It took two days and nights for the exhausted crew of the MY Steve Irwin to recover the drift net that had been abandoned by the fleeing Chinese fishing vessel. Most of the 321 marine animals the 5km of illegal netting had entangled, including sharks, dolphins, bluefin tuna and seals, were already dead.
"It was the worst thing we could see but we knew it was the last time this net would kill and we could at least save a few of the animals - that was important," says Bernd Mutz, a former social worker from Dortmund, Germany, who took part in the operation.
Mutz is one of the volunteers among the 35-man crew of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's flagship; he works for nothing except basic food and board. With its hull painted in a distinctive blue camouflage design, the 59-metre former Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency patrol vessel struck an imposing presence while anchored in Hong Kong's western harbour approaches last month, a spot often reserved for visiting warships. The vessel is best known for the high-profile and hazardous high-seas confrontations with Japan's whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean made famous by reality-television series Whale Wars.
After a decade of conflict, the Steve Irwin, renamed in 2007 in honour of the late Australian conservationist and TV personality, can boast its own battle honours - and a few war wounds, too.
This year, the radical conservation organisation, whose members were once branded eco-terrorists and pirates (an image encouraged by the flying of a Jolly Roger-style black ensign), has a more visible presence in Southeast Asian waters and it appears to be changing tack. While the commitment to ending commercial whaling remains undiminished, there is an increasing focus on preventing illegal fishing on the high seas and enforcing international fisheries law. That was the focus of this year's Operation Driftnet, which involved chasing down a new enemy and using very different tactics and strategy, as Sea Shepherd enters uncharted waters.
"The days of smoke flares are over," says Gary Stokes, director of Sea Shepherd Southeast Asia. Based in Hong Kong, Stokes is one of eight global directors who run the organisation, and its eight vessels, under the watchful eye of controversial Canadian founder Paul Watson (more on him later).
"Illegal fishing is one of the biggest threats to our oceans and the laws are unmanaged and unpoliced," says Stokes, who recounts how six rogue fishing vessels, known as the "Bandit Six", which had been fishing illegally for Patagonian toothfish in Antarctic waters for many years, were finally shut down by Sea Shepherd. Operation Icefish culminated in Stokes being invited by the Indonesian government to witness the blowing up of the last of the Bandit Six, the stateless Viking, in March.
"Some of these vessels change name and flag more often than we change socks," says Stokes, explaining that more cooperation is required with shore-based government and regulatory authorities that might have shied away from Sea Shepherd's more cavalier public image and the controversial methods of the past (see end of main story).
"Sea Shepherd has changed tactics and is now an NGO law enforcement agency," he adds. "Before we needed to create an issue to attract media attention."
Siddharth Chakravarty, the captain of the Steve Irwin and a veteran Sea Shepherd campaigner, explains how Operation Driftnet demonstrated this new approach and how it nearly brought the crew into direct conflict with China.
"We look for areas where traditional law enforcement is failing," says the Indian. That usually means operating on the high seas, far away from the prying eyes of officials who remain focused on their own economic assets closer to shore, but things don't always go according to plan.
In late January, following a tip-off about unusual activity from skytruth.org, a charity using satellite mapping to reveal habitat degradation, the Steve Irwin encountered the Fu Yuan Yu fleet of six 55-metre ocean-going fishing vessels (071, 072, 073, 074, 075 and 076). They were officially registered in Fuzhou as purse-seine fishing boats - which would be expected to operate close to shore - but were on the high seas, about 1,500 nautical miles west of Perth, Australia, and a long way from their home port, in Fujian province.
Chakravarty ordered the deployment of the ship's small, fast rigid inflatable boats to investigate and the crews reported the presence of huge driftnets deployed by the fleet. Diver inspections confirmed this. Such nets are long nylon filament walls, draped from buoys at the surface down to depths of up to 100 metres and they are indiscriminate killers. In addition to the target species, many others, including marine mammals, are slaughtered on an industrial scale. The practice was banned by the United Nations in 1992.
"The vessels were taking shark and critically endangered bluefin tuna. Between the six ships, we estimate they were killing approximately 1,500 sharks each day - mostly blue sharks but also mako," says Chakravarty, whose crew meticulously recorded and documented the illegal activity over five days, before deciding to recover a net that had been abandoned.
"The net … is still on the back deck," says Chakravarty, who estimates the fleet was violating at least 10 serious fishing regulations.
"The stopping of illegal fishing and killing of animals just for our consumption is a very important issue for me," says Mutz, as he gazes out over the ship's side, towards the Hong Kong skyline. "Reeling in that net was very hard for me - it was emotionally very hard and physically very hard - the whole crew worked in four-hour watches around the clock," he says.
Crewmate and fellow volunteer Damien Rotella, from France, agrees: "It was the best and worst moment of the voyage."
Having recovered the net, the crew of the Steve Irwin encountered the fleet again a few weeks later and, this time, armed with tangible evidence, they sought to confront the rogue vessels and commence what Chakravarty calls "blockading". The pursuit continued for 18 days as the fleet fled north, to the relative safety of the South China Sea.
"Blockading directly protects the environment from illegal fishing. We will send away small boats to cut floats and confiscate fishing gear but we only do this on the high seas. Sea Shepherd has no intention of violating Chinese national laws inside their EEZ [exclusive economic zone]," explains Chakravarty.
Stokes admits he was less than comfortable with the rapidly escalating situation: "I had a lot of reservations when we were pursuing the Chinese fishing fleet into the South China Sea - particularly when we were confronted by two Chinese warships."
On March 23, just north of the disputed and politically sensitive Spratly Islands, Fu Yuan Yu 076 requested protection from a patrolling warship.
"We were called by Chinese Naval warship 571 and asked to explain our activities," says Chakravarty. "I was nervous, for sure, but our vessel is essentially harmless. We have only passion as a weapon and they would have been very welcome to look onboard."
However, the PLA Navy appeared to have more pressing business that day.
"They let us continue on our way, so maybe China is taking this issue seriously, or at least they are following the law, which in itself is encouraging," says Stokes.
As the Steve Irwin again gave chase, the Fu Yuan Yu 076 not only started destroying its illegal gear - which, Chakravarty points out, is a serious crime in itself - but on March 25, about 150 nautical miles south the Paracel Islands, another diplomatically sensitive location, "FY 076 took a swipe at us and passed within 10 metres of our bow," says Chakravarty, with measured understatement. "And this was within the South China Sea!"
As the 076 eventually slipped into its home port, the Steve Irwin, being Dutch registered (although currently operating out of Williamstown, near Melbourne, Australia), was obliged to wait for customs and immigration formalities. The 5,000-nautical-mile chase was over. Chakravarty filed the evidence to the Bureau of Fisheries, with which, he reveals, there was some constructive dialogue, although no assurance was given that action would be taken.
"The positive response is that we have a constructive line of communication with the Chinese authorities, who have made supportive remarks, but what the reality is, I really don't know," says Chakravarty, who thinks there is a natural disconnect between the crime scene, which is thousands of miles away from China, and the regulatory authorities.
"All the authorities we work with tell us that the Chinese never respond to anything but we have not condemned them and hope they will pursue the matter seriously," he says.
Stokes concedes that Sea Shepherd's success in Southeast Asia will depend largely on how well the organisation can interact with the Chinese authorities.
"How do we start educating and influencing China?" he asks, rhetorically. "Because China is the big ticket and how we handle China is going to be key.
"We have our emotional appeal, of course, but this has to be backed up with science, with law and with facts," he says, pointing out that other governments, such as that of Indonesia, have already started cooperating directly with Sea Shepherd.
"The homework and evidence gathering is not sexy stuff. There is so much planning and legal preparation before each operation. We are following a different course, looking more at fact gathering and the law," says Stokes, hoping his organisation's bad boy image won't deter law-enforcement agencies from cooperating.
THE FOUNDER OF THIS self-appointed policeman of the high seas and protector of the marine environment, Paul Watson, is still officially on an Interpol red list and has been described as a fugitive.
In response to determined legal manoeuvring by the Japanese whaling authorities, Watson was arrested in May 2012 in Frankfurt, where he spent a month in jail. He was released to house arrest, but fled Germany by land and spent the next 15 months at sea.
In Costa Rica, he is still accused of causing a shipwreck in Guatemalan waters despite having been found innocent in Costa Rican courts on two occasions, according to Stokes. In 2002, Watson blockaded and deployed fire hoses at a Costa Rican fishing vessel engaged in shark finning. He was later charged with attempted murder for allegedly trying to ram the vessel.
"We supply Interpol with information about illegal fishing vessels we are chasing while they are still officially chasing Paul Watson," says Stokes.
In 2007, The New Yorker had this to say about Watson: "His impressive ego, his argumentativeness, his love of theatrics, his tendency to bend the truth, his willingness to risk lives or injury for his beliefs (or for publicity), and his courage (or recklessness) have earned him both loathing and veneration."
Despite this buccaneering profile, the activist seems serious about cooperation with the authorities.
"Sea Shepherd is very interested in working cooperatively with the Chinese government to uphold international conservation laws and we appreciate that China was receptive to receiving the evidence we presented to the government recently on the illegal use of drift nets in the Indian Ocean by a Chinese fishing fleet," he tells Post Magazine, by e-mail.
"Sea Shepherd understands that confrontation will get us nowhere with the authorities in Southeast Asia," says Stokes. "Paul understands that as well as anyone."
Whatever approach the organisation takes, it will be a tall order for Sea Shepherd to enforce fisheries law effectively in an area plagued by bitterly contested territorial disputes and widespread violation of fishing and conservation rules. Spanning an area of about 3.8 million sq km and bordered by 12 countries, the South China Sea lands about 12 per cent of the world's catch.
According to a report by the University of British Columbia last year, commissioned by Hong Kong-based ADM Capital Foundation, catch rates are declining rapidly and there is "a need to immediately take action" for coordinated and sustainable fisheries management. More than 733,000 fishing vessels are active in the fishing fleets of China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, and three of the world's top four fish and fish-product exporters (China, Vietnam and Thailand) are in the region.
"Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have prevented any organised fisheries management, so it's a free-for-all," Euan Graham, director of the international security programme at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year.
"Asia is a target-rich environment," admits Stokes, and in addition to concerns about fisheries regulation there are the issues of illegal trading in endangered marine species, destruction of coral reefs and other habitats and the shark-fin trade.
Some fear that by bravely venturing into Southeast Asian waters, Sea Shepherd could end up navigating directly into a minefield.
"We would always tread carefully in the South China Sea but our main mission is to act where there is no adequate law enforcement," says Chakravarty. "There is plenty of naval power in the South China Seas - perhaps even too much - so it is really no place for us."
Stokes reports that a ninth Sea Shepherd vessel, the Ocean Warrior, is nearing completion in a shipyard in Turkey and is scheduled to enter service in September.
"I would love to see that new vessel based here," he says.
If it is, the Ocean Warrior should expect to face a few battles of its own.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was registered in the United States in 1981 but has its roots in the Earth Force Society, founded in 1977 by mariner and conservationist Paul Watson. The Canadian says he "parted ways" with Greenpeace in April 1977 to set up his own organisation but the environmental group says he was expelled because of his headstrong style and preference for "shouldering everyone aside".
The new organisation was militant and confrontational from its naissance and its campaigns have been routinely condemned as piracy, criminal and eco-terrorism. In his book Earth Warrior, David Morris writes that Watson wears a long bowie knife at his side, carries AK-47s on board and prefers to blast Richard Wagner's rousing Ride of the Valkyries to herald his arrival, with water cannon shooting from the deck.
The history of the organisation has been colourful, to say the least, and Watson has consistently demonstrated a penchant for visceral conservation campaigns. Over nearly three decades, Sea Shepherd has taken action to prevent seal hunts, whaling, dolphin hunts, shark finning and drift netting. His methods have brought Watson into direct conflict with authorities on countless occasions and landed him in court and in prison.
Supporters believe that while most conservation groups have blended into the grey texture of the political establishment and achieve little other than protracted conversations with themselves, Sea Shepherd remains true to its core values.
The campaigns and vessels are largely funded by private donations, often from Hollywood celebrities such as Martin Sheen, Pierce Brosnan and former television host Bob Barker.
December 1978: the first vessel, Sea Shepherd, is purchased.
March 1981: Watson leads a crew with three ocean kayaks to the Gulf of St Lawrence, Canada, in violation of his parole (earned for a previous seal-hunt protest) in order to spray hundreds of seals with harmless blue dye and disrupt that year's hunt.
November 1986: Sea Shepherd accused of "terrorism" after it destroys Icelandic commercial whaling by scuttling two ships and sabotaging a processing station at Hvalfjordur.
July 1991: the group assist Trinidadian authorities in exposing a major bribery scandal involving the Taiwanese fishing industry.
December 1992: Sea Shepherd scuttles a Norwegian whaler in the Lofoten Islands and issues a press release describing the sinking as a "Christmas gift to the whales".
July 1994: despite a Norwegian warship firing live rounds and detonating depth charges, a Sea Shepherd vessel manages to disrupt Norwegian whaling operations.
November 2006: Sea Shepherd acquires the MY Steve Irwin, christening it MV Robert Hunter at first, after a Greenpeace co-founder.
February 2007: two Sea Shepherd vessels prevent the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru from hunting by throwing bottles of butyric acid onto its decks.
February 2009: after the Steve Irwin collides with two Japanese whaling vessels in the Southern Ocean, Watson tells the press that "they weren't rammed, two vessels collided".
July 2012: the Steve Irwin disobeys orders from Fremantle harbour authorities to lower her Jolly Roger-style ensign and then helps activists board a Japanese whaling vessel at sea off Western Australia.