Rescue Warriors: The US Coastguard, America’s Forgotten Heroes – David Helvarg
Much of this book reads like one of the Reader’s Digest “drama in real life” stories that I used to devour from the magazines that my granny brought us when she came to visit. (She’d also bring a packet of Sparkles or Cadbury Eclairs.)
Journalist, activist and former war correspondent David Helvarg (who also wrote Saved by the Sea and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean) spent two years embedded with various branches of the US Coastguard in order to experience their work.
I was wrong. The mandate of the US Coastguard is to enforce maritime law (this is its primary difference from the NSRI) as well as to perform search and rescue operations. Viewers of the Deadliest Catch series will be familiar with the rescue work of the Coastguard in extremely challenging conditions. As a result of its law-enforcement mission, the Coastguard uses weapons and provides a lot more military-style training than you’d expect from a pure rescue operation. The Coastguard falls under the department of homeland security and operates cutters (with guns), icebreakers, small boats, helicopters, and other aircraft.
Helvarg’s conservationist tendencies shine through in several parts of Rescue Warriors, and he does not shy away from confronting the aspects of the Coastguard that he finds problematic. His contention is that the Coastguard receives far less publicity than it deserves. This book goes some way towards bringing attention to the individuals who have saved tens of thousands of people during Hurricane Katrina, via water evacuation during the September 11 attacks, and in countless other less well-known emergency situations.
This is a gripping read which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was amazed by the amount of funding and equipment that the Coastguard has at its disposal compared to the NSRI, even though the organisation is actually badly underfunded, especially when considered relative to the rest of the United States war machine. I was also impressed by the egalitarian approach that draws many women to join the Coastguard and enables them to rise in its ranks. The Coastguard made all its jobs available to women in 1977, something which other branches of the military have not yet done.
You can get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.
Here’s a rare intersection of something tangentially related to my job, and this blog. An IPO, or initial public offering, is when a privately owned company lists its shares on a stock exchange. It is a capital raising exercise: shareholders pay for part-ownership in the company, and will usually expect to receive a portion of the company’s future earnings in the form of dividends. Shares in the company will trade publicly on whatever stock exchange the company has listed on. The firm receives a cash injection from the shareholders when it lists, and can use this to expand, or for other capital-intensive projects.
China Tuna Industry Group, a tuna fishing company, attempted to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange last June. The firm targets bigeye and yellowfin tuna, which are IUCN redlisted as vulnerable and near threatened respectively. In its prospectus – a document meant to entice investors to sign up to purchase shares in the IPO – the company states that it can catch more tuna than quotas allow, because there is no enforcement of catch limits. As the excellent Guardian article on the IPO states (emphasis mine):
In a series of circular arguments, the document stated that China, which presides over the world’s largest long-distance fishing fleet, would not crack down on companies engaged in illegal fishing because it never had in the past; that the catch limits set by the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations apply only to China the country, not to actual Chinese fishing boats; and that even if the catch limits did apply, the regional fisheries organizations would not enforce them because “there is no sanction for non-compliance with Bigeye catch limits.”
The IPO was cancelled because of negative publicity, which escalated when Greenpeace got involved. The Chinese government and the investment bank handling the IPO (shame on them) were, respectively, amazed (sure) and silent on the subject.
Read the Guardian article here. It’s an revealing journey through the legal loopholes, apathy, and big money that characterise so much of what is wrong with global fisheries, and China’s in particular.
An article on Wired.com reveals a bold plan to detect illegal fishing activity using satellite moitoring of AIS data of large ships at sea, and some clever algorithms to narrow down the data to ships (other than those registered as such) that are most likely fishing vessels. The project is called Global Fishing Watch, and has excellent potential as a tool provided that someone – anyone – will act on the information it provides. The project is a partnership between technology giant Google (via their Earth Outreach program), conservation organisation Oceana, and SkyTruth, which provides remote sensing technology for conservation purposes.
The perpetrators of a large amount of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing are developed nations – ships from Spain, Russia, Japan, and China are regular offenders. Much of the IUU fishing takes place in the waters of developing nations – because they are poorly patrolled and still contain fish to harvest. Monitoring activity on the high seas purely by means of patrol vessels is next to impossible, which is why a tool that is technology based is an exciting addition to conservationists’ arsenal. It is hoped that in the future the tool will be available via a web interface, to anyone who cares to view it.
The words “organised crime” don’t typically intrude into our privileged Capetonian lives (if you can afford to scuba dive recreationally, you’re privileged), but in reality there are networks operating on our doorstep, and many of our activities as scuba divers actually cause us to cross paths with these syndicates. Sometimes it is a very literal crossing of paths, and other times it’s simply sharing the same space as individuals who are advancing the interests of a criminal organisation.
The state of Hout Bay harbour – with corrupt or no access control, no checking of catches by Marine and Coastal Management or monitoring whether vessels are compliant with SAMSA regulations, and sunken ships at their berths – visually demonstrates how easy it is to base a poaching operation out of this location. The individuals who do the hard work of diving, driving, and carrying abalone over the mountain are drawn from the communities surrounding the harbour. Despite the involvement of these impoverished and sidelined communities, however,
The abalone trade has moved from largely being in the hands of a marginalised population to one that is ‘dominated by outside opportunists’. It has evolved from an informal activity by fishers into ‘a highly organised commercial fishery run by organised criminal syndicates’.
Read the complete ISS report here (PDF). It’s clear, easy to understand without glossing over the complexity of the issue, and absolutely fascinating. If you would rather read a shorter article on the abalone trade emanating from Hout Bay, you can try this M&G piece.
Roberts’s prior book was of The Unnatural History of the Sea, which explained the extent to which, over the last 1,000 years, humans have been modifying ocean ecosystems by harvesting marine life – to excess. I found it devastating. This book is concerned with other ways in which humans have been tinkering with the sea in addition to overfishing, including but not limited to climate change, industrial pollution, plastic debris, and noise from ships and from other human activities. Huge dead zones from fertiliser runoff and ocean acidification make some parts of the sea an outright hostile place to life.
Not only have we removed countless animals from the sea and added pollutants, but we have also adjusted ocean currents and moved species from one location to others – the lionfish invasion of the Atlantic is an example. Roberts lauds the efforts by recreational divers to control the invasion that are portrayed in Carl Safina’s Saving the Ocean series, but admits that they are ultimately futile except on individual reefs, and lionfish are in the Atlantic for the long haul.
Unlike Paul Greenberg, Roberts believes that initiatives such as SASSI, which encourage consumers to make sustainable seafood choices when shopping and eating out, have value, and he encourages the conservation-minded reader to explore them. He also provides a long list of excellent marine conservation organisations which one can support financially in order to make a difference to the decline of the oceans; he has worked with all of the ones he lists except for Sea Shepherd, and I’d suggest you support those. With the shambles of poseurs mixed in with legitimate conservation organisations, it is sometimes hard for the public to discern who’s a charlatan only interested in raising their own profile, and who’s actually spending the donated funds on conservation strategies that effect change. I’d love to see some guidance on this from a South African perspective – the ratio of fluff to substance here seems very high!
Anyone who has dived out of Hout Bay harbour, or spent time at Betty’s Bay or Pringle Bay, has probably seen abalone or rock lobster poachers in action. Miller’s Point is another hotspot for this kind of illegal activity – a poacher whose friends had deserted him once tried to sell his gear to Tony in exchange for some cash. We have called the police in Hout Bay about poachers on the slipway on more than one occasion, but they usually “don’t have transport”. (One can also identify with this lame excuse to some extent – it is not unheard of for poaching syndicates to threaten the families of local policemen and women.)
I still volunteer once a month (when my car is working properly) at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. Tinus, the Operations Manager, recently shared details of who to contact when a poaching operation is observed. The aquarium sometimes gets calls about poaching from concerned members of the public, but there are direct routes to report it and you should use those. Tinus has agreed for me to share the information here – the wider the audience the better!
Should you ever witness a marine poaching operation in progress in the greater Cape Town area, or non-compliance with fishing regulations (number of fish, species, size, etc) this is the number to contact: 028 313 2703. This is the Green Scorpions’24 hour manned operation room situated in Hermanus where all calls are recorded, logged and acted upon. (The Green Scorpions website is currently offline. They are also known as the Environmental Management Inspectorate, EMI.)
Alternatively, or for environmental offences throughout the republic, whether marine or terrestrial, the 24 hour toll free number for the Environmental Management Inspectorate is 0800 205 005.
During office hours, you can also contact the Green Scorpions on 021 402 3361,021 402 3430 or 021 402 3506/16/25/29/33.
The NSRI recently assisted the occupants of a 5.5 metre rubber duck (for scale, almost a metre shorter than Seahorse, which is rated for seven passengers and a skipper) when their single engine failed off Gansbaai. There were eleven divers on the boat, and it was 11.30 pm when they were rescued. The NSRI report of the incident specifically states that the divers were “recreational”, but it is highly likely that they were poachers, illegally harvesting abalone or possibly rock lobster.
The NSRI report was shared on a number of facebook pages maintained by members of the local scuba diving community (including ours). One comment thread in particular, in one of the groups where the report was shared, made me very sad. Multiple commenters suggested that the NSRI should have left the poachers out at sea to be eaten by sharks, and there was even distasteful speculation about the race of the men who were rescued. It’s very easy, on the Internet, to write that you think someone should be abandoned to die, or that they deserve it – but that doesn’t make it a right sentiment. The speed at which we get updates on social media make it easy for us to fail to engage with the nuances of events and situations, and rather to pass swift judgments and wish death on some mother’s child.
Sea Rescue is the charity that saves lives on South African waters. Our crews put their lives at risk in order to save the life of a stranger. They will voluntarily go to sea in the worst conditions, to help anyone in need.
Nothing there suggests that they will first pass judgment on the activity you’re engaged in, or on how wise you were to go out in such bad sea conditions, and then decide whether to assist or not!
Fisheries management in South Africa has been performed with aggressive incompetence for the past five or more years, with a focus – by the authorities – on personal enrichment and the fruits of corruption. (If you want to learn more about this, I suggest you read the whole of the Feike Management blog, and then start making serious plans to get off the grid, given that the former minister of fisheries is now brokering nuclear deals with that global pariah, Russia.) Management of our abalone stocks has been done on the basis of wishful thinking and illegality.
The communities whose young men choose poaching as a career are poverty-stricken and in many cases beneficiaries of laughably small quotas to catch stocks of fish that no longer exist. It is an economic choice for them, borne of desperation, and often the men who harvest the resource only get a fraction of the ultimate monetary value of the product. An article in the Mail & Guardian by Kimon de Greef, who studied abalone poaching for a Masters degree in conservation biology, explains the economics of the process:
He explained his poaching work as we sat amid the plants and the Rasta, whose name was John, continued preparing his spliff. David told me he skippered a boat for a white diver who had relocated to Hout Bay to target reefs on the Cape Peninsula. Another local diver – whom by chance I’d already interviewed – worked with them, as well as a bootsman, or deck assistant.
The divers paid David R20 a kilogram of perlemoen they harvested; the bootsman earned half as much. The divers also hired carriers to run their catch to middlemen in the community, who paid prices of between R200 and R250 a kilogram. These middlemen sold the product on to buyers from larger criminal syndicates, who ultimately controlled the illicit trade to the Far East.
On a good night, after expenses, the two divers could earn R10 000 each, with David taking home R4 000.
As scuba divers, we tend to see this issue quite simply: someone is illegally taking beautiful, unique creatures out of the ocean! We forget that the communities engaged in these activities are far less privileged than we are, and that this is a complicated, historically fraught issue that won’t be solved by leaving a boatload of poachers to be swept out to sea in the dark of night.
I suggest you read de Greef’s article. It humanises the poachers – puts faces on them – and helps to tease out some of the more complex issues at play regarding this valuable marine resource. Johnny Steinberg did a comprehensive and more detailed review of the illicit abalone trade some years ago, which is a longer read if you’ve got time.
Last weekend we chose to dive Hout Bay, partly because I expected Simon’s Town to be a little too busy given it was nearing the end of the Lipton Cup, a sailing regatta hosted by False Bay Yacht Club. The sea was flat, with light winds and sunny weather and good visibility. We did three dives but by the third one were a bit chilly! It was sad to see all the poaching boats, and the damage that’s been done to the wreck of the Maori lately.
This weekend I think False Bay will be the place to be. We had really good conditions yesterday and the wind direction has been good for False Bay viz. There is going to be some swell so I think we will shore dive at Long Beach with students on Saturday (I’ll be focusing on my students, but casual divers are most welcome to tag along). We will hit the high seas for boat diving on Sunday. We will launch from Simon’s Town jetty to dive Atlantis at 9.30am and the beautiful Maidstone Rock at 12.00. Text or email me if you feel like a dive.
Physiology at the extremes
I attended a conference today focusing on how the human body responds to extreme conditions, with a focus on cold water immersion (but also including exposure to alcohol, drugs, and hyperthermia). It was fascinating, and one of the important things I took away from it is how important it is to take seriously our dives in Cape Town’s water. Our physiological responses and capabilities change after an extended period of time in cold water, and while you may feel that you’re still mentally sharp and fully in control, the opposite may be true, and this is when accidents happen. I’m looking forward to incorporating some of the things I’ve learned into our day to day diving activities at Learn to Dive Today.
Pencil in a trip to Ponta do Ouro in late April/sometime in May next year. We’ll start planning it early next year, but we’ll aim for five days of diving with a day of travel on each side. Start saving now! We have had amazing experiences there – some of our favourite dives were done at reefs called Doodles and Texas.
We are thinking of our diving friends in far off lands – Bernita and Tamsyn, sending all good thoughts your way!
Here are some suggestions for things you can do at (or near) home that can have a positive impact on the environment.
The first suggestion is the most important!
Be a busybody
Keep tabs on what’s going on in your area. Are there new building projects or developments planned? Community newspapers are an excellent source of information. Attend meetings that give opportunities for public participation, register as an interested and affected party, make objections, write letters to the environmental consultants and your local council representatives. Also, tell your friends and buddies about opportunities to participate as concerned citizens.
Remember that a development doesn’t necessarily need to be in or on the ocean to affect the marine environment. For example, False Bay is where a large amount of the city’s effluent is pumped out. More people means more pressure on the ecosystem. Demand responsible solutions from municipalities and developers.
Keep tabs on proposed amendments to existing laws, and new laws and bylaws. Who is getting permission to do what? Are these decisions well thought out? Is it wise to allow whelk and octopus fisheries to operate in a bay that is visited by large numbers of whales and dolphins?
Hold the government (specifically DAFF and the Department of Environmental Affairs) to account. The environment belongs to all of us, and if it’s being mismanaged, it’s your heritage that’s being squandered.
An excellent example of the concrete results this kind of action by ordinary citizens can have is the recent flip-flop done by the authorities on the proposed diving ban in the Betty’s Bay MPA after many local divers, marshalled by Indigo Scuba and Underwater Africa, registered as interested and affected parties and submitted objections to the proposal.
Banning diving in the area would have essentially left it wide open for poaching. While the local law enforcement can’t and doesn’t do anything to stop illegal harvesting of perlemoen, eyes in the water in the form of recreational divers can at least keep tabs on what’s happening in the reserve.
Wear your heart on your sleeve. Let your friends know that conservation issues and protecting the environment are important to you. Don’t be scary and wild-eyed, just be yourself. (If you’re naturally scary and wild-eyed, I can’t help you.)
When you get an opportunity to discuss an environmental issue with someone who doesn’t know or care as much as you do, stick to the facts. Point them to other sources where they can find information to back up what you’re saying, if they are interested. That way, if they want to relay your argument to someone else, they can do so. Raw outrage isn’t necessarily transmissible (and if you’re too hot under the collar, they may just think you’re a lunatic).
Don’t use jargon. Don’t use cliches (people are smarter than you think). Don’t assume that everyone knows as much as you do about your pet issue – check that you’re pitching your pitch appropriately. Don’t be boring. Show people how beautiful and wonderful and intricate the environment is.
Get your hands dirty
Participate in beach cleanups and underwater cleanups. If you see garbage on a dive (and nothing has taken it for a home), stuff it into your BCD for disposal on land. Get into the habit of picking up stuff that doesn’t belong. Keep an empty bag on the boat for collecting rubbish as you drive in and out of the harbour. Hout Bay is an excellent spot for this. Most harbours are actually filthy.
Consume less of everything
Reduce your carbon footprint. This encompasses all the obvious things: recycle, buy local, seasonal produce, eat less meat, and participate in more recreational activities that are carbon neutral. (Unfortunately diving isn’t technically one of those; even if you do a shore dive, you still need to get your cylinder filled using a compressor that consumes energy.)
Here’s a good carbon footprint calculator that’ll help you identify the areas of your lifestyle that are having the greatest negative impact on the environment. Mine is my commute to work, which produces a horrific amount of carbon dioxide each month. (If I ever needed a justification for running away to sea with Tony and the cats, this is it.)
If you eat seafood, make wise choices that are kind to the ocean. If you fish for fun, follow the regulations defining what and how much you’re allowed to catch.
If you have financial resources and want to make a donation to a conservation organisation, first do your research.
What will the money be spent on?
What is the track record of the organisation? What projects have they worked on already?
Do you agree with their aims, objectives and methods? (Would you be proud to have your name associated with their work?)
Will the money be spent on branding and advertising (some people mistake this for real action), or on observable projects that will have a direct impact on an environmental issue that’s important to you?
Remember that addressing an environmental problem may very well involve work with people. Sustainable Seas Trust (not an endorsement, just an example) addresses poverty and food security as a way to relieve pressure on the ocean’s scarce resources, thus caring for people and the sea at the same time. It’s great to take kids snorkeling, but after a while (and a lot of kids) I hope funders can demand a bit more originality and effort in that area.
Personally, I prefer to support organisations that follow scientific advice or include a research component in their activities, because I feel that conservation that isn’t based on scientific data is just marketing… But you may feel otherwise.
If your donation is a significant one, ask for feedback on how it was spent.
Don’t fool yourself
Finally, remember that writing tweets and sharing pictures on facebook doesn’t achieve anything concrete (ok here’s an exception), even though your rate of hashtagging may make you feel like your efforts are putting Greenpeace to shame. Sorry kids. Even Shonda Rhimes says so.
One Sunday in early April, Tony did a very early launch for an Aquaventures PADI IDC, taking the divers to the wreck of the BOS 400 and to dive with seals at Duiker Island in Hout Bay. You can see in the photo above that the sun hasn’t even reached Maori Bay as the divers kit up! The visibility on the BOS 400 was about six metres, and it was about eight metres at Duiker Island. At the wrecks inside Hout Bay (the Aster and Katsu Maru), there were reports of visibility of up to 15 metres.
After the early launch, Tony and I took the boat for a drive south towards Cape Point. We weren’t in a rush, partly because we needed to run in the boat’s motors gently, and so we stopped to look at the scenery.
Chapman’s Peak Drive is carved out of the mountainside at the intersection of the Cape granite and sedimentary layers (geologists love this fact), and this can be seen clearly in areas where the mountain isn’t highly vegetated (such in as the photo above). Tony showed me a strange “door in the cliff” – a neat rectangular opening (it seems) that looks like it should be in The Hobbit. You can’t approach it closely on a boat because there’s foul ground in front of it, and the sea is turbulent even when there’s not much swell.
Long Beach is long. There were lovely big waves, with spray unfurling from their tops in the light breeze. We could see horse riders on the beach, surfers in the swell, and at one point right across False Bay to the Hottentots Holland and Hangklip. Further down, the boiler of the Kakapo shipwreck was clearly visible on the sand.
Slangkop lighthouse (pardon the blurry photo) is being painted, it seems – the building is completely clad in scaffolding. This was our turning around point, but first we had coffee and a snack. Boating makes you hungry!
On the way back we stopped a few times to look around (Tony was looking for a whale shark, after NSRI report from St Helena Bay the previous day, and unconfirmed sightings of one in Kommetjie) and dangle our (ok, my) feet in the freezing water. There was an offshore wind blowing. In places the air was freezing cold, and in others the hot wind, smelling strongly of fynbos, made everything wonderfully pleasant.
We took a drive across the mouth of Hout Bay to Duiker Island, where the water looked quite clean. There were snorkelers in the water with the seals. I drove us back from the island (slowly) – I don’t have a skippers licence yet, and in order to get one I need (supervised) hours on the boat. So this was practice.
Once inside Hout Bay harbour, we milled around a bit waiting for the slipway to clear (some poachers were launching, amongst other activity). We came across the Seal Alert boat, which has sunk into disrepair but is a very enjoyable resting spot for some of the local seals. There are also a few boats that have sunk at their moorings – apparently because their drain plugs were stolen.
The middle (bright green) ship in the picture of the fishing vessels moored in the harbour in the above gallery of images, is the sister ship of a ship that ran aground off Betty’s Bay in February, breaking up and spilling huge amounts of fuel near the vulnerable penguin colony.