Is Rio’s Guiana Dolphin the Next Vaquita? A Moment of Hope in Brazilian Prosecutors’ Fight to Save an Icon

As we have mentioned several times in the past, the iconic Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis), or “boto-cinza” in Portuguese, may soon disappear from Rio’s waters.  The region’s two populations — in Guanabara Bay and Sepetiba Bay, respectively — are on a collision course with extirpation.

Since 2003, Rio’s Guiana dolphin numbers have dropped precipitously.  Nearly 10 Guiana dolphins are killed every month in fishing nets in Sepetiba Bay.  A decade ago, Septebia Bay was home to some 2,000 individuals.  Today, there are fewer than 800 remaining, and the Guiana dolphin may become a memory in just a few short years.

Additional threats include pollution, depletion of prey and habitat, ship traffic, port development and other coastal impacts.

“What we are fighting for here is to ensure that the Guiana dolphin doesn’t go the way of Mexico’s vaquita porpoise –- a species moments away from extinction due to some of the same threats,” explained Sea Shepherd Legal’s Executive Director, Catherine Pruett. Scientists recently concluded that just 60 vaquita are left.  (For information on Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s latest efforts to protect the vaquita, click here.)

The good news:  Brazilian prosecutors have shown that they are willing and able to bring the fight to the illegal fishermen who are pushing the Guiana dolphin to the brink.

Early this week, the Ministério Público Federal for the State of Rio de Janeiro (Ministério Público) filed 15 civil actions against a total of 31 defendants for illegal, industrial-scale fishing in Sepetiba Bay.  The Ministério Público is a body of independent public prosecutors in Brazil.  Although technically a part of the executive branch, federal prosecutors in Brazil form an independent institution.  Thus, unlike the U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Attorneys, government officers subject to presidential appointment and removal, prosecutors within the Ministério Public are not beholden to such clear political control.

This latest series of filings is part of the Ministério Público’s broader campaign to crack down on illegal activity harming the Guiana dolphin.  Thanks to one of our Brazilian colleagues, we were able to translate the official press release into English.  The translated document is available here: baia-de-sepetiba.  The original (in Portuguese) can be accessed here.



As the press release explains, one of the major culprits is purse-seining for “bait fish” (e.g., sardines), which are then used to catch tuna.  Given the sensitive coastal environment and presence of the boto-cinza, fishing with purse seines has been illegal in Sepetiba Bay since 1993.  But in the absence of adequate enforcement, it still occurs.

We are happy to see Brazil’s prosecutors doing their part to confront this existential threat.  The Ministério Público clearly understands the gravity of the situation, observing as follows:  “If the percentage of mortality remains high, the species is expected to disappear from Sepetiba Bay in eight years.”

In many nations — certainly in the U.S. — federal prosecutors are loathe to call out the federal government for contributing to an environmental problem.  The Ministério Público’s willlingness to do so is especially encouraging.

In this case, the offending vessels have actually benefited from government largess in the form of diesel subsidies.  The Ministério Público makes no bones about it:  These subsidies must stop, and they must stop now.  Federal prosecutor Monique Checker strikes to the heart of the matter:  “If the Union [the government of Brazil] financially helps environmental offenders, it is itself participating in the criminal practice.”

Well said, Monique.  We stand firmly with you.


Giving Teeth to Toothfish Protections: CITES Listing Is a Must

This is the third entry in a series live from CITES CoP 17 in Johannesburg, South Africa

Known as “white gold” among illegal fishermen, Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish can fetch as much as $US 83 million for the catch from a single vessel.  In the face of this lucrative market, toothfish populations have experienced precipitous declines throughout their range.  Some of the only protections against the overharvest of toothfish are provided by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR or Convention).

Here’s the problem:  CCAMLR is legally binding on only a small fraction of the world’s nations.  CCAMLR boasts but 25 Members and 11 Acceding States.  That means that only 36 nations, or approximately 18% of the world’s countries, have agreed to bind themselves to CCAMLR’s conservation measures.

So what?, you might be thinking.  Not every nation targets toothfish.  As long as the fishing nations are bound to the Convention, who cares?  And the really bad guys — pirate ships, like the Thunder — ignore laws entirely.   

The second thought may be right.  Extreme scofflaws are only deterred by stiff enforcement, which is where Sea Shepherd vessels like the Sam Simon and Steve Irwin come into play.  But the first thought — that CCAMLR is good enough as far as the law is concerned — fails to account for the complexities of the problem.


The Sam Simon hauls in miles of illegal gillnet abandoned by the Thunder.

Unfortunately, CCAMLR does not cover all nations whose vessels ply the Southern Ocean for toothfish.  Over the past decade, a number of nations that are not CCAMLR signatories have reportedly flagged vessels identified as engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in Convention waters.  Moreover, CCAMLR’s reach does not extend to the many nations that import toothfish in international trade.  These nations fuel the  burgeoning demand for toothfish in international trade.

Bottom line:  We have a slew of nations not bound by CCAMLR that either (A) flag vessels that harvest toothfish, or (B) import toothfish.

Enter CITES.  Where CCAMLR suffers from limited membership, CITES boasts a nearly universal membership.  Out of 196 nations, 183 are parties to CITES.

If toothfish were listed under CITES Appendix I, commercial trade between CITES parties (the vast majority of the world) would be banned.  If, more realistically, toothfish were listed under CITES Appendix II, commercial trade could still occur, but non-CCAMLR states involved in fishing would face serious procedural hurdles designed to prevent fishing “detrimental” to the survival of the targeted toothfish species.

Recognizing the benefits of a CITES listing, in 2002, Australia tabled a proposal to list toothfish under Appendix II.  Unfortunately, Australia withdrew this proposal in the face of opposition, and the CITES CoP settled for a “solution” proposed by Chile.  This “solution” requested the CITES parties to adopt and implement the CCAMLR catch document scheme.  Nevertheless, despite the apparent good intentions out of which it emerged, the 2002 compromise has been an absolute disaster.

Now, with this background, we turn to its relevance for the current CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP).  Frustrated by the failure of the 2002 compromise, CCAMLR has submitted a formal plea to the CITES Secretariat to encourage CITES parties involved in the harvest and/or trade of toothfish to adhere to their prior commitments.  In its submission, CCAMLR describes the history of blatant noncompliance with those commitments:

2. In November 2002, the CITES Conference of Parties (CoP12) adopted Resolution 12.4 on ‘Cooperation between CITES and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources Regarding Trade in Toothfish’ and Decisions 12.57 to 12.59 regarding the trade in toothfish.

3. Pursuant to Resolution Conf. 12.4 and Decisions 12.57 and 12.59, Parties to CITES involved in the harvest and/or trade of toothfish are requested to cooperate with CCAMLR’s Catch Documentation Scheme (CDS) for Dissostichus spp. Parties were also requested to report on the implementation of the CDS to the CITES Secretariat and for the information to be communicated to CCAMLR (CCAMLR-XXII, 2003, paragraphs 14.1 and 14.2). This document is submitted in accordance with the abovementioned resolution and decisions.

4. To date, no information has been made available to CCAMLR by the CITES Secretariat pursuant Resolution Conf. 12.4 with regard to the international trade in toothfish.

While supporting CCAMLR’s attempt to rectify this situation, we don’t belive its proposal to the CITES Secretariat goes far enough.  The history described above leads to but one conclusion:  Listing under CITES is absolutely necessary to the long-term survival of toothfish.  The 2002 compromise failed to reign in nations involved in fishing and trading in toothfish.  CITES parties that are not parties to CCAMLR have been given a chance, and they have failed.  For the sake of the toothfish — and for the sake of CITES’ credibility — toothfish species should be proposed for listing at the next CITES CoP.  Sea Shepherd Legal intends to work hard to achieve this goal.

Please support our work at CoP17 with a tax-deductible donation.

Sea Shepherd Legal Lands in South Africa for CITES CoP 17

The Sea Shepherd Legal team has landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, as an official NGO observer of the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  Over the next two weeks, we will be advocating for greater protection for endangered marine wildlife.  Along the way, we will be posting daily recaps, calls to action, and important developments.

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CITES is a global environmental treaty regulating international trade in endangered species.  While trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn grabs many of the headlines, CITES also plays a critical role in trade related to marine wildlife.

Unfortunately, marine species have often receive short shrift under CITES.  This is especially true for species targeted by commercial fisheries, as many parties have insisted that regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) serve as the proper vehicles for governance.

Yet, it is undisputed that CITES was designed to target trade in all threatened and endangered species.  The treaty makes no distinction between marine and terrestrial wildlife, and the presence of other governance instruments (like RFMOs) neither logically nor legally precludes CITES protection.

Building on the successes of the 16th CoP in Thailand — where the parties agreed to list five species of sharks and all species of manta rays in Appendix II  — Sea Shepherd Legal will be pushing for further listings for marine wildlife.

Proposals this year include the silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis), thresher sharks (Alopias spp.), and devil rays (Mobula spp.), along with nautilus species (Nautilidae spp.) and two species of reef fish (Pterapogon kauderni and Holacanthus clarionensis).


The silky shark is taken in large numbers in target and by-catch fisheries.  By 2013, the proportion of silky fins in the international market had increased to levels as high as 7.47%.

In addition to pushing for the adoption of these proposals — hardly a guaranteed outcome, unfortunately — we will be highlighting the key role of enforcement, including Sea Shepherd’s collaborative efforts with government forces to combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing, as well as to protect the critically endangered vaquita and totoaba, both of which are listed in CITES Appendix I.

Stay tuned to this blog for updates, and consider making a donation to support our work to leverage CITES in favor of marine wildlife.


Don’t Trust That Label – New Study Casts Doubt On “Sustainable Seafood” Certification

Dirty industries have a long and cozy relationship with information asymmetry.  It only makes sense:  If you’re in the business of selling an unhealthy product or fashioning wares that come with a side of toxic pollution, you hardly want your customers in the know.  In theory at least, informed consumers may well vote with their wallets and stop buying your goods.

Industry is hardly alone in appreciating the power of transparency.  Activists and reformers — and, yes, even government regulators –have used the power of sunlight to advance social and environmental causes.  From Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meat industry in The Jungle to the push for health warnings on packages of cigarettes, balancing access to information — so that the consumer can make an informed decision — has been one of the more potent arrows in the reformer’s quiver.

Yet this strategy is hardly foolproof, and neither is it immune to abuse.  The rise of the “ecolabel” on foodstuffs is illustrative.  Grocery stores are chock-full of foods claiming to be organic, GMO-free, free-range, consistent with fair-trade principles, friendly to the rainforest, and so on.  Many of these claims are true.  But some of them are exaggerated or misleading.  This produces a situation where the well-meaning but rushed shopper buys a product with a false sense of security.  The more rigorous shopper may do the necessary research to vet the validity of an ecolabel, but notice the irony:  Efforts ostensibly taken to inform consumers end up spawning a new informational problem.

Case in point:  A recent study in Marine Policy shows how the problem of shoddy ecolabels is thwarting fish conservation efforts.  According to the authors, a significant percentage of the fish certified as “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is anything but.


The authors summarize their results as follows:

This study examines the status and exploitation level of 31 northern European stocks targeted by sheries certied by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as being sustainable and well managed.  In the first year of certication, 11 stocks (52% of stocks with available data) were exploited above the maximum sustainable level and four stocks (16% of stocks with available data) were outside of safe biological limits. MSC states that it certies substandard stocks because they will improve once they are in their program. However, after a duration of certication of one to ten years (average four years), no signicant changes in shing pressure or stock size were detected. In the last certied year with available data, seven stocks (44% of stocks with available data) were subject to overshing and ve stocks (21% of stocks with available data) were outside of safe biological limits. Certication should guarantee that shing quotas are set correctly and are enforced. However, in 11 stocks quotas were set 2060% above the level that shers were taking, whereas in three stocks landings exceeded quotas by 3050%.

The take-away message is simple:  You can’t trust MSC certification.  If MSC, as the leading ecolabeling organization for seafood products cannot get its facts straight, then the concept of “sustainable fisheries” should not be peddled in the marketplace.

Do You Know Your Grouper’s History? Are You Even Sure It’s Grouper? SSL Tackles Traceability

In 2010, a federal judge sentenced the former CEO of Sterling Seafood Corporation, Thomas George, to 22 months in prison for importing falsely labeled fish from Vietnam.  Why import Asian catfish when you can call it grouper?  Not only does the switcheroo avoid massive anti-dumping tariffs (a savings of $60 million in the Sterling incident), but grouper sells for four times the price of Asian catfish.  Lower taxes and higher profit — it’s every businessman’s fantasy!

Although Thomas George paid a price for his crime, the 2010 incident points to a larger dynamic:  We know very little about the origin and true nature of the seafood sold in U.S. restaurants and supermarkets.  Approximately 90 percent of seafood for human and pet consumption in the U.S. is imported, and current global studies suggest that one in every five fish is harvested illegally.  Even when the fish you purchase has been caught in compliance with the law, that is no guarantee that the fish won’t be subject to misrepresentation at some point along the dark and winding path to the ultimate consumer.  Catfish from Vietnam becomes “grouper”; orange roughy  becomes “deep sea perch.”

Fish at market. Photo credit: NMFS.

Fish at market. Photo credit: NMFS.

Hands down, the only real way to protect the oceans is to stop exploiting them altogether.  Short of that, how can a nation ensure that seafood imports are not illegally caught or fraudulently labeled?   Although many factors are in play, the key lies in the concept of traceability.  Traceability refers to authorities’ capacity to trace the catch back to the point of harvest — to pin down the where, when, and how of marine fishing.  With a robust and dependable traceability system, customs and fisheries authorities can call importers’ bluffs and ensure that imports of illegal and mislabeled fish — prohibited under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery and Conservation Management Act (MSA) — do not find a home on U.S. plates.

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To ensure that the U.S. has the strongest traceability program possible, Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) recently submitted comments to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on a proposed traceability and import monitoring program.

Although SSL applauds NMFS for proposing this rule—and finds several aspects of the rule worthy of praise—the contemplated provisions fall short in several ways.  Here, we provide a few of the highlights.  Visit this site to view our comments in full.

NMFS Should Expand the Rule’s Reach To Cover All Species

First, NMFS takes the odd and statutorily dubious approach of limiting the monitoring program to a limited list of species. While we agree that the identified species are subject to high levels of IUU fishing and fraud—and should therefore receive coverage under the rule—inclusion of these species does not imply exclusion of everything else.   ALL species should be covered.   At the very least, we encourage NMFS to reconsider its treatment of conservation data. The correlation between species vulnerability and threats from IUU fishing is not perfect, but this does not mean that there is no correlation at all. NMFS can and should modify the proposed rule to cover species that face the dual threat of extinction and high levels of IUU fishing.

NMFS Should Expand the Rule’s Reach To Cover Highly Processed Fish Products

Second, and in a similar vein, by failing to cover highly processed fish products (like fish sauce and fish sticks), the rule contains a gaping hole. NMFS appears to believe that it would be too difficult to identify feedstock fisheries and hold them accountable. However, NMFS offers no facts to back up this hunch, a particularly dangerous proposition given the large market share held by highly processed fish products. By encoding this exception into the monitoring and traceability program, NMFS is all but inviting this sector of the market to take advantage of IUU fishing and seafood fraud. Nothing in the statute allows this exception, and common sense precludes it.

NMFS Should Define “Area” with Specificity

Third, the proposed rule is dangerously ambiguous about a key piece of information that importers would have to submit to establish traceability: the location of the catch. Although the proposed rule requires information on the “area(s) of wild-capture,” it fails to define “area” or explain what information might satisfy this requirement.  This is a major oversight. For instance, if identification of the relevant FAO “area” suffices, the requirement is essentially meaningless. Those “areas” are far too expansive to provide certainty as to the governing rules in the location of harvest, as they include multiple Exclusive Economic  Zones (EEZs) and regions covered by numerous Regional Fisheries Management Organizations. We urge NMFS to define “area,” and to do so in a way that allows traceability with precision. “Area” should mean precise coordinates of the catch.

FAO Major Fishing Area 77 stretches from Panama in the east to well past Hawaii in the west, and from 40 N to 25 S.

FAO Major Fishing Area 77 stretches from Panama in the east to well past Hawaii in the west, and from 40 N to 25 S.

NMFS Should Modify the Proposed Rule To Target All Fish from IUU Vessels

Fourth, in comparison with its counterpart in Europe (the EU IUU regulation), the proposed rule goes too light on IUU vessels. Unlike the EU IUU Regulation, the proposed rule does not contemplate prohibition of all imports of fish from known IUU vessels. Instead, the rule contemplates prohibition of imports of IUU fish (actually, to be precise, the rule proposes a traceability scheme to ensure that this prohibition can be implemented effectively). This approach creates a potential loophole for IUU vessels. To the extent that these vessels occasionally catch fish without breaking laws, such catch could conceivably be imported to the United States without running afoul of the proposed rule. Such fish would be embargoed in Europe but not in the U.S. Insofar as the proposed rule offers refuge—even limited refuge—for IUU vessels, it is bad policy. We urge NMFS to revisit its statutory authority with this in mind. The MSA is flexible enough to allow for a flat ban on all fish from known IUU vessels. Not only would this place greater pressure on IUU fleets, it would have the benefit of harmonizing the U.S. and EU approaches, creating a unified front between the two largest import markets.

NMFS Should Include a More Rigorous Inspection Scheme

Fifth, the proposed rule should include a more aggressive scheme for inspections and audits. The traceability program will not amount to much unless it is backed up with a rigorous scheme to verify the truthfulness and accuracy of the information reported. While it may be unrealistic to require physical inspections of each and every piece of cargo going forward, NMFS should consider universal inspections for at least a limited period of time to establish a baseline. If these inspections reveal minimal issues with intentionally or negligently misreported information, NMFS can then scale back inspections accordingly. To begin the program with only limited inspections and audits is to assume—ex ante and with little factual basis—that compliance will not be a major issue.

NMFS Should Integrate the Seafood Import Monitoring Program with Its Work under the Moratorium Protection Act

Sixth, we encourage NMFS to integrate the proposed seafood monitoring program with its obligations under the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act (Moratorium Protection Act). If NMFS obtains information on attempted IUU imports in the course of administering the monitoring program, NMFS should use that information in carrying out its obligation to identify nations with vessels engaged in IUU fishing. Although we suspect NMFS already has this in mind, an explicit provision to this effect would be prudent. NMFS should make it plain—to both the regulated community and other agencies—that NMFS will use information collected under the import monitoring program to further its duties under the Moratorium Protection Act

The Proposed Rule Is Consistent with International Trade Law

Finally, we offer a brief rebuttal to the notion that the proposed rule violates trade norms under the World Trade Organization and associated agreements. The proposed rule does not discriminate between trading partners; it imposes no quantitative restrictions; and, as NMFS observes, it does not run afoul of the national-treatment obligation because “equivalent information is already being collected at the point of entry into commerce for the products of U.S. domestic fisheries pursuant to various Federal and/or State fishery management and reporting programs.”  Simply put, any claim that this rule violates international trade norms is dead on arrival.


In sum, while the proposed rule represents a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough. The rule falls short of the basic requirements of the MSA—including its overriding focus on conservation—all while preserving major channels for what should be unlawful importation and building in opportunities for abuse. Marine wildlife and the American public deserve better.

Please consider supporting our work to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud by making a tax-deductible donation.

Brazilian Prosecutors Fight to Save the Guiana Dolphin

The Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis), or “boto-cinza” in Portuguese, is a symbol of Rio de Janeiro — literally.  The city flag features a pair of red, stylized Guiana dolphins cradling Rio’s coat of arms.


Rio’s flag. Credit: Google Images.



Guiana dolphins (a.k.a. boto-cinza). Credit: Google Images.

Federal prosecutors in Brazil are fighting to make sure this species remains more than just an image on a flag.  Like so many cetaceans, the Guiana dolphin is under siege from multiple angles, absorbing attacks from overfishing (depleting the dolphins’ source of food), by-catch, and habitat modification.  The coastal Guiana dolphin (there is also a freshwater variant) is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).  Its listing in Appendix II signifies that it has an unfavourable conservation status and would benefit significantly from international co-operation.  This determination is echoed in Brazlian wildlife law, where the dolphin is listed as “vulnerable.”

On February 10, the Brazilian federal prosecutors’ office (Federal Prosecution Service or Ministério Público Federal, in Portuguese) issued a document detailing the critical state of affairs and requesting immediate action by public and private actors.

In coordination with the prosecutors’ office, Sea Shepherd Legal has agreed to disseminate this document and its central message:  Absent significant and rapid change, the Guiana dolphin could well disappear from the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region in southern Rio de Janeiro.  (Scroll to the bottom of this post for a link to the document, in Portuguese.)


Map of the state of Rio de Janeiro, with Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande in the lower left-hand corner, near the border with Sao Paulo. Credit: Google Images.

The highest number of Guiana dolphins registered in Brazil — and in the world — is found between the cities of Itaguai, Mangaratiba, and Angra dos Reis, all three of which hug the Baia de Sepetiba.

Yet, as the Ministério Público Federal explains, the Guiana dolphins in Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande have been decimated in recent years.   In 2002/2003, a population study identified approximately 1,300 individuals.  Today, there are fewer than 800   That’s a drop of roughly 40% in just over a decade.


Percentage of carcasses recovered in Baia de Sepetiba, by year (2005-2015).                      Credit: Instituto Boto Cinza.


Why is the local population crashing?  The causes are manifold.  Here are a few of the more important factors (per the Ministério Público Federal):

  • Overfishing of prey species
  • Incidental capture (by both commercial and artisanal fishermen)
  • Pollution
  • Decreased habitat
  • Increased boat traffic
  • Port development
  • Other industrial and urban development in coastal regions

The combined harm from all these sources has produced a scenario where the Guiana dolphin may be entirely wiped out from Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande — and all of Rio state — in ten years’ time.

As this list of factors suggests, this truly is a “death by a thousand cuts” scenario for the dolphins.  But some cuts go deeper than others — and, perhaps ironically, some of the deepest cuts also seem to be the most preventable.  For instance, the federal government plans to double the size of the channel that runs through the heart of the dolphins’ habitat in Baia de Sepetiba.  Vessel traffic will double from approximately 1,800 vessels per year to 3,600 vessels per year.  The vessel traffic displaces dolphins, which then die in fishing nets.  The noise interferes with echolocation.  And this is to say nothing of the harm produced by dredging and explosions associated with the project in the first instance.

As bad as that is, the harm is compounded by the activities of artisanal, commercial, and illegal fishing operations, mainly targeting tuna.  The increased vessel traffic through the channel is displacing dolphins and fisherman, corralling them into a smaller region.  This has resulted in increased human-dolphin interactions and extremely high by-catch and mortality.

What’s more, according to the federal prosecutors’ office, fisheries enforcement in the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region is “practically zero.”  Even if the vessel traffic remained constant, effective fisheries enforcement could at least reduce by-catch by limiting illegal fishing, fishing with prohibited gear, and so forth.  As is, the token enforcement efforts have not reduced dolphin mortality one bit.

Besides all this, there are slews of vessels that anchor right in the middle of the dolphins’ favored areas of concentration. This is yet one more controllable factor that is displacing the dolphins toward fishing nets, toward death.

All this bad news notwithstanding, there is reason for hope.  The federal prosecutors’ office has made this issue a priority and is putting pressure on the major players — public and private alike — to avert disaster.  Among other measures, the prosecutors’ office is calling for:

(1) The creation of a coalition police force to monitor and respond to illegal and excessive fishing, with mandatory patrols in the bay every week.

(2) The preparation of a technical study by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) to verify the need for changes in fishing practices and regulations in the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region.

(3) The formation of a new group under the auspices of the State Environmental Institute (INEA) — the primary body involved in project licensing in the bay — with the task of reassessing mitigation measures to improve conditions for conservation.  To add credibility to this group, the federal prosecutors have requested the participation of the Instituto Boto Cinza.

(4) The creation of a new plan by INEA to promote community-based tourism as an alternative source of income for local fishermen.

(5) The immediate cessation of any additional licensing by INEA that could cause harm to the dolphins and their habitat, pending additional scientific study.

(6) The prohibition, by the port authority in Rio de Janeiro, of anchoring in the dolphins’ favored areas of concentration.

The prosecutors’ office has given the relevant public authorities 10 days to respond to its report and recommendations for policy changes.  We will be following the story and will keep our readers abreast of important developments.

In closing, we congratulate the Ministério Público Federal for its brave and important efforts to save these beautiful creatures.   Sea Shepherd Legal looks forward to assisting this campaign in any way it can.  Keep up the good fight!


Link to document from Brazil’s Ministério Público Federal: Recomendação 5-2016 – diversas autoridades – Boto-Cinza – IC 153-2014-17

Shrimp and Slavery

Shrimp, once an expensive delicacy in most Western nations, has in recent years become accessible to individuals operating on a limited budget.  At Red Lobster, you can eat prawns to your heart’s content by opting for the “Endless Shrimp” special — all the shrimp you can eat, plus salad and cheddar biscuits for $16.99.  At Costco, two pounds of farm-raised shrimp can be purchased for under $14.   At Walmart, a 24-oz. bag of farm-raised prawns will run you $9.98.  That’s approximately 60 “large” shrimp for under $10.  No wonder shrimp has become “the most-loved seafood in the US, with Americans eating 590m kg of it every year, or about 1.8kg per person.”




How is this financially possible?  Are shrimp farmers and trawlers just that efficient?  Or is something else afoot — something dark and hidden in the international supply chain?

The truth is this:  A very large portion of the shrimp imported into the U.S. comes from slave labor.  The Thai shrimp industry, a global heavyweight, is largely undergirded by modern-day slaves.  We don’t use that word lightly.  We are not simply talking about underpaid and overworked men and women; we are talking about full-on slaves.  They are beaten, tortured, and shackled.  That–not some magical application of comparative advantage or economies of scale–is the reason for cheap shrimp.


How does this happen?  And if most of the imported shrimp in U.S. supermarkets is farm-raised, how can sea slaves play any kind of a role?

Suffering breeds suffering.  Fleeing atrocities in Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia, countless refugees head south, hoping to reach relative safety in Thailand or Malaysia.  Of course, without papers and permission, they are ripe for exploitation by human traffickers.  Once they fall into the hands of traffickers, these refugees–men, women, and children–are faced with an impossible choice.  Either they find a way to pay the traffickers’ exorbitant demands–leveraged through forced ransom calls, beatings, rape, imprisonment, deprivation of food and water, and even killings–or the traffickers sell them to Thai fishing boats.  Either way, the traffickers get paid.

Once aboard the fishing boats, these most vulnerable of people become full-blown slaves.  The traffickers warn their victims that if they are sold to a boat, they will never see shore again.  In many cases, this seems to be true.  The going price?  About $900 per person.

If the sea slaves refuse to work, they are whipped (sometimes with the tails of venomous sting rays), beaten, or simply thrown overboard.  “Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods [which in turn sells to Walmart and Costco] and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.”  This short documentary is must-see material.

But, again, you might wonder:  How do these terrible practices feed into farm-raised shrimp?  The answer is in the question: “feed.”

The supply chain works in this way: Slave ships plying international waters off Thailand scoop up huge quantities of “trash fish”, infant or inedible fish. The Guardian traced this fish on landing to factories where it is ground down into fishmeal for onward sale to CP Foods. The company uses this fishmeal to feed its farmed prawns, which it then ships to international customers.

And it’s not just slaves working on boats.  Shrimp-processing factories in Thailand are rife with slave labor as well.  Once again, migrants fleeing atrocities are the prime catch for the powers that be.  A harrowing account from The Guardian:

Every morning at 2am, they heard a kick on the door and a threat: get up or get beaten. For the next 16 hours, No 31 and his wife stood in the factory with their aching hands in ice water. They ripped the guts, heads, tails and shells off shrimp bound for overseas markets, including grocery stores and all-you-can-eat buffets across the US.

After being sold to the Gig Peeling Factory, the couple were at the mercy of their Thai bosses, trapped with nearly 100 other Burmese migrants. Children worked alongside them, including a girl so tiny she had to stand on a stool to reach the peeling table. Some had been there for months, even years, getting little or no pay. At all times, someone was watching.

Names were never used, only numbers given by their boss. Tin Nyo Win was No 31.

Amidst all the suffering, there is nevertheless reason for hope.   Duped customers and former slaves are beginning to use U.S. federal courts to seek at least some semblance of justice.

In August 2015, Monica Sud filed a putative class action against Costco and CP Foods.  Ms. Sud hopes to represent a class of all California residents who purchased CP Foods shrimp from Costco, believing–reasonably–that the shrimp was not the product of slave labor.  Essentially, Ms. Sud claims that she and thousands of other Costco costumers have been defrauded; they would not have bought the shrimp had they known of its horrific origins.  The complaint is available for review here.

Although Costco has filed a motion to dismiss on standing grounds–alleging that Ms. Sud is not actually a member of Costco–the basic claim seems likely to persist, even if the attorneys are forced to find a new lead plaintiff.  If a class action is certified, that would place major pressure on Costco and CP Foods to clean up their act.  We will be monitoring this litigation and keeping readers informed.

In another line of attack, laborers from India recently obtained relief against U.S. company Signal International after a jury found that Signal had held the men in forced labor.  Signal  was ultimately forced to pay nearly $35 million and offer a public apology.  The litigation also helped drive Signal into bankruptcy.

Although this case did not involve fishing slaves, it offers a helpful example of how former slaves might use strategic litigation to win some compensation (however inadequate) and force companies to think twice about supporting barbaric practices.


The bottom line is this:  The global seafood industry is rotten to the core.  Factory trawlers and long-liners are eliminating entire species, pirate vessels (IUU ships) are thieving unknown quantities on top of absurdly high legal quotas, and governments are frequently complicit.  Then there is slavery and human trafficking.  These horrors are fueling an industry that is already incredibly shameful.  We must fight back.

Please consider making a donation to help us combat illegal fishing and its associated ills.

From Panama to the Netherlands – Sea Shepherd Legal on the Global Campaign Trail

Sea Shepherd Legal spent the past month on the campaign trail forging relationships with officials globally to protect marine wildlife and habitats.  These in-person meetings set the stage for a great start to 2016.  Here are a few of the highlights:



In November, SSL arrived in Panama for the Seventh Annual Congress of the Red Latinoamericana de Ministerio Público Ambiental (Latin American Environmental Prosecutors’ Network, or “the Red”).  The Red is a forum through which 300+ state and federal environmental prosecutors across Latin America share ideas and collaborate regarding effective methods to combat environmental crimes ranging from illegal logging to wildlife trafficking.

SSL’s goal in attending was to highlight the plight of the oceans and the critical need to develop and enforce marine protective laws throughout the region.  We received an overwhelmingly positive response, reflected in (1) an official declaration stating that Red is dedicated to working with SSL; and (2) the establishment of a marine subcommittee to help facilitate immediate and active collaboration between Red and SSL.


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SSL participated as an official observer at the annual meeting of the Standing Committee to the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the Bern Convention).  The meeting was held at the Council of Europe’s Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg.

photo bern ssl

Attending this meeting was key to SSL’s effort to leverage the Bern Convention to protect pilot whales and other small cetaceans.  These creatures are being brutally slaughtered each year in the Faroe Islands, a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark.  Pilot whales are listed in Appendix II of the Bern Convention.  As such, state parties, like Denmark, are required to heed the Convention’s prohibition against “all forms of . . . deliberate killing.”

Although Denmark entered a reservation to except the Faroes from the Convention’s reach, it is SSL’s position that the slaughter in the Faroes is nevertheless illegal.  Without a doubt, Denmark’s participation in the slaughter most certainly violates the Convention.  Toward that end, SSL met with representatives of multiple European Union member states and other Standing Committee members, garnering support for an action against Denmark.


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Following the meeting in Strasbourg, SSL headed west to attend Oceans Day and other events at COP 21 in Paris.  We were both pleased and disappointed by what we experienced.

The primary event we attended was Oceans Day – a forum designed “to advance the oceans and climate change agenda at COP 21 and beyond.”  We listened to multiple world leaders speak about how climate change impacts our oceans, livelihoods and small island states.  Some leaders, including the Prince of Monaco and President of Palau, provided examples of efforts underway to mitigate these impacts.  We were pleased by the awareness, but were disappointed by the following glaring incongruities:

Talking the talk, but not walking the walk  .  .  .

Again, this was the OCEANS DAY forum.  So, what are some of the biggest threats to ocean health?  Climate change, overfishing, and plastics pollution.  Yet, what did the event organizers serve to the participants?

  • Plastic water bottles and plastic cups!  Not only does the production of plastic exacerbate global warming, but a huge amount of plastics from water bottles end up in our oceans.  With 200+ attendees at Ocean Day (not to mention the 40,000+ attendees at COP 21 as a whole, who also were served plastic), just imagine the potential impact.

 plastic at cop21

Stats at a glance: Meeting the annual demand for bottled water in the United States alone requires more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year.  Less than ¼ of plastic water bottles are ever recycled.  Notably, the recycling process also produces greenhouse gases. Why use them?  Why serve them?    

  • Fish and chips!   This is not a joke.  Fish and chips were top menu items for purchase at the Oceans Day event.  It seems obvious that If we want to protect our oceans, we need to decrease demand.  Decreasing demand on our oceans was never mentioned at the Oceans Day event.

fish n chips

Stats at a glance: Marine fisheries are collapsing around the world.  Approximately 85% of global fish stocks are over-exploited, depleted, fully exploited, or in recovery from exploitation.  Scientists warn that we may be the last generation to harvest wild-caught fish in significant numbers. Despite these trends, global demand for fish continues to rise, with per-capita consumption now four times higher than it was in 1950.

  • Hamburgers and sliced meats!  Hamburgers were one of the first things to sell out at the Ocean’s Day café, while complimentary samplings of salami and other sliced meats were passed around to registered participants (to go along with wine served in plastic cups).  Surely, everyone knows by now that the production of livestock contributes significantly to climate change. 


Stats at a glace: It is estimated that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation.  Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – per day.  Emissions from agriculture are projected to increase 80% by 2050.

SSL commends the organizers of COP 21 for focusing an entire day on oceans, and for using sustainable products in some aspects of the Paris climate summit.  In the future, we hope to work with organizers to ensure that events we attend are planned in a mindful manner that lessens the impact on marine wildlife and environments.

Oceans- Deserving of a full-day forum, yet merely a passing thought in the final climate agreement 

At COP 21, SSL pushed for due respect for oceans in the new climate agreement.  The agreement took on multiple iterations throughout its development – many of which failed to even include the word “oceans.”  This despite the fact that the world’s oceans provide 50% of our oxygen and absorb 1/3 of our CO2 emissions.  Concerned about the progress of the agreement, SSL circulated an emergency petition to ensure that oceans remain a focus of the landmark agreement.

Ultimately, the word “oceans” at least made it in the preamble, where the Parties “not[ed] the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, . . . when taking action to address climate change[.]”

As a colleague reminds us, “the word game is the long game.”  Even if oceans are not included in the operative provisions of the agreement, the preambular language is meaningful and pregnant with potential.  SSL will do everything it can to make the most of this clause.


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Our trip would not have been complete without a campaign trail stop at the Sea Shepherd Global headquarters in Amsterdam.  SSL is dedicated to upholding the overarching mission of Sea Shepherd to “end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.”

SSL is developing multiple legal campaigns that complement the amazing work of the superheroes at Sea Shepherd Global.  Together, we look forward to a strong and successful 2016!   Stay tuned for future blogs and publications.

Please donate to support our work to protect marine wildlife and ecosystems – visit our secure donation link at  

SSL Works to Improve the Marine Mammal Protection Act

In our last post, we shared some of the alarming statistics regarding bycatch of marine mammals in global fisheries.  This week, we describe what we are doing about it.

In 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).  Just as it had with the Clean Water Act—also passed in 1972—the Congress of that era designed the MMPA to respond aggressively to the destruction of nature.  To that end, the MMPA prohibits the “taking” of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. nationals abroad, as well as trade in parts or products.  With a notable exception —the killing of sea lions, ostensibly to protect endangered salmon runs (more on this in a future post) —this moratorium has been a consistent bulwark against the intentional killing of marine mammals in U.S. waters or by U.S. nationals.


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So far, so good.  But what about incidental killing and other forms of non-intentional take?  Does the MMPA contain any provisions addressing problems?

Answer:  Yes.  When Congress enacted the MMPA, it recognized bycatch as a major threat to marine mammals.  Accordingly, Congress included language requiring U.S. fisheries to drastically reduce bycatch.

In addition, given the amount of foreign-caught seafood sold in the U.S., Congress included a provision requiring similar bycatch performance by foreign fisheries importing to the U.S. Unfortunately, for want of implementing regulations, that provision has collected dust for over 40 years.

The good news:  The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has finally proposed a rule to implement the import provision of the MMPA.  More good news: on its own initiative, NMFS also added a prohibition on intentional killings in foreign fisheries. This inclusion is significant because it would not make sense to place restrictions on bycatch mortality without also prohibiting the intentional removal of marine mammals.

The bad news:  The rule is far too forgiving and builds in opportunities for abuse by irresponsible fisheries.

To address these shortcomings, SSL has filed extensive comments with NMFS encouraging the agency to adopt a stronger rule consistent with the spirit and text of the MMPA.  The following excerpt contains a summary of SSL’s major arguments:

The United States plays host to one of the world’s largest seafood markets. In 2013, the U.S. imported approximately 2.5 million metric tons of “edible” fishery products, valued at $18 billion.[1] These numbers are just the latest in a trend of increasing seafood imports. This market share gives NMFS incredible leverage to protect marine mammals affected by foreign fisheries. NMFS is finally proposing a rule to apply this leverage.

Although SSL applauds NMFS for proposing this rule—and finds several aspects of the rule worthy of praise—the contemplated provisions fall short in several ways. First, with its five-year grace period, the rule stumbles out of the gate. Marine mammals are left helpless for half a decade while exporting nations—many if not all of which could comply in short order—are given a free pass. The carnage is then compounded by NMFS’ generosity in verifying continued compliance only once every four years.

Second, the proposed rule takes only a half-step toward eliminating the intentional killing of marine mammals. NMFS allows exporting nations to continue to intentionally kill marine mammals in commercial fishing operations (e.g. the Scottish practice of sniping seals in salmon farms) so long as they are able to segregate fish products destined for the U.S. This will be both difficult to police and of no benefit to the marine mammals that continue to be killed for export to other markets (with, it should be noted, the blessing of NMFS).

Third, the proposed rule disregards the precautionary principle in abandoning the “Zero Mortality Rate Goal,” which requires the reduction of incidental mortality or serious injury of marine mammals in the course of commercial fishing operations to insignificant levels approaching zero—a goal central to the MMPA’s conservation purpose. In its place, the rule substitutes an approach that focuses exclusively on the maximum number of individuals that can be killed without compromising the viability of the population as a whole—the Potential Biological Removal rate (PBR). Significantly, the accuracy of the PBR-based approach is only as reliable as the underlying data supporting it. Moreover, PBR only accounts for direct human-caused mortality of marine mammals. Thus, even if rigorously applied (which is doubtful given the vagaries of data collection and analysis on an international scale), the PBR-based approach fails to account for harmful indirect effects on marine mammal populations and other effects such as climate change.

Fourth, the proposed rule is weakened by its provisions governing comparability findings.  Boiled down to the essentials, under these provisions, if a foreign fishery yields more marine-mammal bycatch than allowed under U.S. law (thus, not “comparable”), products from that fishery are not allowed to enter the U.S. market.[2]  A positive comparability finding, on the other hand, unlocks the door to the U.S. market. If NMFS is too quick to hand out the key, then the whole scheme is for naught. Unfortunately, the proposed rule comes dangerously close to doing just that. In addition to completely overlooking illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing (both as a proxy for weak enforcement of bycatch limits and for bycatch directly associated with IUU operations), the regulation as written calls for NMFS to assess comparability on the basis of suspect information, including untrustworthy data from Regional Fisheries Management Organizations and distorted calculations of PBR. Indeed, the proposed rule even goes so far as to authorize a comparability finding where a nation has done none of the following: (1) conduct a marine mammal stock assessment; (2) estimate bycatch; or (3) calculate a bycatch limit. The MMPA commands NMFS to assess comparability on the basis of “reasonable proof.”[3]

Fifth, by failing to cover highly-processed fish products (like fish sauce and fish sticks), the rule contains a gaping hole. NMFS appears to believe that it would be too difficult to identify feedstock fisheries. However, NMFS offers no facts to back up this hunch, and the agency’s position is contradicted by the rule’s proposed approach to intentional-kill fisheries. If exporting and U.S. authorities are capable of distinguishing between salmon accompanied by intentional kills and salmon free of intentional kills, they should also be capable of policing the fisheries that feed into sauces and sticks. In any case, nothing in the statute allows this exception.

Finally, the proposed rule inappropriately authorizes partial certifications under two circumstances. First, it envisions a situation where a nation could have two or more fisheries for the same species, but where only one of those fisheries receives certification. Despite the obvious potential for intermixing—fraudulent and innocent alike—NMFS provides nothing in the way of safeguards. Second, NMFS would allow an intermediary nation (in the supply chain) to receive fish from a banned fishery and then export the same species of fish to the United States —and NMFS would do so without (again) articulating any concrete measures to prevent intermixing.

In sum, while the proposed rule represents a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough. The rule falls short of the basic requirements of the MMPA, all while creating major channels for what should be unlawful importation, opportunities for abuse, and a false sense of security. Marine mammals and the American public deserve better.

[1] NOAA Fisheries, Imports and Exports of Fishery Products, Annual Summary, 2013, available at

[2] MMPA, Sec. 101(a)(2).

[3] MMPA, Sec. 101(a)(2)(A).


Help support our work to improve the MMPA and other conservation laws by making a tax-deductible donation.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Bycatch in Global Fisheries

Bycatch is one of the most insidious problems facing marine wildlife.  By its very nature, bycatch tends to fly under the radar of the average citizen–even of the average concerned citizen.

Unlike shark finning or fishing for threatened or endangered species, the damage caused through bycatch does not visibly register in the ultimate “product.”  When people buy shark fins, they are forced to recognize at some level the grisly process that undergirds the market.  But when people buy shrimp or swordfish, they may never think beyond the animal purchased.

Although global fisheries take an incredible toll on non-target species–millions of birds, marine mammals, sharks, sea turtles, and non-target fish are bycaught every year–this havoc is not obvious to the casual consumer.

For many, it is out of sight and out of mind.

What you don't see at the supermarket. Photo credit: AP/Wide World Photos.

What you don’t see at the supermarket. Photo credit: AP/Wide World Photos.

In comments submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service, we encouraged the federal government to strengthen a proposed rule that would limit imports from foreign fisheries operating with high levels of marine-mammal bycatch.  While we will dedicate a future post to the details of the proposed rule and our response, it is first necessary to get a sense of the gravity of the bycatch problem.

The statistics are nothing less than mind-blowing.  A full accounting is the stuff of books–and even then to be served with a jar of salt given the unknown multiplier associated with IUU fishing–but just a few numbers should suffice to get you hopping mad.

  • 650,000 — The number of marine mammals that are killed or seriously injured every year after being hooked or caught in nets and other fishing gear.
  • 31 billion — The dollar-value of fish products imported to the United States in 2012.
  • 6 — The number of nations that import over $1 billion of fish to the U.S. every year (China, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand).
  • 93%, 83%, 82%, 57%, and 100% — The respective percentage of marine mammals known to suffer from bycatch (93% of baleen whales; 83% of phocid seals; 82% of toothed whales, including dolphins; 57% of otariid seals and sea lions; and 100% of sirenians, which include manatees and their relatives).
  • 40+ — The number of years that the import provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act has collected dust for want of effective regulation.  Without a regulation to give teeth to the import provision, the vast majority of foreign-caught fish products have been entering the U.S. market in violation of national law.

Help us use the law to fight bycatch by making a donation.