Scott Cassell on a recent rECOn mission. Photo: Scott Cassell

Alone on a desert island in the middle of the night…I knew why he was there.
He was there to murder me.

When I was 11 years old, I played hooky from school, borrowed my brother’s 10 speed bike and went about 30 miles over the hills from Mountain View to Half Moon Bay on a dangerous twisty highway road to go snorkeling in the murky tide pools of Central California.  These are some of the best memories of my childhood. In these tide pools were juvenile fish, lobster, invertebrates, sea stars, anemones and corals…It was magic.  In contrast, my family life was tortured with two heavy-drinking parents and near nightly beatings, one of which left me with a broken jaw.  That is most of what I remember from my childhood.  The oceans gave me peace, focus and hope.  When I tell people the sea is my mother, I mean it not only from the fact that up to 71% of the oxygen I’m breathing comes from her and the food I eat is a product of the favorable weather the seas maintain on earth, but I love her as a mother. She was there giving me what I needed as a child when my parents did not.

Story submitted by Scott Cassell. Photos as credited.

rECOn ‘Combat’ Dives

There is nothing worse than a bully. Bullies cause wars, kill children, rob people and do what they can to further themselves without regard of others. I hate bullies. They kill or capture the

Scott Cassell

Scott Cassell

innocent for a personal gain with little regard of others, or their affect upon the environment. 

Poachers are much worse. While documenting illegal activities, I can count over 13 times a poacher has attempted to kill me from running me over with boats, stabbing me with a boat hook in my chest, trying to crush my head in with a rock to name a few.  Over the last 20 years I have made countless rECOn Dives into the bully’s den to help bring back evidence that can be used against them. I prefer to perform rECOn Missions completely alone to reduce the small footprint thus making my efforts more stealthy. 

The more secret I am, the better the evidence gathering and success of each mission.  In blacked-out gear, wearing short underwater Ghille suits with my O2 closed-circuit rebreather, I operate directly under the killer’s boats as they do their cowardly lawless acts upon nature. Quietly, I hover below them and film the results – the the perpetrators when I can. Corpses drift past me, still-blinking sea turtle heads, still-alive finned sharks, entrails of endangered fish… all caught by my camera as evidence, as my heart fills with hate for this filth of humanity. The public seldom hears of what I do. My motivation has always been to preserve life, not get attention.


The head of a hammerhead after being poached. Photo: Scott Cassell

The Killing Coves

Mostly in Mexico (I cannot reveal where, or exactly when) and in several other countries, I have found that several once-safe Marine Protected Areas are now used as killing coves in more countries than you might think.

Recently I performed a series of rECOn dives into a cove within a Marine Protected Area only to find poachers operating in full force in clear view of law enforcement. Under their boats I found the sea floor littered with finned manta rays, shark heads and multiple bodies of totuaba, which are quite possibly the most endangered fish on earth.  The sounds of laughter emanated through the hulls of the fishing boats as the blood-soaked profits filled their decks.  They appear as if they are just ‘commercial fishermen’ that have strayed a little. Many times in my life I have seen ‘legal’ commercial fishermen doing the same thing if they think they won’t get caught.  

As I swim over the bodies of manta rays, totuaba and shark heads (with the poachers right over my head) inside of a Marine Protected Area, I ask myself why no one cares enough to protect them?  “What is happening?” I struggled to myself as I laid on the muddy seafloor holding a silky shark’s head in my hands.

Amazingly, recently a Mexican “scientist” that works with a so-called shark saving organization called my efforts in his country “shameful” for trapping his countrymen in illegal acts.  That same “scientist” uses donations from good people to pay poachers bribes not to kill sharks in his area of operation instead of getting law enforcement involved.  That is akin to paying drug dealers not to sell drugs in your neighborhood so you don’t hurt the drug dealer’s feelings.  When someone as low as that “scientist” calls you ‘shameful’, it is a badge of honor and evidence you are doing the right thing.

The Lonely Mountain

During one recent mission, I was alone on a beautiful yet deadly-harsh desert island, under permit from the local authorities.  No one else was allowed on the island but me. My mission was to set up an observation point and use long lenses to film illegal fishing including at night with night vision.  During my mission, in the middle of the night, I noticed in the distance a moving tiny red LED light on a ridge line upon what I call the ‘Lonely Mountain’. I trained my long lens and night vision scope and I saw a man with a FAL 7.62 (an assault rifle) walking with a red LED light on the ridge. After a few steps he stopped and lifted a night vision monocular to his eye and surveyed in my direction.  This person knew enough to use a red light to conserve his rhodopsin within his eyes keeping his night sight intact for walking across rocky terrain, and not try to walk when using his monocular scope… to avoid tripping. With this I decided he was a trained adversary.  Instantly I knew why he was there. He was not there to be my friend.  

As he slowly worked his way towards my position, I began to evaluate the threat and look for the best course of action.  I decided I would make a false target for him to focus on. I was fully capable of defending myself, if need be.

Predicting where he would emerge from at the base of the ‘Lonely Mountain’, as quietly as I could, I made deep sets of footprints in the salty-crunchy sand leading to my tiny camp, then recovered my observation point and watched him.  He emerged where I guessed and worked his way along my old footprints I left for him.

I soon realized that if I were forced to defend myself and injure or kill my potential attacker, my loved ones would never be safe. I would become a greater-value target than I was by just hiding in the rocks. I decided to do my best to evade him all night, unless forced face-to-face to do otherwise.

The funny thing was that my fiancé had a nightmare at that same time and logged onto my tracking system only to see me traveling all around the Lonely Mountain most of the night. Little did my beloved know I was evading a murder all night.

As the sun rose I lost sight of my ‘would-be-murderer’ around a cove and shortly afterwards saw a small boat leave the island. Taking no chances, I hid in a rock cropping and made myself some coffee and I spent the morning observing every angle of approach to my position, then packed up and dressed my gear (like a bush) and hid until my police boat arrived to pick me up in the afternoon.

Alone in the bushes waiting for my boat I had hours to reflect on what I had seen around the world. It was all the same. This level of crime in fisheries was everywhere.

Shark poaching is a major problem worldwide.

The Reality of Seafood

Organized crime reaches between 35% and 50% of all seafood around the world. Fish can be worth thousands of dollars and a person ‘in the way’ can be worth as little as $100 to eliminate.

In San Felipe, Mexico they are fishing the extremely endangered totuaba in full view of law enforcement for nothing more than the fish’s swim bladder. Why?  The poachers are employed by drug cartels that protect them and the swim bladders are sold to Chinese mafia and shipped to China.  Even though the Chinese only discovered the totuaba in the early 1900s, they sell the swim bladders to Chinese people as an ‘ancient medicine’.  So how does a fish end up on the radar of drug cartels and mafia?  Each swim bladder may sell for as high as $16,000.  Basically, the same price in weight as some illegal drugs like cocaine.  Poachers that kill the totuaba also kill vaquita (the most rare marine mammal on earth) as a bycatch.

A short time ago, I posed as a brightly-dressed American tourist at Ensenada’s fish market where I discovered a baby great white shark (a protected species) for sale. It was beheaded and the fins were cut off but you could easily tell what it was.  For most over an hour I hovered nearby until I watched it get sold to an American buyer of a California restaurant chain as ‘swordfish’.  He avoided eye contact with me and I think he did not like the fact another American was around. Perhaps he saw me as threat but he concluded his purchase of the ‘swordfish’ and continued his foray.

American officials and the media portray our fish as legal and safe.  With my own eyes I have seen that is not true, yet Americans eat fish without true knowledge of what it is, or where it came from and blissfully suck down the sushi without a clue – or maybe they don’t want to know?  I honesty don’t know.

For a long time, local law enforcement from different countries would secretly accept my findings (evidence) from rECOn Missions into their bag of weapons to be used as legal evidence against their countrymen as their laws permit.  My actions had value and poachers paid the legal price for breaking the law and imprisoned.

And just last month, all that changed.

Very recently I faced a terrible reality.  A friend in a foreign country that I have worked with for years to bring poachers to justice told me he cannot help me anymore.  He explained that recently a stranger walked into his office unannounced…right past his security.  The stranger placed a picture of my friend’s wife on his desk and smiled then said “She very is beautiful.  After I kill your kids I might “(Derogatory term of having forced sex) her” before we send her off (sex trade)… then we will cut off your head.  But, if you are real good and don’t interfere with our operation (illegal fishing) everything will be OK. You and your beautiful family go on like nothing ever happened. And… if you are really good, I just might give you some nice gifts as well.  Think about it.  You don’t have to contact me.  We will be watching you.”  

Surprised and horrified he watched the stranger just smile at him, pick up the picture of his wife, place it into his back pocket and leave.  This powerful, honest man… A good friend of mine, looked at me helpless and asked me… “What would you do?”

Then my friend warned me that if they’ ever think I become a problem, they will kill my loved ones.  Then he went further and said that if I go public with what I just filmed, “They will kill you all.”  I learned how real this was when a man near this village was shot and beheaded recently to prove a point to the police.  Local rumor was that they made the “hit” for about $100.

To drive the point home, my friend explained it was probably ‘they’  that sent the man to the island to (very likely) murder me.  After 20 years of hunting bad guys and trying to bring local officials facts for prosecution with limited success, I nw am forced to stop my missions to stop these criminal poachers.

This is excruciating to me. Our oceans are dying at the hand of man.  For years I felt that some of my work was doing some good.   Against my warrior spirit… for the sake of those I love I have decided not to go public with any specific facts, locations or even species ruled by these criminals.

I will say that if my loved ones or I do get killed, a detailed video is ready to be given to American officials and the media by an un-named ‘friend’.  But really… in my heart I know few will care. Most would just watch the video and go order their fish despite what they saw… choosing to be ignorant of their responsibility.

Funny, for 20 years I knew I was seeing signs of something bad and hidden in the world’s commercial fisheries and now I understand what I was seeing. In nearly all of the dozens of countries I have worked in, Mafia is king.  Local law is either impotent or key members of the law enforcement community are ‘recruited’ in similar fashion as my friend was.  These people have two choices.  Stay out of the fish-profits or face death with those they love.  This sounds like a bad movie…

What fish are you really eating in the US?  The reality is that you may be eating endangered fish tainted with organized crime. Corruption, greed and bullies are an ever-present fact in this worldwide industry and it is only going to get worse.

I want to remind you. This is not illegal drugs.  This is about FISH.

Don’t believe me?  Do a search on the www and see for yourself.

Some of the species of fish are so extremely endangered that they attract the attention of ‘traditional’ Chinese consumers.  The more rare and protected, the more these Chinese want it for either status or phony ‘traditions’.  This insatiable and extremely unethical, and selfish demand of these Chinese will destroy the entire species without regard while demonstrating a complete lack of concern of how it affects the rest of the world, yet they get offended if you ask them about it!  Although these Chinese may be the worst offenders, they certainly are not the only ones. Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Philippines, Russia are just a very short list.  The fact is the US has it’s share of these creepy offenders.

To put it another way; About 900 million people make a living gouging into our Mother Ocean’s womb for profit in a destructive and cavalier way. Crab, tuna, marlin, swordfish, whale, dolphin, krill, shrimp, cod, haddock, albacore, halibut, flounder, sardine, and countless other species wild caught… they make money from death.  Included in that number are those drilling for oil and natural gas, building artificial islands and other destructive structures. Some scientists are paid a salary by the fisheries to do bad science to support so-called ‘sustainable fishing’ to blur the facts so that even the media does not know the truth.  Some scientists are paid by developers to produce impact studies in their favor.  Have you heard the media scoff  “Even the scientists can’t agree!”-?  Well, this is why.  Bad-Science for hire.

Entire cultures, economies and even religions are built on fishing. It is supported by communities, and entire countries.  It is made ‘legal’ and even defended with military might. Yet when a volunteer tries to save animals and / or environments they are often shunned, ridiculed, attacked and sometimes… even killed.

So here is a fun question:

How many individuals can you name that are paid a salary to save our oceans?

Selfless volunteers. Yes.   But, paid professionals.  I cannot name a single person.

Those trying to save our seas (and by doing so… save the human species) are out voted, out gunned, out maneuvered (legally) and VERY out-funded.

Why? There is no profit saving our oceans.  Unless of course, you add the future collapse of humanity.  But that powerful variable is conveniently left out of the equation by bad-science and shoddy media reporting.

I pray I am wrong, in fact I really want to be wrong.  The blissful ignorance I once enjoyed is terribly missed.  But, to be wrong is to forget all the sights burned into my mind and to hope hundreds of brilliant, honest, committed scientists are also wrong. But, I would trust science long before I would trust the media, bad-science or politicians to tell the truth.  There is very little short-term profit in truth.

Drugs vs. Fish

We have entered the time when fish are becoming so rare that to some, they are worth much more that a human life. In fact, organized crime is involved now because some species of fish are as valuable as illegal drugs like cocaine… and treated in exactly the same way.   People are paid off, or murdered and smuggling is a daily way of life.  Most of this demand is China and they pay top dollar.

When I was a kid I often saw a TV commercial where the cartoon mascot named ‘Charlie Tuna’ would constantly try to be caught… but he never could because he wasn’t of high enough quality.   There were so many tuna the world could not run out. In fact they were so incredibly plentiful they were called Chicken of the Sea.

In 2013 tuna was placed on the endangered species list.  Funny… after the American buffalo… I kinda thought we would learn the lesson.  Clearly greed and ignorance prevented the lesson from being learned.

Japan eats about 70-80% of the world’s tuna and a large Bluefin Tuna can sell in Japan for half a million dollars or more.  They are worth as much or more than illegal drugs.  If this kind of money is available, what makes you think organized crime is not involved? As fish are pushed further into scarcity the price will only go up and if there is money to be made at this level… do you really think laws will protect them?

The shrimp Americans adore so is by far (Unless it is farm-raised) one of the worse environmentally disastrous species you can eat… PERIOD. In Mexico, demand is so high that the entire northern Sea of Cortez is dying and the most rare (and beautiful) harbor porpoise, the Vaquita is nearly extinct.  There are estimated to be less than 200 left in the wild which suggests only 14 breeding pairs are left on earth yet shrimp fishing killed several Vaquita just last month and that number increases monthly… so Californians, American Tourists visiting Baja and Mainland Mexico and Mexicans can have their adored shrimp.  I even did some covert work about filming this process for a major presentation airing this year hoping it would make a difference but it may already too late for the species.  Why has this been allowed to happen? Why haven’t we tried to protect the Vaquita?  There is no money in it for the Mexican government.  In San Felipe last year I even had Mexican fishermen tell me they need to hurry and kill all the Vaquita to prevent any economic impact to the shrimp fishery.  This does not even take into consideration the tremendously destructive effect the huge shrimp-nets do to the sea floor while being dragged over reefs, sand and grass regions killing every species it contacts.  On the shoreline the day after the shrimpers drag by the beach is littered while the corpses of fish, crabs, sea birds, dolphin, sea turtles and yes… Vaquita.

Honestly… now that your know the reality… do you really need to eat wild-caught shrimp?

The U.S. Coast Guard seized 153 sharks from Mexican poachers on August 3, 2014. Photo: Courtesy, U.S. Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard seized 153 sharks from Mexican poachers on August 3, 2014. Photo: Courtesy, U.S. Coast Guard

The Unseen Side of High Ratings

Our world has changed since I was a kid. When I was born there were 3.1 Billion people and the oceans were at risk of being depleted.  Now, with 7.2 Billion people the oceans are depleted and dying.  Not possibly dying in the future… they are dying now.   But bad science has just announced to the shoddy media that American fisheries are improving and the public believes it and there are many more Great White sharks than before… never mentioning that new technology has allowed science to simply track them better making them appear more numerous.

With SHARK WEEK (in my humble opinion…and I am far from being alone) prostituting the disastrous misrepresentation of sharks being dangerous blood thirsty machines rather than the beautiful, incredibly important individuals … sharks are largely unprotected around the world.  Only 3-5% of the shark species fished for Shark Fin Soup are left.  That means 95 to 97% of the world’s sharks have been murdered in just about 30 years.  At this rate several species will be extinct in one to five years.  But hey… Discovery Channel has to keep up their ratings no matter what the cost to sharks… right?  Now with seemingly every channel competing for ratings with ‘Shark Porn” at the expense of sharks I see them going closer and closer to extinction because the public watches this trash… feeding the beast.

One of the last shows I did for a Shark Week contributor had a female director that decided to steal my intellectual property (an experiment I developed) and give it to a scientist without my permission (or even telling me) to get a better ‘show’ from the target species of the documentary.  After I called them on it, they said “I would NEVER work in TV again! They would ruin me!”  Well, she is helping run Shark Week now.  That is the calibre of people producing shark porn ‘fakeumentaries’ for the public to consume. BTW: I have done about 35 more documentaries since her threats I would never work in TV again.

To make bad into worse, many of the public are actually believing there are mermaids and megalodon secretly living off our coasts!  In my humble opinion, the tragic ‘fakeumentaries’ that are being produced border on criminal with easy-to-miss disclaimers… the producers of are laughing at you… all the way to the bank.

I have heard the argument that the ‘new’ SHARK WEEK has the message to save sharks… yet, in my humble opinion, they still portray sharks being dangerous blood thirsty machines.  How can you honestly have a conservation message side by side with the expression of sharks as monsters to be feared?  Answer: YOU CANT HAVE BOTH MESSAGES!  Protect something promoted for you to fear?  What does Discovery Channel think you are?  Well… maybe I should not answer that.

Question What You Eat

When is the last time you went to Safeway and bought monkey meat? Squirrel meat? White Tail Deer meat? Black Bear meat?  If we sent hunters into America’s wilds to shoot, snare, net or dynamite our wildlife for our country’s food supply how long do you think it would last?  Human civilizations have quickly realized the need for raising our own food stocks if we were to survive.

Then why the hell do we still kill wild fish and shrimp when we know better?  The shoddy media and bad science had led the populations to believe fish farms are “bad”  Well, they certainly need A LOT of improvement but they need to happen is we as a species are to survive. Either we as a population will eat farm-raised fish OR… we will eat farm-raised fish.  There is no choice. None. It is so simple – if a species goes extinct we can’t get more. We are causing a mass extinction of multiple species in the seas.  Here is the bottom-line.  Those that develop a low-footprint fish farming method and get it built soon will be rich as the wild stocks plummet into un-fishable lows.

Wanna get rich and retire?  Grow fish!

Please, I implore you, to question everything involving our oceans, the media and the fish we eat. Remember…somewhere in San Diego folks feasted on a baby Great White shark probably thinking it was swordfish or marlin.  You don’t need to believe or like me… just do your own research and find your own way.  Then… please have the courage to look in the mirror and do what is right, even if it is difficult.

The future of our oceans is in our hands as consumers.  If we don’t learn fast and become responsible, our oceans don’t stand a chance. If the oceans fail, so do we all.

The sea is our mother.  She gives us most of our oxygen, drives weather that supports global agriculture and feeds billions.  I don’t know about you,  but Im not going to sit by and watch my Mother be murdered without one hell of a fight.

What kind of son or daughter are you?

Story by Scott Cassell, independent contributor

Links & Resources:

Scott Cassell (Wikipedia)
Vaquita – Saving the Desert Porpoise (Video)
On the Brink of Extinction: Saving the Totoaba in the Sea of Cortez
Newsweek: The Vaquita might not be able to withstand the rising Chinese market for Totoaba bladders
Mexican Poachers Ignore Fishing Ban as the World’s Most Endangered Porpoise Nears Extinction
U.S. Coast Guard cracks down on shark poaching in Gulf of Mexico near South Padre Island