Lamya Essemlali

Amazon of the sea

Lamya Esemlali is the chair of the NGO Sea Shepherd France. Here, she shares her vision of a mistreated planet and her determination to save it.

You’re the chair of Sea Shepherd in France. Can you tell us a little more about the organisation’s initiatives and vocation?

Sea Shepherd is an NGO working to protect marine life. Our work mainly involves preventing sea poaching by confronting fishing vessels with our own boats. We also raise awareness about fishing practices that may be legal, but which are nonetheless considered unethical because they don’t respect marine life. An example is excessively destructive net fishing.

Shops now stock products that are labelled to help consumers make the right choice. What’s the situation in France?

In France, we fish way too much and we fish badly. 90% of the fish sold in France comes from unsustainable and unethical sources. As for ‘sustainable fishing’ labels, these are worthless. Some destructive methods are still awarded the ‘sustainable’ label. It’s utterlymeaningless. The industry cottoned on to the fact that consumers were beginning to wake up. So these labels are a simple marketing ploy to encourage people to continue eating fish while salving their conscience. The fact is, there is no easy solution to the problem.

All of us – citizens, consumers, politicians and companies – are responsible for what’s happening, and we need to react now before it’s too late

So what can we do to solve the unsolvable?

There are too many of us for us to be eating so much fish. We need to eat less, or stop eating fish entirely. Guidelines recommend two portions of fish per person, per week. If you apply that on a global scale, it requires double the amount of fish we have in our oceans. It’s just impossible. To truly be coherent and have a real, positive impact on the ocean, each and every consumer needs to be looking at the fish on their plate and asking themselves: “Do I really need this? Do I need this fish to survive? Could I be eating something else?”.
If the answer to that last question is “yes”, then that fish is better off in the ocean. There aren’t enough fish for the people who really depend on it for survival. But most people don’t. Sea predators, meanwhile, have no alternative. And for coastal dwellers living in arid regions by the sea, fish resources are absolutely essential. And there’s enough fish for these people, but not for the millions of other people who pop down to their local sushi bar without a second thought.

This summer, your organisation released photos of dolphin massacres on the Faroe Islands. This species is protected under a convention that the archipelago hasn’t signed. How are you able to take action when the law is powerless?

It’s very difficult. On the Faroe Islands, all we could do was bear witness to it, watching on from the beach, helpless and surrounded by carcasses. This mass slaughter is known as ‘Grindadráp’, and is an authorised, local tradition that occurs every year. That day, 97 dolphins were killed. And for the islanders, it isn’t a problem. In this context, all we can do is raise awareness across the archipelago: because they aren’t slaughtering the dolphins out of necessity. They’ve been conditioned to do it. Children splash around in the blood, kicking the dolphins in the head. There is no empathy. They kill these animals as easily as if they were picking apples off a tree. It’s awful.

Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, always asks every new potential volunteer: “Are you willing to risk your life to save the life of a whale?”. Is that really the price of taking action?

There are a thousand different ways to get involved and make a difference. Sea Shepherd has a very particular way of doing things. The concept of risk is key to our work on the ground. When we take to the seas to confront fishing boats, we know that we’re coming up against big money and unscrupulous people who are capable of anything. You have to accept that there’s some danger. Some volunteers, like me, are completely on-board with this. Others get involved differently by lending their skills to the cause, without necessarily heading out to the front line. The risk goes hand-in-hand with our work on the ground. Time and time again, I’ve found myself in difficult situations. But the danger just makes me more determined! It isn’t a barrier to me, because I weigh up the importance of what we’re doing, and I know why I’m doing it. Our volunteers obviously don’t want to die. But when you find yourself face-to-face with danger, you have to show courage and incisiveness. What’s at stake is truly worth it. In those moments, I know that I’m exactly where I should be.

You’ve spent the last 15 years sailing the oceans to protect them. How would you describe the current state of the planet and our seas?

Our oceans are deteriorating at a faster pace than ever, but over the past few years, we’re seeing growing awareness. But sadly, this awareness hasn’t translated into significant action. Our collective apathy is suicidal. Voltaire said that in an avalanche, no single snowflake feels responsible. We’re behaving like spoiled children who need to be tip-toed around, who refuse any sense of guilt. All of us – citizens, consumers, politicians and companies – are responsible for what’s happening, and we need to react now before it’s too late.

How can organisations like Sea Shepherd and the Yves Rocher Foundation make a difference to all these environmental issues?

Whether at sea or on land, it’s about serving as an example through the action we take, showing that we can react and make a difference. Our boats, for example, are vegan, but we accept everybody. On board, we lead by example, showing people that it’s possible to eat well without using any animal-derived products. Then we explain why that’s important.

The Amazon is burning before our very eyes.And the world seems incapable of responding. What’s your reaction to this situation?

The problem is that when you’re confronted with these catastrophes, nobody knows who to blame. Or rather, we willingly remove blame from our own shoulders. I recently overheard a conversation in a café. Two customers were talking about how awful it was, while looking at the images of the fires on the news. One of them slammed Brazilian soya beans, saying they were poisonous to the environment. He then went on to talk about how much he preferred a nice juicy steak. When I hear things like that, I despair. I wanted to cut in and explain that France is the third biggest importer of Brazilian soya beans, which it uses to feed livestock and to fatten up the cows that go on to give him his steak.But that man was incapable of making the connection with his own eating habits. We’re all complicit to varying degrees. But we all also have a lot of room for manoeuvre to orchestrate


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