Photo © Robert Marc Lehmann
Earthrace Conservation’s Captain Pete Bethune and His Black Ops Team Fight to Save Wildlife Worldwide
When governments fail to protect endangered wildlife, Pete Bethune and his troop of combat experts take matters into their own hands. Pete’s organization, Earthrace Conservation, is dedicated to stopping poaching and illegal fishing operations around the world by confronting environmental criminals at the scene of the crime.
“The ideal scenario is to stop consumption in China, which is the economic driver behind most wildlife trafficking,” Bethune told Planet Experts.
In Africa, Chinese corporations and government institutions are building infrastructure and extracting natural resources. “When we were filming the The Operatives [Earthrace Conservation’s reality TV series], we found that most of the wildlife products were headed for China. When they are living in places like Africa, the Chinese people find it easy to network – they buy wildlife and send it home. Stopping wildlife crime is an ongoing struggle,” said Pete. “We target the poachers and middlemen on a local level and the middlemen are generally Chinese,” he added.
The Chinese have a long history of using rare wildlife for medicinal purposes. “For someone like me to try to stop demand in China is very difficult,” Bethune added. Some people might think that jumping out of a helicopter to catch poachers or disarming illegal fishing ships in the middle of the ocean is difficult, too. Bethune disagrees.
Most of the aquatic wildlife in the oceans surrounding the United States and Europe has been exploited. “The battle is going on in international waters and other territorial waters where there’s no Navy,” said Pete. “What’s happening is fleets from Spain or China, for example, go into places like Guinea or Liberia and fish illegally; and there’s no one to stop them. Governments like America have a role to play in providing resources to poorer nations.”
Lending Minds and Muscle to Developing Communities
Some governments actively work to stop environmental crimes but lack the resources and training needed to be effective. Developed countries can help by providing equipment to poorer nations confronting environmental criminals. “If you take illegal fishing as an example,” said Pete, “America is providing discounted coast guard cutters to countries that may not have any vessels to patrol their marine protected areas.”
Earthrace Conservation is doing its part by training local law enforcement in environmentally vulnerable locations. “I’ve got a Navy SEAL, a Delta Force guy, and a couple of S.A.S. boys – and they are highly trained,” said Pete. “When you get in a local unit, you realize how basic their training has been.
“One of the things that my guys are really good at is vessel boarding. If you’re boarding a vessel that doesn’t want you on it – maybe they are fishing illegally or smuggling wildlife – it’s really tricky but there’s a number of things that make it safer for you and for the ship’s crew.
“When you board the boat, you get a head count of all the crew on there, you secure them all, then you search them,” Pete explained. “There was a case last year in the Philippines off the coast of Palawan where a Filipino guy boarded a Chinese vessel and didn’t search the crew. The Filipino guy got knifed and died.
“We’ve got a role to play in showing these guys the best practices that we know of. It doesn’t mean we know everything, but at least they can be better prepared.”
In 2010, Bethune showcased his vessel boarding abilities when he attempted to arrest the captain of a whaling vessel – the Shanon Maru 2 – off the coast of Japan. Earlier that year, the Japanese vessel sank Pete’s boat, the Earthrace Conservation I (A.K.A. Ady Gil), in a collision. After boarding the vessel and demanding $3 million compensation for his sunken ship, the conservationist was arrested for (among other things) allegedly throwing a bottle of butyric acid (or rancid butter) at the Japanese crew.
Bethune was actually convicted and served several months in a Japanese prison. The whale warrior was eventually released, though he never received compensation for his sunken ship.
Raising Funds to Reel in Illegal Traffickers
Since the Japanese whaling incident, Earthrace Conservation’s work on illegal fishing has been limited because they don’t have their own vessel. They’ve reverted to using smaller boats with limited range and capabilities. Unfortunately, said the captain, most of the illegal fishing happens further offshore.
“We’re in the process of developing the Earthrace Conservation II,” he said. “I sat down with the creators of the Earthrace Conservation I and listed the requirements that would allow me to most effectively stop illegal fishing.”
The new 195-foot ship will comfortably accommodate 26 crewmembers and is designed with optimal fuel efficiency to allow the vessel to travel “halfway around the world on one tank of fuel.” It will run on about 20 percent biofuels and incorporate wind power through a kite sail, which will give the ship up to 300 horsepower in 25 knots of wind.
“When you assess maritime vessels, you look at the sphere of influence,” said Pete. Earthrace Conservation II will include a military drone with a range of about 150 nautical miles and high tech military tracking technology, called ELINT.
“ELINT can detect electromagnetic waves from other ships. It won’t necessarily give you a distance but it gives you a direction – which allows you to track vessels much further than you could using radar. Earthrace Conservation II will be an amazing vessel and will really help us monitor and protect the oceans.”
The ship is in its final stages of design and you can help bring it to sea by donating to the kickstarter campaign. Once it’s completed, the wildlife warship will patrol the oceans for eight months a year to reel in illegal fisherman. During the year’s remaining four months, the vessel will travel the world to promote awareness about environmental crime. Earthrace Conservation II donors can receive rewards like the opportunity to enjoy coffee on board the ship and view exciting footage from the battlefield in the ship’s 30-person theater.
“These Little Pockets of Nature…Are Just Being Destroyed”
Mammalian wildlife make up about two percent of the total biomass of vertebrates on Earth. “Man totally dominates this planet now and the little pockets of nature that are left are just being destroyed,” said Pete.
“The real jewels are in places like Africa and Asia and, for the most part, those places are poor. It’s very hard to get them to stop poaching their rhinos, tigers and pangolins, when there is such high demand in China.”
One of the biggest challenges that aquatic conservationists face is the fact that many illegal fishing operations occur in open waters where no law enforcement is present. Additionally, it is hard to track where a fish was caught once it’s been brought onboard a vessel. Pete pointed out some interesting ways to crack down on illegal fishing.
“Governments can use tax laws and document fraud to shut down this kind of illegal activity. If a ship brings fish into national waters, there’s taxes to be paid. At the same time, fishermen or vessels often won’t have the right papers – or sometimes a group of vessels will use one permit. So, these are some ways that governments can give illegal fisherman grief.”
The wildlife warrior also shared some advice on how individuals can minimize their negative environmental impacts. “Eat less meat and less dairy – better still, cut them out altogether. You may not realize it, but a lot of the meat that’s imported is raised in places that cut down rainforests to make way for cattle. This industry is also one of the biggest contributors to climate change.
“I also ask people to think about what they buy. When you buy a new cell phone or plasma TV, you use gold from Costa Rica, lithium from Bolivia, nickel from Papa New Guinea. I encourage people to stop spending their money on buying shit because the planet pays a small price for everything we buy.”
Whether he’s confronting wildlife traffickers, raising awareness about environmental crimes or enjoying a veggie burger, Pete Bethune is on a mission to help heal the planet. He invites you to join him.