Scott Cassell, Special Operations Dive Supervisor (USN) relates his exploits going on rECON dives to capture video evidence of commercial poachers （Text & Images: Scott Cassell)
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 snorkelling 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 magical.
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’s not only because up to 71 percent of the oxygen I’m breathing comes from her and the food I eat is a product of the favourable weather the seas maintain on earth, but because I love her as a mother. She was there giving me what I needed as a child when my parents did not.
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 for others. I hate bullies.
Most commercial fishermen and all poachers are bullies. They kill or capture the innocent for personal gain with little regard for others or their effect on the environment. Most commercial fishermen I’ve met will often resort to loud profanity, threats or even violent behaviour if you challenge their “job” – solid signs of bullies. And poachers are much worse.
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 and 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 bullies’ den. I prefer to perform rECOn missions completely alone to reduce the small footprint, thus making my efforts stealthier. These are called Solo Black Missions. The more secret I am, the better the evidence gathering and success of each mission.
In blacked-out gear – even wearing short underwater ghillie suits – with my O2 CCR leaving no bubbles, I operate directly under the killers’ boats, as they conduct their cowardly lawless acts upon Nature. Quietly, I hover below them and film the results.
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 about preserving life, not getting attention. Working in the absence of the media has been a blessing. To this day, I don’t like public attention. Privacy is rich and I cherish it.
But now, some of my stories should be heard.
THE REALITY OF SEAFOOD
Organised crime reaches between 35 and 50 percent of all seafood around the world. Fish can be worth thousands of dollars and a person can be worth as little as $100 to eliminate. Totoaba swim bladders from Mexico, people have been murdered for; shark fins, people have been murdered for; sea lion penises, people have been murdered for. This is what people are responsible for when they eat these species.
A short time ago, I posed as a brightly dressed dumb American tourist at the fish market in Ensenada, Mexico. 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 the most part of 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 a 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 this is not true. Yet, Americans eat fish without true knowledge of what it is or where it comes from and blissfully suck down 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 have been 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 (whose name must remain anonymous) told me he couldn’t 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, smiled and said, “She is very beautiful. After I kill your kids, I might [derogatory term for having forced sex] her before we send her off to the [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 might just 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 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 helplessly and asked me, “What would you do?”
Then my friend warned me that if “they” ever think I would become a problem, they would kill my loved ones. He then 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 rumour was that they made the “hit” for about $100.
To drive the point home, my friend explained it was probably “they” who 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 must stop all actions.
This is excruciating for me. Our oceans are dying at the hands 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.