Take Action Alert: Stop the Killing Contests in Chesapeake Bay — Cownose Rays Need Your Help!

Mahatma Gandhi famously stated that “the greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”  Under this standard, the United States, and Maryland in particular, should be judged very harshly for the inhumane treatment of cownose rays.

For some time now, summer on the Chesapeake Bay has meant slaughter for cownose rays.  Attracted by organized killing “contests,” bowmen pack up their gear, hit the water in their boats, and let arrows fly in an orgy of bloodlust.  After shooting the rays, often point-blank, with arrows, the “contestants” drag them out of the water by hooks, beat them mercilessly with metal clubs, and then toss them into boxes where they slowly suffocate to death.  The rays are then dumped into the river like garbage.  Untold numbers  of rays are brutally killed every year — many of which are pregnant females.

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This undercover video, captured by Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), reveals a level of depravity that defies description.

Because this horrific “competition” is judged based on the weight of the catch, pregnant rays are an attractive option.  At the same time, though, these pregnant mothers present a challenge:  How to keep the pups inside during the weigh-in?

Contestants try everything from zip ties (“They put a tie strap on it so she can’t spit her babies out before they get back”) to pushing the babies back inside with their hands.  One clip even shows a contestant who tied the baby to its mother with a string, the pup simply dangling in the air.  

But here is the most shocking part:  Killing cownose rays for entertainment through inhumane contests is currently legal in Maryland.  

To protect these native migratory rays, and to preserve the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem, Maryland must prohibit such cruel and unnecessary contests.  In the past, proponents have attempted to justify the killing as necessary for the protection of the local shellfish industry.  However, recent scientific studies have shown that cownose rays are not to blame for shellfish losses.  In fact, these rays have low reproductive rates and are, therefore, incapable of rapid population increases — making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing.

Together with SHARK, Fish Feel, Maryland Votes for Animals, the Center for Biological Diversity, Last Chance for Animals, and other groups, Sea Shepherd Legal is pushing for an end to this legally sanctioned slaughter.

Take Action: Tell your state legislators and Governor Hogan to support proposed legislation that will stop these inhumane, cownose ray killing contests.

Write or call Governor Hogan:

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan
Call: 410-974-3901 or 1-800-811-8336
Online at: http://governor.maryland.gov/mail/default.asp

Sign the online petition.

Sea Shepherd Legal Packs the House in Johannesburg, Calling for CITES Protections for Sharks, Rays, and Other Marine Species

In just a few days, the international community will have a rare opportunity to give sharks, rays, and other marine species a measure of the protection they deserve.  Early next week, the parties to CITES will decide whether to list the silky shark, all species of thresher sharks, all species of mobula rays, the bangaii cardinalfish, the clarion angelfish, and the nautilus.  If successful, these listings will create serious legal obstacles to unchecked international trade — trade that is pushing these species to the brink.  It’s not enough, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.

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Last night, Sea Shepherd Legal held a panel discussion, calling for parties to do the right thing by supporting the proposals in favor of greater protections for marine species.  Featuring a compelling presentation by a distinguished biologist and stirring endorsements by official delegates from Brazil and the Philippines, the event galvanized support ahead of next week’s critical votes.

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The parties are informed.  The world is watching.  Should the CITES community fail to respond, they will have no excuses to offer.  Parties:  Do the right thing.  Vote “yes.”

 

International Criminal Court Places New Emphasis on Addressing Destruction of the Environment

In what may amount to be another tool in Sea Shepherd Legal’s arsenal, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced on Thursday a new policy to prioritize crimes “that are committed by means of, or that result in, inter alia, the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land.”

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As the policy announcement makes clear, this shift does not create or expand the ICC’s jurisdiction.  The ICC is limited by its enabling treaty (the Rome Statute) to adjudication of four basic crimes:  genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.  Similarly, the ICC is only able to investigate and prosecute such crimes where the involved nations are unable or unwilling to do so.

Nevertheless, while this policy shift is necessarily limited by the four corners of the Rome Statute, the announcement signals an important move toward greater recognition of environmental crimes.  By assigning priority to Rome Statute crimes “that are committed by means of, or that result in, . . . the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land,” the ICC points in the direction of greater parity for crimes that impact the environment and wildlife.

For too long, the environment and wildlife have played second fiddle.  Although the ICC and the Rome Statute remain primarily focused on harm to humans, yesterday’s news shows at least a partial broadening of the ICC’s perspective.  It is about time.

Please consider making a donation to support Sea Shepherd Legal and our work to fight crime against marine species.

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.

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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.

“Who in the World Would Buy That?” Wildlife Trafficking Leaves Judges Scratching Their Heads — And Species Paying the Price

At this moment the Sea Shepherd Legal team sits in a hall filled with judges, ambassadors, prosecutors, and the leaders of the most critical international conventions that exist.  We all share a common goal:  to ensure that law promotes rather than hinders environmental protection.  The proceedings of the World Environmental Law Congress in Rio de Janeiro have left us feeling empowered.  Meanwhile, events in the Pacific Northwest leave us stunned.

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This week’s sentencing in United States v. Yeng — where District Judge Robert E. Jones ordered two wildlife traffickers to a trifling $12,500 fine and a mere six months in prison — makes for a sour stew of cognitive dissonance.  While the international community and national authorities endorse the notion that we ought to treat wildlife offenses as serious crimes, sentences like this undermine the global fight against biodiversity loss. High-level declarations, like those accomplished here at the Law Congress, mean nothing if they are not reinforced by meaningful outcomes in individual cases.

What went wrong on Wednesday?   First and most obvious is the simple fact this sentence is woefully inadequate when examined alongside the facts of the case.  The defendants, Eoin Ling Churn Yeng and Galvin Yeo Siang Ann, didn’t just have a momentary lapse of reason.  These men ran a complex smuggling ring for a full decade, marketing parts from critically endangered species, offering everything from orangutan skulls to whale bones.  They peddled their goods through an online store called Borneo Artifact, using PayPal to collect their fees.  And they knew exactly what they were doing, advising buyers to describe the wildlife parts as unsolicited gifts in response to questioning by enforcement agents.

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The maximum sentence for smuggling illegal wildlife artifacts is five years and a $250,000 fine.  The Yeng defendants walked off with a fraction of that, scoring sentences that topped out at only 1/10 of the maximum available prison time and 1/20 of the maximum available financial penalty.

But why did the judge hand down this insufficient sentence?  Yes, the defendants pleaded guilty, saving the court and prosecutor’s office the significant resources involved in a trial.  Yet this happens in most cases.  There was another dynamic, one that is all too common in wildlife cases:  the court simply failed to grasp the gravity of the defendants’ crimes.

After recounting the various specimens involved, Judge Jones asked one very telling question:  “Who in the world would buy that?”  Think about that for a moment.  Would a judge ask this question when sentencing drug traffickers?  Would this query arise in a case involving human trafficking, gun running, or any other smuggling activity?  In these contexts, judges seem to understand that there is always a buyer for vice, that market demand doesn’t end where the law says it should.

The problem is this:  When judges fail to capture the existence and extent of market demand, they tend to dismiss associated crimes as unimportant.  This in turn leads to lower sentences, sending a signal of apathy that reverberates down the line to prosecutors and enforcement agents.

This presents an enormous challenge for wildlife.  Despite estimates that wildlife trafficking is one of the most lucrative black markets, behind only the trade in drugs, arms, and humans, wildlife crime lags globally in investigations, arrests, and prosecutions.  With their position at the zenith of the justice system, judges have the ability to change all of this for the better.  But judges can’t do that if they don’t understand why these crimes happen and the havoc that they wreak.

Wildlife crime is serious crime.  Judges must begin to see it as such.  Until then, criminals will continue to exploit this soft spot in the criminal justice system.

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To respond to this void, one of Sea Shepherd Legal’s core programs involves providing capacity enhancement for judges, prosecutors and enforcement officials.   We do this globally – to protect the world’s imperiled marine wildlife and habitats.  Please help us continue in this critical work.

 

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sea Shepherd Legal Co-Sponsoring 2015 Latin American Prosecutors Congress in Panama

Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) is delighted to announce that, together with the United Nations Environment Programme, it is co-sponsoring this year’s annual Congress for the Red Latinoamericana de los Ministerios Públicos Ambientales (Latin American Environmental Prosecutors’ Network, or the RED).

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The RED is a cross-border collaborative of prosecutors fighting environmental crimes throughout Latin America.  The annual Congress is an opportunity for these prosecutors to share initiatives and ideas for enforcement and improvement of environmental laws.  SSL is honored to participate in this year’s RED Congress.  While there, we will present details about SSL’s work, and what role SSL can play in a concerted regulatory effort to protect marine wildlife and ecosystems within the region.  As part of this initiative, SSL is also working with the RED to form a subcommittee of prosecutors interested in focusing efforts on marine wildlife crimes and the protection of marine environments.

Help fund this project!

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Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) tiene el gran honor de poder anunciar que, junto con el Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente, vamos a copatrocinar el Congreso de este año para la Red Latinoamericana de los Ministerios Públicos Ambientales (La RED).

La RED es una colaboración transfronteriza de los fiscales que luchan contra delitos ambientales en toda América Latina. El Congreso anual es una oportunidad para estos fiscales de compartir iniciativas e ideas para mejorar el derecho ambiental y su aplicación.  SSL tiene el honor de participar en el Congreso RED de este año. Una vez allí, vamos a presentar detalles sobre el trabajo de SSL, y qué papel podemos jugar para proteger la vida silvestre y los ecosistemas marinos de la region mediante el derecho y la regulacion.  Como parte de esta iniciativa, SSL también está trabajando con la RED para formar un subcomité de fiscales interesados en concentrar los esfuerzos en los crímenes de la fauna marina y la protección de los ambientes marinos.

Sea Shepherd Legal Leads Discussion on IUU Fishing and Flag-State Responsibility in Bolivia

International law grants all nations—whether coastal or land-locked—the right to flag marine vessels.  Although most commercial boats fly the flags of coastal states, a significant number of vessels sail under the banners of states like Switzerland, Mongolia, and Bolivia.  Given that land-locked states by definition lack proprietary coastal interests, there is a heightened risk that these states will fail to police vessels flying under their flags.

With this in mind, Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) is making efforts to engage land-locked nations on the scourge of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.  On September 25, Staff Attorney Nick Fromherz led a discussion on IUU fishing at the law school of Universidad Mayor de San Simon in Cochabamba, Bolivia.  The following weekend, Nick presented at the 6th Annual Bolivian International Law Conference in Santa Cruz.

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SSL Staff Attorney Nick Fromherz speaking at the 6th Annual Bolivian International Law Conference

Nick’s presentation focused on the role played by flag states—and particularly “flags of convenience”—in the tragedy of IUU fishing.  When it comes to enforcement of the law, not all flags are created equal.  While many states are quite demanding in terms of environmental and safety compliance, other states are willing to allow almost any vessel to fly their flag for a fee.  The latter group of states are sometimes called “flags of convenience.”  If a ship owner is interested in fishing illegally, the owner will probably register with a flag of convenience.  Inspections by the flag state will be lax to non-existent, and safety and environmental rules will frequently go unenforced.

Despite—or perhaps because of—its status as a land-locked state, Bolivia has been labeled a flag of convenience by the International Transport Workers’ Federation.  In addition, Bolivia has drawn special attention from the Paris Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control (the Paris MoU), an inspection regime supported by 27 maritime nations in Europe and the North Atlantic.  On several occasions, Bolivia has appeared on the Paris MoU’s “black list,” a designation that triggers heightened scrutiny for vessels flying the Bolivian flag.

In addition to covering the basic contours of international fisheries law, Nick discussed the implications of a recent decision handed down by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).  In an April advisory opinion, ITLOS held that flag states have an affirmative duty to combat IUU fishing in the exclusive economic zones of coastal states.  The opinion, prompted by the petition of several African nations suffering from extreme levels of IUU fishing, sent a clear message to flag states:  Granting a vessel the right to fly a flag comes with meaningful duties, including a duty to combat IUU fishing.  Flag states that fail to vet, monitor, and enforce are playing a dangerous game—not only with the fish, but also with themselves.

Law students and professional listen to SSL presentation on IUU fishing and flag-state responsibilities.

Law students and professionals listen to SSL presentation on IUU fishing and flag-state responsibilities.

Help us fight IUU fishing by making a tax-deductible donation.

Nota: Una traducción al español estará disponible muy pronto.