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21 May 2015

How a Dutch violin maker is confronting illegal fishing

With up to one-third of fish harvested in European waters caught illegally, the Black Fish’s Citizen Inspector Network is going undercover.

By Xan Rice

One recent evening, a 33-year-old Dutch violin-maker came to Somerset House beside the Thames to talk about fish. Wietse van der Werf explained his choice of meeting place: “I stood on the bridge over there a few years ago, after visiting the Royal Air Force Museum. That’s when I had my idea about protecting the oceans.”

Looking out towards St Paul’s Cathedral that day in 2012, van der Werf marvelled at how London had survived the Blitz. Part of the reason for this, he learned at the museum, was the Royal Observer Corps, a network of civilians who helped the RAF by tracking the movement of German planes over British skies.

“I suddenly realised the problem with tackling illegal fishing: there are no eyes in the markets and the ports,” he said. By then van der Werf had stopped building violins to concentrate on The Black Fish, an organisation he set up to highlight our plunder of the seas (he estimates that up to one-third of fish harvested in European waters is caught illegally, a consequence of weak enforcement, corruption and organised crime). Three years on, The Black Fish’s Citizen Inspector Network has its first members. Before London, van der Werf visited Nottingham and Grimsby, training 16 volunteers on fishing law, species, vessels and equipment. In May a second team will graduate in Germany. The Black Fish aims to have 120 inspectors across five countries by 2016, and within a decade 1,600, double the number of dedicated inspectors in Europe.

“Fish stocks may become irrecoverable, but it’s just not a political priority,” he said. Black Fish volunteers will be deployed for ten days a year. Posing as tourists, they will visit markets and ports in the Baltic, Mediterranean and Atlantic to collect evidence of illegality: undersize fish, banned equipment, species caught out of season or in protected areas. The information will be passed to local enforcement agencies.

The organisation already has good relations with some: in November van der Werf signed an agreement with the Italian coastguard. “They are stretched with the migrant issue, so they are happy to work with us,” he said. Not all governments are as appreciative. In Sweden, he discovered evidence of illegal cod fishing “in the first hour of our first mission” but his offer of help was declined.

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The Black Fish aims to be less directly confrontational than groups such as Greenpeace. Dressed in khakis and a blazer, van der Werf stressed that his organisation was “not seeking adventurers”. Volunteers pay for accommodation while training and for living expenses during fieldwork. Yet the chance to contribute physically, rather than simply donate money to charity, has proved alluring. Courses are oversubscribed and women outnumber men nine to one.

Besides inflatable boats, the organisation operates drones to fly over ports and track vessels. Private planes will soon assist with monitoring through another of van der Werf’s ventures, the Wildlife Air Service, which allows aircraft owners and pilots to offer their equipment and skills on conservation projects. The work is getting noticed in environmental circles: The Black Fish’s backers now include Niklas Zennström, a co-creator of Skype, and Douglas Tompkins, who co-founded the North Face, the outdoor products company.

As the light faded, van der Werf rushed to another meeting. Then he had an early-morning flight to Finland. “Bombs may not be falling from the sky,” he said. “But the oceans are running out.”