Sea Shepherd – The Story of Chris Storey

Life is believed to have begun on Earth in the oceans millions of years ago, and it persists to this day, but human activity is doing much to kill off the delicate forms of marine life we have today.)

Marine life is experiencing a fight for survival, an unspoken conflict which has been raging for generations. It occasionally makes the headlines, but like a sinking ship, it has the tendency to disappear from view, leaving it up to a band of dedicated people to actively take to the high seas to protect the different kinds of animals that live in our oceans and seas.

As a kid, I used to love getting in the bath, not to wash myself, but to play with my figures or to hold my breath underwater

Chris Storey is the Director of the Portuguese branch of Sea Shepherd, a non-profit conservation organisation with one goal: to protect the world’s delicate marine ecosystem from utter annihilation using a series of ships to navigate across the world. Founded in 1977, Sea Shepherd made a splash as recently as 2017, when its activities concerning Japanese whaling led to the Japanese government dubbing them ‘eco-terrorists’.

Much water has passed under the bridge since such incidents, and we sat down with Chris Storey to learn all about how someone could end up going from a regular life on dry land to becoming a champion for all things marine.

Chris Storey – a beginning

Chris Storey’s fascination with water came at a young age. “As a kid, I used to love getting in the bath, not to wash myself, but to play with my figures or to hold my breath underwater,” Chris reveals. He continues: “I suppose that was my first experience in wanting to be amphibian or something like that.”

As he grew older, Chris looked to his family and was inspired to join the army, having had a grandfather who had served in the Royal Air Force. This interest in the military is intriguing, when you consider that Sea Shepherd, Chris’ ultimate destination, considers itself the world’s largest private navy. “I went to the Irish Guards”, Chris adds, despite having visited the careers office to apply to join the RAF on the advice of his grandfather.

The marine ecosystem is super-resilient… so we can see that if we do leave certain zones alone and we bring in bans that the resilience and abundance can come back.

Chris ultimately became a diver, dipping into waters around Spain, Portugal, New Zealand and the Maldives. “[I was] seeing the effects of humans on the ocean through pollution”, he reveals, adding that “I was just hooked on interacting with marine life, showing people how beautiful it is and how therapeutic it is underwater.”

It was all change five years ago, however, when Chris was approached about a job by a Danish firm working on green technology in Portugal. Through this opportunity, Chris was put in touch with a man called Harry from a company called Waterhaul, which specialises in making plastic eyewear from fishing nets. This intrigued Chris, as Portugal is one of the world’s greatest consumers of plastic fishing nets, which have since become something of a byword in the marine conservation community as death traps for marine life.

Down the line, Chris was involved in an event, the 7Seas Summit, held in Lisbon which offers networking opportunities for businesses specialising in the Blue Economy, as well as wildlife conservation in the oceans. Chris became aware of Sea Shepherd and wondered if they fancied getting involved, an invitation they accepted wholeheartedly. Before long, Sea Shepherd started eyeing up a potential new chapter to be established in Portugal itself. The chapter was eventually created, and when a vacancy for the role of Director came up, Chris went for it on a short-term basis at first, helping really establish this Portuguese chapter into a force to be reckoned with. In his capacity at Sea Shepherd, Chris operates as Partnerships Manager, while also serving as Head of Innovation at Green Innovation, a Danish-based firm which describes “good business as green business.”

An ocean of issues

Working in partnerships as well as with the Green Innovation Group gives Chris a birds-eye view of what’s happening in the Blue Economy, giving him much cause for hope. “Every day, I’m super-privileged, with Green Innovation Group, I’m seeing different innovations that can be solutions to the mess we’re in, whether that’s with oceans, land, air, financials, fintech, block chain and much more.”

Sea Shepherd has just clinched a major partnership with Allianz, to achieve, what Chris describes as “to get big corporations to put the money where their mouth is.”

On a daily basis, these partnerships are what drives him, but he also takes great value out of conversations such as the one we are having with him, as it helps educate the wider world about issues including ghost nets and the health of our oceans. Ghost nets are a particular issue that Chris is passionate about telling us about, and he does so in great detail. “A huge percentage of microplastics aren’t just straws, but discarded fishing gear.

“The marine ecosystem is super-resilient”, Chris admits, “so we can see that if we do leave certain zones alone and we bring in bans that the resilience and abundance can come back.”

Ghost nets, unfortunately, are a big killer for marine life, and often do their greatest damage silently without our knowledge miles out at sea in many cases. “The problem with the net is that, they’re not just thrown overboard, they’re lost in storms. But most of the time, they’re just thrown off due to various bureaucratic reasons to bring them back to shore, or laziness as well.”

These plastic necklaces of death sit just below the surface of the ocean, starting to trap small fish in their clutches, before larger predators take notice and swim closer for a bite, before also becoming entangled. Before long, a mass of dead marine life is trapped in this plastic mesh before sinking to the sea floor where it decomposes. Like some monster out of a horror movie, the decomposed matter breaks loose of the netting, which allows the plastic material to return to the surface, ready to snare another victim.

99 per cent of my diet is plant-based. I mean, it’s definitely a progression, starting with one day or meal a week which is plant-based.

Chris tells us of stories involving whales and other marine animals being found washed up or stranded on beaches all over the world, trapped in netting which inflicts a range of nasty injuries upon them. Seeing such images day in, day out does result in a feeling of numbness over time. “I think we’ve become immune to a lot of things”, Chris reveals. Our media is filled with gory horror movies that satiate our morbid fascinations, potentially blinding us to the horrors going on it our oceans in real life.

As so much of the damage happens below the surface, it seemingly carries less impact than seeing some atrocity committed on dry land. Even the way we consume marine life feels different to consuming animals which spend their lives on land – fish are prepared in a way which seems somehow more bloodless and often we eat much of it fried in batter, concealing what was left of the original animal beneath. Meanwhile, we see a steak and can immediately see it for what it is – a piece of animal flesh which was once part of a living thing.

Making the changes

Concerning his own diet, Chris reveals he has ditched meat to a great extent, saying “99 per cent of my diet is plant-based. I mean, it’s definitely a progression, starting with one day or meal a week which is plant-based.”

The fishing industry plays a big role in doing much of the damage to marine life, whether that’s through directly scooping masses of fish or other creatures from the water to be eaten or harming them indirectly through the aforementioned ghost nets. When the average Brit thinks about fish, they often don’t realise the impact they might be having until, for example, the daily newspapers publish a story saying fish stocks are down.

Every now and then, a follow-up story might tell us fish are breeding in enough numbers to make it acceptable to go for that weekly fish and chips, but this basic approach to the issue masks a bigger problem. Chris admits, “We’re no experts and don’t try to get involved in the food side, but I always like to involve it, because I think it’s important. The problem is that there is overfishing…what is sustainable seafood? Unfortunately, there is none, because of the current state of affairs, of overfishing.”

Rather than thinking twice about heading out for a fish and chip supper, our approach to the whole concept of fishing needs to change, in Chris’s view. “I mean, the best way to do it would be higher taxes and more disciplinary results for commercial fishing. Of course, if we could stop for X amount of years, then that would be the ideal situation, but it’s not going to happen.”

Chris is of the view that commercial fishing is where we must concentrate our energies, as they can have the appearance of vast machines which need to be targeted where it really matters: in their bank accounts. More targeted taxation on trawls would give them greater incentives to reduce catches to more sustainable sizes to stay afloat. In some corners of the world, the fishing industry takes a darker tone, and Chris suggests that “It’s a really dodgy business, especially in lesser privileged countries and waters.”

On the high seas, it can reportedly become something of a no man’s land, where people trying to film the goings-on aboard fishing vessels might carry the risk being thrown overseas if caught doing so, simply for documenting the truth. In some cases, Chris adds that human trafficking goes hand in hand with more illicit aspects of the global fishing trade, suggesting the need for more eyes to be turned to our oceans, not just for the good of marine life but human lives too.

Since 2020, Chris has also been a part of GhostNetWork, an NGO aimed at orchestrating the removal ghost netting and waste fishing gear from the world’s oceans, while also helping find a better use for the plastic waste to create a circular economy.

“GhostNetWork was formed from speaking to a friend and diving, and initially, it was just a project in Portugal”, Chris claims. Work on this project involved speaking to ports and municipalities, placing containers in ports, where unwanted netting could be discarded by fishermen and could ultimately be upcycled by local artists in a variety of ways. Art depicting dolphins trapped in nets as just one example, with works made in 3D or as 2D graffiti sprayed on the walls. Collected nets will also be passed onto GhostNetWork partners who can upcycle the plastic into diving fins, sunglasses and backpacks.

Chris confirms that the GhostNetWork’s work will evolve to include a podcast which is coming very shortly, creating what he calls a community platform. The idea is to create a means with which to educate people, especially schoolchildren, with future plans for live talks at schools eventually. Right from the start, Chris has shown a fascination with water and the creatures which call the oceans their home. He’s carried that spark with him in his work over the last decade, making waves far and wide as part of Sea Shepherd, Green Innovation Group as well as GhostNetWork. The fact that we only know 20 per cent of our oceans doesn’t faze him or his colleagues at Sea Shepherd, as they consider what happens in the deepest depths to be every bit as important as what humans are up to on dry land.

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