Watts On (W): Short bio presentation: when did the environment issues led you to become a volunteer and an activist? You belong to Sea Shepherd Conversation since when?
Maike Baun (MB): I have been involved in animal/marine welfare for many years. I come from a family that has always cared for our planet and also my parents used to be activists. I became actively involved during a 2-year world trip in 2015. On this journey I traveled land and sea and saw the destruction firsthand that we are causing to our beautiful planet. During that time, I also became a diving instructor and worked in diﬀerent marine conservation organizations in the Philippines and Honduras. Gaining more and more in-depth knowledge and information about the situation our oceans are facing, I decided to devote my life to saving our 7 seas. After that eye-opening journey I moved to Portugal and in October 2019 we started the Sea Shepherd Portugal chapter with my collogues Chris Stores and Guiga Pirá. Besides working as marketing and media coordinator for Sea Shepherd Portugal, I also volunteer on our vessels to fight on the front lines for the survival of the oceans and its inhabitants. Of course, all the work we do is voluntarily. Besides activism, my passion lies in marketing and especially in combining sustainability with my profession. Therefore, I decided to use my education and knowledge to support sustainable companies and organizations. I work as a freelancer for diﬀerent organizations and businesses that focus on sustainability, social entrepreneurship and animal welfare/environmental protection. This path has allowed me to connect my 2 passions – protecting our wonderful planet and Marketing – and to create a long-lasting impact on sustainable business practices.
W: What are the main threats to ocean preservation?
MB: The main threat to the ocean is for sure humankind. Particularly, our consumption and exploitation of our natural resources and the ocean. The fishing industry and illegal fishing, as well as the demand for fish and the pollution that we cause are a major threat for the oceans and the reason for the status it is in.
Our 7 seas are heavily overfished and with our consumption we are depleting the foundation of rehabilitation of many species. On the one hand, the demand for fish is incredibly high and therefore, fishing industries are still thriving. Looking at tuna for instance, these fish used to be up to 4,5m long – a size we cannot even imagine anymore, because of overfishing. An important note hereby is that tuna for example reproduces more oﬀspring the longer they live- so if we catch tuna while they are still small and young, we don’t give the population a chance to recover and grow back to a sufficient amount of individuals. On the other hand, fish is being caught with horrific methods, that cause a lot of “collateral damage” to the targeted fish/animal but also to everything that gets entangled or caught in nets, long lines or other fishing gear.
The so-called bycatch (fish, mammals, crustaceans, etc.) dies for no reason only to be thrown back into the ocean.
W: The plastic pollution in the ocean is bigger than ever? Or things are already getting a little better as people (apparently) are becoming more environmental awareness?
MB: I have to say I do see a positive trend regarding our plastic consumption, people get more and more aware of the problem and a lot of new business models arise that deal with the problem. I work for such a business as well – an online marketplace for plastic free and recycled products (plasticfreeworld.com).
In my opinion the education and awareness are increasing drastically, as well as the common knowledge about the hazard’s plastic causes. Not only is plastic a heavy polluter of our planet, it is also dangerous for the human body. Due to hormone-like chemicals within plastic it acts as a hormone disrupter and several studies show the connection of plastic and several cancer types and gender impairments.
People also start to realize that the plastic that we already have on our planet can and has to be recycled. We have such a huge amount of plastic on our planet that there is not even the need for more plastic production for generations. In addition, a lot of alternative materials have shown to be an appropriate replacement for plastic such as bamboo and corn.
I always try to see things more in a positive way and therefore, I do want to emphasize that changes in awareness and actions are increasing, nevertheless we surely still have a long way to go. We haven’t reached a point in our consumption that could turn the plastic (nor climate) problem around.
So, yes, we do have a huge plastic problem and we have to act even more. We need to start looking at our planet from a diﬀerent perspective – not as our playground to exploit and destroy because it’s “convenient” to do so. We, as in each and every individual and the big industries, must change the way we produce, consume, dispose, behave. Otherwise, we will destroy the oceans, the planet and each and every species on it and that includes humankind.
W: Do you have any interesting or dramatic episode you could share, regarding plastic pollution in the ocean?
MB: Yes, there are so many stories I could tell.
I have been to many incredibly beautiful places around the world to work in conservation centers – of course you stay in those places for several months. Within these months you can see how the underwater world suﬀers. Places that were full of colorful corals and fish turn into coral “graveyards”. In Utila/Honduras for example I worked with the conservation center “WSORC” (Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center). Besides reforestation of mangroves, research and other duties, we also had a coral nursery, where we literally nursed corals to grow strong and healthy and to finally put them back in the reef. When you take care of these tiny fragile animals you become pretty attached. Each week we went to clean them from algae and dirt, to measure them and to look after them – sadly, even with a lot of care and nursing, some of them still died from the so-called white pox disease (which causes irregular white patches that kill the coral) or from bleaching (which is directly related to climate change and a heavy increase of nutrients and algae in the surface waters). Even the coral forest where we planted the healthy ones after we nursed them, started to bleach and eventually died. For me seeing these amazing and incredibly important animals die is insanely sad. What people don’t realize is how important corals are for our survival, since they produce the majority of oxygen, we breath and also, they are highly developed animals that live in a spectacular symbiosis with Zooxanthellae – (an algae).
I also find it really sad to see how much waste is being disposed directly into the ocean or in our nature. Even on dive boats, people just throw their trash in the ocean, careless of how many animals get harmed by it. I find it horrific to see how we use nature for our pleasure and still don’t bother to protect it. Especially the ocean – we don’t belong there, we are only visitors that should by all means try to protect this wonderful environment and its inhabitants. On each dive I take a net to collect trash and sadly I always come back with a bag filled with trash.
And of course, on campaign (e.g. on our Sea Shepherd vessels) we see a lot of horrible things happening – regarding plastic, it’s definitely the ghost nets that are a major threat we see.
Abandoned fishing gear is a big polluter for the ocean – not only the net itself but also the plastic that accumulates on it, as well as a lot of animals that get entangled and die in the nets. Pulling nets like that out of the ocean is really unsettling and sad.
W: Does illegal ﬁshing a problem that occur everywhere? Do you have some ﬁgures to share about this?
MB: Let’s put it that way – there are no rules and regulations out at high sea. So yes it does appear everywhere in high sea. Illegal fishing is a problem around the world, especially since a lot of money is involved in the trade of fish or other marine life. The fishing industry has a massive inﬂuence on many authorities and a strong lobby with a lot of monetary power, which makes it a very attractive industry for many.
There is a lot of grey areas as well, let’s look at shark finning. Shark finning per se is illegal in Europe, the trade with those fins unfortunately isn’t. Spain for example is one of the leading manufacturers of shark unprocessed fins, although in 2013 the EU banned finning on fishing vessels to protect sharks. Sadly, there are ways around this law, such as keeping the fin on the shark until it reaches it “final destination”. However, speaking of numbers, only for shark fins and without dark figures 72 Million sharks get killed each year. This is almost the number of people living in Germany – every single year! In comparison: sharks injure or kill around 10 people each year – and this happens by accident. Sharks don’t even like human ﬂesh. However, in cooperation with Stop Finning EU citizen initiative we are trying to stop those horrific practices all and for once. Each signature from European citizens helps to save our beautiful sharks. To vote against shark finning and trading in Europe, please see https://www.stop-finning-eu.org.
Illegal fishing is definitely a big problem and due to its illegal nature, an estimate of numbers is difficult. But many studies talk about approximately 50% of IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) which accounts for 11-26 million tonnes or $10 to $23.5 billion Dollars. But dark figures are obviously high and the numbers are probably even higher.
W: Without the authority’s cooperation you cannot stop illegal ﬁshing. Do Sea Shepherd Conservation get government’s cooperation on your missions? What is the less marine protection cooperative local authorities Sea Shepherd Conversation found in the world?
MB: True, the cooperation of governments is crucial for the success of many campaigns, especially for those that are taking place in waters that belong to a country. We accomplished a great deal of cooperation’s with hard work and fact-/number-based proposals.
I guess we have all heard of the whaling industry in Japan/Taiji, due to the lack of cooperation of authorities and the rules and regulations in the country, it is difficult for us to still operate there. Regarding Japan, Sea Shepherd as an organization and its members are banned from the country and some of our crew members were thrown in jail because Sea Shepherd protected the whales from insane slaughter. Even today, I don’t think I would wear my Sea Shepherd gear anywhere in Japan, they really do not appreciate any member of us. I believe the reason for the outrageous behavior lies in fear of the power that Sea Shepherd has and the eﬀective ways to put a stop to illegal operations as well as uncovering it and displaying it on international media.
W: I heard Christopher Storey talk on Planetiers World Gathering last year. He said that ghost nets are one of the deadliest killers in the ocean. He said also that ghost nets are responsible for 10% of microplastic in the ocean. How that problem could be resolved?
MB: Oh yeah, I have been talking there as well for Sea Shepherd. What a great summit! Yes, so- called ghost nets, which are basically abandoned fishing nets that ﬂoat about in the ocean, are a big threat to our ocean. There is diﬀerent reasons why they are so very threatening to our 7 seas. Firstly, they are deadly traps for every inhabitant of the ocean and birds that get entangled in it. An animal or fish that gets entangled in those nets has no chance to get out of it anymore and suﬀers to death, trapped in the net. Secondly, the nets themselves are made of plastic and they can be massive (up to 1 km of length), so they are heavily polluting our oceans. Thirdly, the micro plastic that drifts and ﬂoats in the ocean gets trapped in those balls of rope and often sticks to it.
We from Sea Shepherd Portugal collect those nets with experienced divers. We go on dives and pull them out of the sea. While on campaign we collect ghost nets from our boats (we have developed really efficient methods to do that from the boat). However, after pulling the ghost nets, we cut them to make them useless. We also work with manufacturers, Start-ups or other businesses that recycle the plastic and turn it into bags, clothes, toys or other products.
W: As a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society member, what are the main marine wild life species endangered?
MB: Many animals and fish highly endangered. Sharks, whales, dolphins, fish, turtles, corals – you name it. I could give you an endless list about it. Sea Shepherd has diﬀerent campaigns where we fight on the front lines for diﬀerent marine species and their survival. In Mexico for example we fight for saving the Vaquita Marina, the smallest marine mammal in the world. It lives only in one place in the world, in the upper Gulf of California (Mexico), since it is very sensitive to it’s environment. This mammal is not threatened because it is targeted, but because cartels practice illegal fishing there to fish the Totoaba fish for its swim bladder. The Vaquita ends up as bycatch in the fishing nets. Due to these illegal activities, there is only an estimate of 6-19 individuals left of the Vaquita Marina.
W: Seaspiracy Netflix documentary had Sea Shepherd involvement? If so, could you talk about that experience?
MB: Well, for us it is always exciting to have film crews on board that show our work. I haven’t been particularly on the campaign when we filmed for Seaspiracy but on another campaign where we filmed for a diﬀerent documentary. It’s a great pleasure and opportunity for us to spread the word about our work and the truth about the oceans. The Ocean is such an impressive ecosystem that can recover from basically anything, but from humankind. Documentaries like Seaspiracy reach the rank and file and show the truth about the destruction we are causing and the alarming status of our 7 seas while uncovering the big lies that are being told by authorities, sustainability labels or the media – that is what we need to open people’s eyes.
Also, I always want reinforce activism and environmental organizations are not about pointing fingers at everyone who isn’t an activist or vegan or uses a car or doesn’t live a zero-waste lifestyle. We only want people to understand and take a diﬀerent look at the situation. We want – just like the american marine biologist Sylvia Earle said – people to change what they can, we don’t want everyone to be perfect at it but many people that try and together we can make a massive change. We want to make sure everyone understands the inevitable truth and consequences that we have caused and we want to encourage to make a change.
W: Sea Shepherd Conversation Society is also in Portugal, although recently, since 2019. What are the main difficulties you’re facing in implementing your projects in Portugal?
MB: Of course every beginning is hard, but we were a great team from the beginning. We started with 3 (Guiga Pirá, Chris Storey and me) and grew pretty much from the beginning quite well. Surely, it takes time to set everything up to operate as an NGO and especially the paper work was time consuming. An obstacle we were and are facing is the fish consumption that is deeply rooted in the Portuguese culture. Raising awareness and changing people’s minds regarding fish and the fishing industry requires stamina at times. With our amazing team of volunteers we have already accomplished a lot in Portugal and we plan on continuing to grow.
A fact a lot of people don’t know is that even the “traditional” Codfish, that is basically the fish people want to try when travelling to Portugal, doesn’t even come from Portugal but Norway, since the population in Portugal is also depleted.
W: Is there any new project that Sea Shepherd Conversation Society is thinking to launch in Portugal?
MB: Actually, we are part of Sea Shepherd Global (SSCS is operating in the Americas). We are about to launch our very first on-shore campaign, which is super exciting. And right now we work a lot on data collection, awareness increase, reach, cooperation’s, donations and education. We work strategically, so we want to spread word, speak on events, educate kids and adults, work with the government and make the Portuguese population aware of the grievances of the country to start with. Also, we do beach and dive clean ups regularly. Eventually, of course we would love to have a ship of our own but that’s nothing we would consider anywhere close as of now. However, for us it is really important that we work within all rules and regulations and with a strategy to make a lasting impact.
W: You’re going to participate in “WATER World Forum For Life”, in June, in Portugal. What will be your main message? What are you going to share?
MB: I definitely want to share optimism. It is not too late to make a change. I want to give insight knowledge about what we are doing and how important the oceans are for the planet and for our survival. I want for people to understand that each and every little organism in the ocean is crucial for the ecosystem and everything is interlinked. I want people to know that all the myths for example about sharks are not true and that these fish are wonderful and majestic creatures and would never intentionally harm humans. I want people to understand that animals suﬀer in silence – they suﬀer because of us and we have to change that: we have to protect each being on this planet that can’t protect itself. I want people to understand that animals are not here to “serve” us, they are emotional, empathetic, they communicate, they love, the feel, they are hurting. I want to share my deep love for animals with the world so that people would reconsider harming animals for their own sake. I want to educate and lent a guiding hand to people to make the changes they can and to integrate them in their lives. I want people to understand, each little step in the right direction matters: each time we pick plastic up, each time we choose vegan instead of fish/dairy/meat, each time being a role model to others.
W: Regarding the marine conservation, what is your next project? What are you (or Sea Shepherd Conversation Society) preparing in the frontline?
MB: Sea Shepherd is basically divided in Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Sea Shepherd Global and all the countries (called chapters). Each chapter will continue fighting for marine life in their country/shore line and the increase of awareness and education.
Regarding the vessels operating on the front lines, Sea Shepherd is getting the ﬂeet back in the ocean. Due to COVID Sea Shepherd was very restricted in some campaigns and to ensure the safety of the crew, the time was used to prepare, repair and brush up the vessels, so that the vessels can get back on campaign: such as the IUU (Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated Fishing) campaigns in Africa, the Milagro Campaign in Mexico to save the Vaquita Marina from extinction and the Operation Bloody Fjords in the Faroe Islands to stop the whale slaughter.
W: Until now what were your most risky or scary conservation mission you participate?
MB: I don’t think anything was ever really scary – at least not in the particular moment. In moments where it could get risky, we just do what we are trained to do. Afterwards, when processing certain experiences, I was sometimes impressed on how we as a team on board managed the situation and didn’t let it get to a point where anyone was in danger. I believe the most intense conservation missions are our campaigns on our vessels. Some situations might be risky but otherwise we couldn’t make a change. And our history shows that it works to go the extra mile.
Of course, it can be scary knowing who you are up against: cartels, poachers, the whaling and the fishing industry. However, we all know what we get ourselves into and what we signed up for and I would give our life for the cause. We also have great trainings and know exactly what to do in case of an emergency.