment or other animals that live there. If every supermarket did this, just by default people would have to eat less seafood because the amount being caught would be so much less if it were being done in sustainable ways.

We do encourage people to seek other plant-based sources for their omega-3, 6 and 9 as well.

At Satya, one of the things we’ve tried to do is show people who the animals they are eating really are. Most people don’t know much about the personalities of marine life, especially ones they are consuming. Can you talk a bit about the lives of these sea critters?
I think fish get such a bum reputation. No one really thinks of them as individuals. Whenever you talk about fish, people are only interested in hearing about the environment or the health aspects. No one thinks of fish as beings. We measure the amount we kill a year in tons instead of numbers.

Fish in many ways are similar to us. A lot of the cichlids that live in Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika have amazing parental capabilities. They keep their eggs in their mouths and look after them, protecting them from predators. Even once they’re hatched the fry seek protection in the parent’s mouth. I find that quite incredible. It’s a tenderness most people wouldn’t associate with fish.

Other cichlids have incredible mating behaviors, where they build these fantastic sand mounds with their tails. These mounds serve no purpose whatsoever apart from trying to impress the female. The males get together and display to attract females. Then the females swim through, and whosever mound they like best, they choose as a mate. It’s like a nightclub. [Laughs.]

That’s fascinating. There’s so much we don’t know about the creatures we are destroying. Can you talk about some of the impacts of global warming on aquatic life?
Global warming will have a devastating impact because sea life is sensitive to temperature increases. Scientists say increasing temperatures will raise sea levels because of the melting glaciers, but it is also going to change the ocean currents. We’ve already seen whole species of marine animals and fish at risk due to rising temperatures. They can only survive in a narrow band of temperature, like humans.

For example, coral reefs are very sensitive to temperature. Coral are actually in a symbiotic relationship with algae. But the algae can only live up to a certain temperature and if it gets too warm, the algae dies, and without the algae, the coral bleaches and dies.

Seals need the pack ice to breed on and the ice is becoming thinner with shorter seasons every year. Last year was the warmest year on record in the wintertime in North America, and the pack ice was in the worst condition on record. It’s [believed] that thousands of seal pups died because the ice broke up before they were old enough to swim. They literally just drowned in the water.

Whales [also suffer], as they rely on krill that feed on the algae and phytoplankton in the water, which of course, when the temperature goes up, will start to die. There will be less food for the krill, less krill, less food for the whales.

What should everyone know about our oceans?
Every second breath you take comes from the ocean. We literally rely on the oceans for our lives. They are one of the biggest sources of oxygen on the planet and cover 70 percent of our planet’s surface. Without the oceans, terrestrial life couldn’t exist. We have to learn to respect the oceans and treat them with care.

What can people do to protect the fate of our oceans?
Obviously eat less seafood and be careful about where it comes from. Reduce your fossil fuel consumption and the amount of chemicals you use in your day-to-day life because virtually everything we use finds its way out to sea. Try to buy organic as much as possible because fertilizers and chemicals being used to produce our food eventually make their way to the ocean and has toxic effects on the animals living there. And trash as well. [Approximately] 75 percent of the trash in the ocean actually comes from the land—it is not thrown overboard by ships. It’s waste that blows off city streets and out of landfills. It has huge detrimental effects. Plastic bags are particularly bad for leatherback turtles who see them floating in the water looking like jellyfish and they eat them and suffocate to death.

What else are you working on?
Greenpeace is also working on a global network of marine reserves so we can actually protect the most sensitive habitats. We are pushing for this to be 40 percent of the world’s oceans. It would protect not only the most fragile habitats like coral reefs, but also important breeding grounds for fish. This would be based both on the high seas and our domestic waters, just like the network of national parks we have on land to protect biodiversity-rich areas and save them for future generations. We think the governments should protect areas of the seas.

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