Inside Captain Peter Hammarstedt’s Lifelong Mission to Protect Marine Life

Captain Peter Hammarstedt sits on the board of Sea Shepherd Global and is Chairman of Sea Shepherd Australia, Director of Campaigns for Sea Shepard Global and Captain of the Bob Barker. 15 years ago, he joined the organization at 18 years old to activate his passion for the ocean into protecting marine life.

He stars in “Ocean Warriors: Chasing The Thunder,” a documentary film capturing the longest maritime pursuit in history. This chase sparked a major turning point in and renewed attention on the issue of Illegal Unreported Unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Vulcan Productions’ “Chasing The Thunder” aims to raise awareness about ocean health and illegal fishing through the film and it will be at EarthxFilm April 21 and 22. EarthxFilm is a 21st century film festival that uses the power of film and emerging media to raise awareness of environmental and social global issues The full Ocean Warriors series can still be streamed on Animal Planet

What prompted you to begin your work as an ocean activist? Was there one moment that sparked your commitment to the cause?

I was about 14 years old when I saw a picture of a whale being pulled up the slipway of a big factory whaling ship in the Antarctic. The sight of that just shocked me. I thought that whaling was something that had ended in the 1980s. Then, to discover that not only was it still happening but that it was also illegal – and that whaling had been illegal since 1986 and there was a global moratorium passed on whaling – made me look for groups that were acting to stop it. Obviously, government had failed in their obligations to ensure that international law was followed, and Sea Shepherd was a group that was gearing up to directly intervene in whaling. That suited me – it suited my personality to get directly involved to stop the killing.

What are some of the most dangerous aspects to your job and what makes it all worth it?

Being out at sea is dangerous. When we head down to the Antarctic and confront poaching operations, we’re confronted with dangerous ice conditions – ice bergs that can sink a ship, heavy seas, and some of the worst weather on this planet. We’re also searching for poachers who are very intent on making money while breaking the law and protecting profits. The Thunder at many times tried to ram our ship.

We sail into harms way – that’s our motto – and we do it because, on the high seas, we are really the only sheriffs in town. We are the only thing that’s standing between these animals and certain death. And that’s what makes it worth it.

__How is the story of “Chasing the Thunder” unique? __

The Thunder was the most notorious poacher in the world. This was a vessel that Interpol had a purple notice for and had been on a blacklist for illegal fishing down in the Antarctic for 10 years by CCAMLR, which is the fisheries body that kind of monitors and regulates fishing down in the Southern Ocean. In the course of that 10-year period, this vessel had made a profit of about $60 million.

The idea behind Operation Ice Fish, the campaign to stop The Thunder, was if we can find the most elusive ship in the world – if we can be this spot light that lights up their criminal activity to the world and also be giving real-time intelligence to law enforcement – then somebody would have to take in this ship. Somebody would have to arrest this vessel. So in many ways it was a citizen’s arrest, and we hoped as soon as we found this ship that some legal body somewhere would take over. Little did we know that finding The Thunder was the start of the longest maritime chase in history.

Why is this type of storytelling so important for the cause?

The oceans are out of sight and out of mind for most people. We don’t see what happens out on the oceans, let alone what happens out at the bottom of the oceans. The Thunder, for example, was setting deep sea gillnets, some of them were two kilometers below the surface of the ocean. Bringing cameras with us, bringing media along with us, allows us to bring millions of people with us to the scene of the crime. It allows us to bring eyes on the water and tell the story of what is happening to a fish that lives in the deepest waters, in one of the most remote areas of the world. A movie like this allows people to see what passionate and compassionate people are doing to fill a law enforcement vacuum that exists on the high seas. Hopefully that creates a dialogue and a push for governments to do more to stop illegal fishing.

“Chasing The Thunder” is part of the larger Ocean Warriors series that premiered on Animal Planet more than a year ago. How have audiences responded to the story since it premiered?

What’s important about the Ocean Warriors series is it shows that illegal fishing is not some kind of administrative problem. It is a crime. It’s a transnational organized criminal activity run by criminal syndicates. There are a number of convergence crimes that happen along with the actual fishing offense – fraud, forgery, human trafficking, money laundering. The police are relieved this issue is getting the attention it deserves. We’re seeing more and more governments take more serious action against it. And for sure that effort is bolstered by television series like Ocean Warriors, and I’m sure will be by this movie as well.

Why should people care about the ocean and illegal fishing? What’s the one or two things people can do today to take action from wherever they are?

If you look at the state of the world’s oceans, they’re in absolute disrepair. The United Nations, NAFO, believes that two-thirds of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited. Another 26% are over-exploited. Which means that 10% of our fisheries around the world are actually healthy. That’s why fishery scientists believe if current trends continue that by 2048, all the world’s major predatory fisheries will collapse. That is an alarm bell that needs to be heard because more than 50% of the world’s population lives near the sea. IUU fishing is a major component to the overfishing problem that we’re facing. When 15 to 40% of the global catch of fish is caught through IUU fishing, then that is an issue that we have to take seriously if we as a species want to survive on this planet.

What average people can do who are concerned about illegal fishing is: one, they support groups like Sea Shepherd that are on the front lines, giving developing countries a tool to actually take back their seas from poachers. Two, they need to question where their food comes from. And one thing that I’ve learned very well from doing this type of work is that not only is the illegal fishing – the vessels that are fishing without a license – a problem, but a lot of the legal operators are also misreporting what they’re catching. They are catching more than they’re reporting, and there’s a tremendous amount of bycatch involved within the industrial fishing complex.

What makes you optimistic about the fight against illegal fishing?

What gives me a lot of hope is what we’re accomplishing in partnership with governments, in particularly in West Africa. Before we brought a ship to Liberia, fishermen in the small town of Harper, which borders Liberia and neighboring Côte d’Ivoire, were complaining about daily incursions by foreign industrial trawlers that were coming across the border every single night, running over their nets, running over their canoes and stealing the fish that they depend on for their livelihood. Just days after these complaints were aired on national radio here in Liberia we used our vessel, the Bob Barker, with 10 Liberian coast guard sailors on board to assist the government to arrest vessels at that border. After the third arrest of ships on that border was made the incursion stopped completely, and for the first time fish by the border between Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire – where the nutrient rich Cavalla River forms a spawning ground for fish –fish are really coming back there.

We are seeing these countries where there is a political will to do something about the problem, they just don’t have the vessel to do it. But in partnership with civil society, they’re pushing back. So one of the things that inspires me is the fact that governments, especially in the developing world, are more and more willing to work with civil society to address the problem.

Not only are we providing a civilian offshore patrol vessel to places like Liberia and Gabon, but we’re also bringing in AIS technology to better understand which areas we need to patrol, to better understand vessel histories. We’re using satellite imagery to better determine where these concentrations of fishing activity occur because a lot of vessels go black and don’t transmit their positions as required by law. And we’re using the technologies that are available onboard our ship – by radar and automatic identification systems. So we are combining technology with at-sea patrols, with boots on the ground, and we’re also combining that with the power of media. That not only are we assisting these governments to arrest these ships, but we’re able through our movies, for example this movie with Vulcan Productions, to show the world what’s happening and to get people to think seriously about ocean conservation.