The launch of the conservation organisation's Middle East chapter also celebrated 40 years of activism
Sea Shepherd sets sail in UAE
Sea Shepherd Global celebrated the official launch of its first chapter in the Middle East on Friday night and 40 years of campaigns to protect the planet.
A party at Dubai Offshore Sailing Club set out Sea Shepherd UAE's goals for marine conservation, amid music, global campaign footage and a message from Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has fought to protect marine wildlife around the world through direct action campaigns to uphold international law.
In the UAE, volunteers will work with the Government to raise awareness of issues such as marine debris in the Arabian Gulf and the decimation of shark populations.
Captain Watson said last night, in a video message: "I'm really proud of the fact that we're now established in the Middle East in Dubai; plenty of opportunities for us to gain support to protect life in our oceans... We're here to celebrate 40 years of activism on the high seas to protect life in the ocean and to get our message across, the most important message being, if the ocean dies, we die. And it's the responsibility of each and every one of us to do what we can to help preserve our life support system, the ocean."
He added: "I look forward to coming to Dubai sometime in the future."
Natalie Banks, managing director of Sea Shepherd UAE, highlighted the group's initial goals as: shark conservation, through the Apex Harmony campaign; dolphin conservation, "with a view to moving away from dolphinariums in the future"; reducing marine debris and "raising awareness of alternatives to plastics" (such as bamboo disposable cutlery and reusable coffee cups); and funding for a support vessel.
"I hope you will share our passion and excitement - we are about to operate in the Middle East at a time when conservation is really taking off," said Ms Banks. "The current situation of our oceans and marine life urges us on to success. We simply can't fail... We are dependent on healthy oceans for our survival, so it's all systems go."
Sea Shepherd Global's Asia director, Gary Stokes, travelled from Hong Kong - where he documents the traffic and trade in shark fins - to address the chapter's inaugural event. Reflecting on Sea Shepherd's achievements since 1977, he said: "It's gone from us running from the law to running with the law. We are now talking with and working with local governments and agencies to uphold local conservation laws, which is what we've always been doing, but it just wasn't perceived that way.
"It's really exciting now to see Sea Shepherd UAE starting and joining a global movement."
Encouraging UAE residents to get involved, he said: "Every little thing counts, whether it's down on the beach collecting plastic, or marine debris, it all counts.
"We are not a protest organisation, we're here to help the government. There's a lot of research we've done with scientists around the world and there are solutions for issues such as plastic pollution we can put forward.
"We are here to move forward with awareness and education, whether working with Government on things, or education in schools and so on, and to provide a global perspective. That's how we see Sea Shepherd's role going, we have chapters all over the world and that's why it's great to see one here, because there has been that void and it seems like the right time, especially as plastic pollution awareness is growing."
But Mr Stokes told The National he was saddened to see small and juvenile shark species laid out on the fish counter of a local supermarket in Dubai. "There's whole carcasses on the counter here. One of the issues here is, it's not illegal. For export, you need a permit - there is protection for sharks from international trade, but you can still fish them locally and they can end up in a supermarket.
"That's the problem with the whole [global] shark industry, most of it is legal. In Australia you can eat shark as flake in fish and chips."
Although shark finning has been illegal in the UAE since 2011, the country has been listed in past years as among the top five biggest exporters of fins to Hong Kong. Mr Stokes explained trade statistics in China logged the countries of the exports' origin, regardless of where fish were caught, and so many ships were passing through the UAE with their cargoes.
He said: "A lot of that is not the UAE, it's Yemen and Oman. I've seen a couple of 40-foot containers in Hong Kong which are from Yemen and Oman. These sharks aren't necessarily killed in UAE waters. Fish can even be caught by Taiwanese vessels off the coast of Oman and then sent from the Arabian Gulf on refrigerated ships to China. You have many ships stopping off here, and this is one of the biggest problems with the shark fin industry - the traceability."
Spain and Indonesia regularly topped the list for the biggest exporters of fins, he said, and that the deaths of millions of sharks annually could alter the world's marine eco-system beyond the point of no return.
"The shark finning industry is a global problem. We are all killing the sharks and sending them to China."
Guest speaker Trevor Van der Gulik, a UAE Sea Shepherd board member and veteran campaigner, said that since first volunteering with Sea Shepherd in 1989, anyone he ever met was united by "passion for the awesome power of the ocean".
"When we look at the oceans and the world and the whole of life, and this life support system that we have, we need the support of people to continue and protect its future."
The UAE group's opening event also featured songs from guitarist and singer-songwriter Millie Page, dance by the Oriental Dance Company, sales of Sea Shepherd photographs and the chance to buy limited edition 40th edition merchandise, with all proceeds going to the not-for-profit organisation.
Sea Shepherd UAE currently has 28 volunteers and is registered with the Community Development Authority, Dubai.
To find out more, go to the Sea Shepherd UAE Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on Sea Shepherd, go to www.seashepherdglobal.org