All-One on the High Seas

Mike Bronner Speaks with Alex Cornelissen and Anne Kämmerling of Sea Shepherd Germany

Established in 1977, Sea Shepherd is an international non-profit, marine wildlife conservation organization. Their mission is to end habitat destruction and the slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans, in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and marine species.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Captain Alex Cornelissen, the CEO of Sea Shepherd Global. Our managing director in Europe, Axel Rungweber had been forging a relationship with the organization in Germany, and we had long been interested in exploring a partnership with them in the US.  Upon meeting Alex and learning more about Sea Shepherd’s mission and impact, I was immediately inspired and humbled by the deep commitment of the people, largely volunteers, who make up Sea Shepherd. Each member does their part together to confront injustice and make positive change in the world.

After that meeting, Dr. Bronner’s started supplying Sea Shepherd missions and campaigns around the world with soap and coconut oil for their crew to use while at sea. We were elated when we had the chance to donate money to purchase communications equipment for one of their ships. Then, last December, Axel came to my brother David and me with a proposal from Sea Shepherd Germany. They wanted to purchase and renovate a small vessel for $50,000 that would allow them to launch a campaign this summer in the Baltic Sea to protect harbour porpoises. We agreed without hesitation. We donated the money, the ship was bought, and renovations began on what would become the MV Emanuel Bronner, named after my grandfather (founder of our company).

On June 1st I brought my family to Bremen, Germany where the ship – Sea Shepherd Germany’s first ship – was docked, ready to be unveiled to press and supporters. The more I’ve gotten to know the amazing individuals involved in this organization, the more I’ve understood that the soul and mission of Dr. Bronner’s and Sea Shepherd is All-One! Motivated by a mutual concern and compassion for the environment and wildlife, both organizations hold a deep belief in the power and responsibility of individuals to take direct action to right the wrongs of the world.

I interviewed Alex Cornelissen of Sea Shepherd Global and Anne Kämmerling of Sea Shepherd Germany. Both of them play key roles guiding a global network of activists who are committed to protecting our oceans and making a better world. Here’s what I learned.

Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd

How did each of you come to work with Sea Shepherd?

Alex: I first heard of Sea Shepherd when a friend of mine joined the crew of the Ocean Warrior (Sea Shepherd’s flagship in 2000) to make a documentary for Dutch TV. I was immediately impressed by the work Sea Shepherd did and was blown away by the inspiring speech given by founder Captain Paul Watson. Two years later I quit my job, sold my apartment in Amsterdam and joined for what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical. That year changed my life completely. Sailing on board a Sea Shepherd ship with so many like-minded people is ever-inspiring. I also witnessed first hand the destruction that our species is causing to oceanic wildlife. The more I knew, the more I felt compelled to keep fighting the fight.

Anne: My first encounter with Sea Shepherd was in 2011 when I visited a music festival and literally ran into a guy wearing a Sea Shepherd t-shirt. After that I was curious and started researching, learned about all the work the organization does worldwide and immediately loved Sea Shepherd’s approach of direct action and how it is different from other NGOs. I started out as an onshore volunteer where I met a lot of Sea Shepherd people who each in their own way inspired me. Together we really make a difference and this is one of the main reasons why I love working with Sea Shepherd so much.

What are your respective roles and what do they entail?

Alex: I am the Chief Executive Officer of Sea Shepherd Global. That basically means I supervise all our staff and give direction to all the separate Sea Shepherd entities around the world. But I am also still one of the captains—so whenever I can, I love to join the crew of one of our ships and get my hands dirty. In the end it all comes down to direct action, physically saving wildlife is one of the most rewarding things I have done for Sea Shepherd. But as CEO, I do have to spend most of my time dealing with contracts, giving presentations, approving budgets and trying to raise funds. Having to deal with Sea Shepherd organizations around the globe, the work never stops: it is truly 24-7. Luckily my job allows me to meet the most amazing people and gives me the chance to pass on to others the passion I feel for the oceans.

Anne: I am the Director of Sea Shepherd Germany.   My job is varied and the work is different every day, ranging from fundraising events to internal structures, from media and supporter relations to the planning of our upcoming campaign or big events, interactions with our merchandise/IT/event departments and the board of Sea Shepherd Germany. I couldn’t ask for a more rewarding job: I love working for such a passionate organization and, of course, for the oceans!

Alex, what is the difference between Sea Shepherd Global and Sea Shepherd Germany? Can you explain to us how the Sea Shepherd network is organized around the world?

Alex: Sea Shepherd Global is the coordinating entity that gives direction to our global movement. It’s a registered NGO in the Netherlands. Sea Shepherd Germany is one of the largest Sea Shepherd groups in the world in terms of support and engagement, but is a completely independent group. All our national groups are independent. That means they comply with non-profit regulations in their respective countries and have their own Board of Directors. We currently have about 15 fully registered national groups around the world and are growing.

What are some of Sea Shepherd’s biggest accomplishments in its 40 years of existence?

Alex: There are too many to list really but if I have to name a few, I would probably say the work we have been doing in the Galapagos Islands. This has greatly improved the protection of species in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Also the anti-whaling campaigns in Antarctica: over the course of several years we have managed to save about 6,000 whales from the deadly harpoons of the Japanese whale poachers. And lately we have been extremely successful in combating poaching in West Africa. This is a new direction for us, working with governments of impoverished African countries to empower them to stop illegal fishing in their waters. And of course I have to mention our Icefish campaigns: in two years time we completely eliminated a fleet of six fishing vessels that had been eluding international prosecution for decades.

Anne: Apart from all the successful campaigns in the past to protect the oceans and their inhabitants, Sea Shepherd has always managed to stick to our principles. Even though we’ve grown, there have never been any compromises and the way forward is as straight as it was 40 years ago.

Photo courtesy of Sea Shepherd

Alex, why is Sea Shepherd effective? What sets you apart from other ocean conservation organizations?

Alex: Because Sea Shepherd uses innovative direct action tactics. We go where no other organization has gone and confront illegal activity on the high seas where it is needed most. We physically block and intervene with poachers, not shying away to put our crew and vessels in harm’s way. Because we use mostly volunteers, we get the most passionate people who understand that if you want to save life on the planet, you have to be willing to take risks sometimes. Having said that, in the 40 years we have been around, we have never had a serious injury or worse. Not on our side and not on our opponents’ side. We value safety very much and will keep our track record clean. I guess you could list our actions as aggressive, non-violent intervention. Meaning we would never hurt a living being but are willing to damage a vessel if that means we stop them from killing animals or destroying eco-systems. You could compare it to taking away a gun from someone who is about to shoot a living being.

Anne, tell us about Sea Shepherd Germany’s plans for the Baltic Sea Campaign this summer. What is the objective of the campaign? Why is it needed?

Anne: Our main goal is to finally establish real sanctuaries for endangered harbour porpoises, who are very small and shy members of the dolphin family.  Their numbers are going down dramatically because they are frequently caught in fishing nets and die as bycatch. Germany needs to follow EU regulations and turn the porpoise’s habitats into sanctuaries where fishing is completely prohibited. Right now, the use of gillnets is still legal and not monitored at all, which has to change.

Anne, the MV Emanuel Bronner is Sea Shepherd Germany’s first ship. Have your other campaigns to date been only land based? What have you accomplished within Germany so far?

Anne: Our first campaign “Operation Sturmmöwe” was launched in 2014, we protected and monitored the nesting grounds of Common Gulls. In the year before all of the colony’s eggs were stolen and an entire generation was wiped out. Thanks to many german volunteers, hundreds of chicks were born again in 2014. We also launched a Marine Debris campaign last year, which connects with partners who do beach cleanups to analyze the collected debris and discover where the plastic problem is coming from.  With our new ship we’ll finally be able to take our efforts out to sea.

Alex, what is unique about Sea Shepherd’s relationship with Dr. Bronner’s? Why is Dr. Bronner’s support significant?

Alex: Dr. Bronner’s and Sea Shepherd are both made up of similar-minded people. We share the same love for the planet and all understand that everything we do on this planet is connected and has consequences. When I first met with Mike, Ryan [Dr. Bronner’s PR Director] and Axel [Managing Director of Dr. Bronner’s Germany] I immediately felt a connection and am proud to be able to work with a company that not only sets an example for other companies around the world in terms of ethics and social responsibility, they also make amazing soaps and other products.What is the best way for people to support the work Sea Shepherd does?

Alex: All our campaigns are run on the tightest possible budgets but nevertheless, ships are expensive. We have nine ships now sailing on the world’s oceans and they are in constant need of supplies, fuel and repairs. So, what we really need is for people to support us financially so we can keep doing what we are best at: protecting the oceans worldwide.

Anne: People can also help by sharing our news on social media, by organizing beach cleanups or visiting our info booths we run at events worldwide. Everyone can help and be part of this movement.

Where do you see Sea Shepherd in 10 years?

Alex: The past ten years have seen ever-increasing growth in our organization. More people are starting to realize that the oceans are dying, so we need to continue to grow this work in order to turn the tide. Ten years from now, I see Sea Shepherd operating an even bigger fleet of vessels and working in even more countries with their governments. What I know will be the same is the passion of our people and that we will never make compromises. I also hope that we will continue to work with Dr. Bronner’s ten years from now.

Anne: Ideally, our oceans would be healthy again and our work wouldn’t be needed anymore in 10 years. But to be realistic, I’d like to see Sea Shepherd grow as an organization more and more people increasingly know of and support, with enough funds to do even more successful campaigns with the same spirit it has today.

Want to learn more about efforts to Protect Our Oceans? Check out Want to support the partnership between Dr. Bronner’s and Sea Shepherd? 

Author Profile

Michael Bronner

Michael Bronner is President of Dr. Bronner’s, the grandson of company founder, Emanuel Bronner, and a fifth-generation soap maker. A philanthropist and activist, Michael is an advocate for many social and environmental justice causes advanced by the company, including Fair Trade, organic standards, farm animal protection and ocean conservation.

See all stories by Michael Bronner