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‘Our pirate image scares people off, but that’s exactly what we want’

Controversial environmental organisation Sea Shepherd fights illegal fishing all around the world and is not afraid to take direct action. Alumnus Geert Vons is director of Sea Shepherd Netherlands. How does he look back on his degree in Chinese Studies, and what motivates him in his work? ‘If we don’t watch out, the oceans will be empty by 2050.’

Geert Vons (53): ‘My work is my life.’

To begin at the beginning, what does the almost global lockdown mean for Sea Shepherd? Can you still take action?

‘Illegal fishing is continuing, so we are too. Illegal fishing vessels are trying to take advantage of the situation because there is little or no control. We are currently working with countries such as Nigeria, Gabon and Benin. They only have a limited number of suitable ships that can patrol their own waters. Sometimes local fishermen no longer have the resources to fish, and large, commercial fishing companies from other countries sail into their waters and take huge quantities of fish. That is disastrous for the whole world. The oceans are the earth’s lungs, more so than the rainforests. If we don’t watch out, the oceans will be empty by 2050.’ 

Sea Shepherd hit the headlines with its spectacular actions around Antarctica with campaigners in small boats trying to block Japanese whalers. Is that still going on?

‘Fortunately, it’s no longer necessary. It was due in part to our actions that Australia and New Zealand took Japan to the International Court of Justice, the UN’s principal legal body. The Court ruled against commercial whaling in 2014. Japan continued for a short while, but has since decided to stop hunting whales around Antarctica. The ruling from the highest court was an enormous help in our fight. Speaking in a personal capacity, American officials explained in a recent publication how a small organisation with a limited budget like Sea Shepherd can be extremely effective in fighting illegal fishing.’

The Sea Shepherd flag that Vons designed.

You are sometimes called the pirates of the oceans or Greenpeace’s naughty little brother. What do you think of this?

‘Our pirate image is due in part to the flag that I designed for Sea Shepherd: a black flag with a skull, a whale and a dolphin doing a kind of yin-yang dance and underneath Neptune’s trident and a shepherd’s crook. Our pirate image scares people off, but that’s exactly what we want. It’s a powerful, alarming image of the situation at sea. 

‘The point is: if there was no illegal hunting, there would be no Sea Shepherd. The laws are being violated and we are taking action against that, generally in collaboration with ministries of justice and fishing. We provide ships and crew, and the ministries provide marines and civil servants who are allowed to make arrests and detain the boats of offenders.’ 

How did you end up at Sea Shepherd? 

‘I became a volunteer soon after graduating. I read an article about one of their campaigns at sea against whale hunting and that really spoke to me. Action rather than words. That voluntary work got out of control in a positive way. If you had said at the time: in a number of years you’ll be working for a global environmental organisation – and enjoying it – and you’ll be successful in what you do, I’d never have believed you.’ 

‘The first time I sat in the language lab and heard Chinese it brought tears to my eyes.’

Why did you decide to do China Studies in Leiden?

‘I actually wanted to go to art school, but my parents disapproved of the idea. So I did a course in alternative medicine and became interested in Chinese medicine and this completely different vision of the world. The course was cancelled and I decided to study Chinese instead. Leiden was the only place where you could do that. I was 28 by the time I started, so student life didn’t interest me, and I was already active in the art world too. That’s why I stayed in Amersfoort and travelled to Leiden five days a week.’ 

Did you enjoy the degree?

‘The first time I sat in the language lab and heard Chinese it brought tears to my eyes. I found it so beautiful but unreal at the same time. It was such an unknown language for me. The good thing is that Chinese is one of the oldest languages and the basis, the characters, is largely unchanged. This means you can still read centuries-old texts. In those days, Chinese was one of the programmes with the highest number of compulsory hours. You had to be present five days a week. That was intense with an average four-hour commute every day. But I completed it well within the four years.’ 

Do you use your degree at all? Do you ever speak Chinese?

‘No, not really. I’ve never even been to China. My money always went on trips to the Pacific or Alaska, for instance. That appealed to me more than present-day China, also because of the Chinese conflict with Tibet. I’d like to go there at some point, to the mountains. I can’t directly use my degree in my work therefore, but what I did learn was to be open to a completely different world. And that I can work really hard and see the results afterwards. It’s also interesting to see how others respond if you say that you are studying or have studied Chinese. It does garner some respect.’ 

Alongside director of Sea Shepherd Netherlands, you’re global artistic director of Sea Shepherd.

‘That’s right. Eastern philosophy also inspires me in my artistic work. I make designs and auction art to generate income for the organisation. I’ve also started a tattoo line with marine themes like whales and crabs. I really enjoy doing that. It doesn’t feel like work either. My work is my life.’

Text: Linda van Putten
Photos: Sea Shepherd


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