Pia Klemp is an activist, a biologist, and a boat captain. The 35 year old from Bonn, Germany is getting ready to stand trial in Italy for helping to rescue more than a thousand migrants who were at risk of drowning as they tried to reach Europe. Klemp faces up to 20 years in prison if she is convicted of helping to aid illegal immigration.
Klemp says that the upcoming trial is a “show trial;” she says that the effect has been to “criminalize” sea rescue missions. Meanwhile, her supporters have created a petition with over eighty thousand signatures asking Italy to drop the charges.
Klemp’s ship, the Iuventa, was impounded in the summer of 2017, and Italy has moved to forbid her from sailing around the Italian coast. Here’s what you need to know about Pia Klemp:
1. She Is a Biologist Who Fell in Love with the Ocean After Working as a Dive Instructor
Pia Klemp trained as a biologist. She has said that she fell in love with the ocean after working as a dive instructor around coral reefs. That’s also when she came to realize, she says, that the oceans are at risk because of pollution and over-fishing. Klemp says that she decided to go into ocean conservation after witnessing the destruction of the ocean.
She joined the Sea Shepherd, an international marine wildlife conservation organization, because she wanted to protect the ocean against what she sees as humanity’s greed and destructiveness. Sea Shepherd uses what it calls “innovative direct-action tactics” to combat illegal activities on the high seas. Here’s how Klemp explained her decision to join Sea Shepherd:
“The complexity and beauty of life, plant or animal, deeply fascinates me. I worked as a dive instructor around some of the most amazing reefs, loving the ocean more with every dive. At the same time it became evident to me how pollution is destroying the underwater habitats, how many marine species are endangered, how blinded by greed we are: fishing, trawling, killing until extinction; how much coral is dying and how little is happening to stop this mass destruction. The more I’ve seen and learned the greater my urge to protect the seas has become. After some conservation projects in Germany, Thailand and Indonesia, I joined the Sea Shepherd ships 1.5 years ago.”
2. She Says Rescuing Drowning People Is the Duty of Every Captain
Klemp faces up to 20 years in prison on charges of aiding illegal immigration; the Italian government charges that she was personally involved in the rescue of a thousand would-be migrants who were trying to cross into Italy. Klemp is accused of carrying out the rescues in the Mediterranean while she was sailing on the Sea Watch III and on the Iuventa.
Klemp gave an interview for Sea Watch after carrying out a rescue mission off the Libyan coast. She said that she believed that saving drowning people is a duty: “For every captain this is the duty,” she told Sea Watch. “Apart from that it should be self understandable for overprivileged Europeans like us.”
Authorities impounded Klemp’s ship, the Iuventa, and have moved to bar her from sailing around Italian waters. For her part, Klemp has vowed to fight all the way to the Euopean Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France if she is convicted of helping illegal immigration.
3. She Runs an Organization Called Aquascope Which Aims to Stop Illegal Fishing
Klemp is the executive director of Aquascope, an organization that works to combat illegal fishing. The group argues that illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing is one of the greatest threats to the ocean, because of its impact on fish populations and on marine ecosystems. The group says that illegal fishing also has a devastating impact on human populations, harming coastal communities and their socio-economic development.
Aquascope aims to improve monitoring and surveillance of fishing, using both technology and ship-based surveillance to spot illegal fishing activities. The organization says that it brings together activists, conservation groups, scientists, and governments to work together in the fight against illegal fishing.
Klemp became the executive director of Aquascope in 2015. She has also worked with Sea Shepherd, an international marine conservation society. She is a biologist who says that she fell deeply in love with the ocean while working as a dive instructor.
4. She Started Out as a Deck Hand & Worked Her Way Up to Boat Captain
Klemp got involved in the Sea Shepherd organization after earning a degree in biology. She was concerned about the damage to the ocean caused by pollution and by human activities and, she says, she wanted to take action. She says that when she joined the Sea Shepherd, she was taken on as a deckhand. But she worked her way up steadily until she “did the Master of Yachts,” and at that point, she says, she was allowed to drive private vessels.
It’s unusual for a woman to be a boat captain. According to Sea Shepherd, only one percent of the boats in the world are captained by women. Klemp also has noted that most of the crew members on Sea Shepherd ships are not trained as sailors until they join Sea Shepherd. They are volunteers — doctors and other professionals who are using their vacation time to help the cause. She explained that part of her job involves training her own crew:
“Our crew members have a lot of passion and are professionals in their respective field. Many doctors take their annual leave to work aboard our ship. We make them seaworthy with training, for example for fire protection or knotting. That’s how the team grows together. But it can also be really exhausting if you’ve never been on a ship before.”
5. She Says If She’s Convicted She’ll Fight the Verdict All the Way to the European Court of Human Rights
Klemp and her supporters say that her rescues of drowning migrants were not illegal at all. In fact, they say, the rescues were in keeping with the United Nations’ policy on sea rescues. They were also in line with the basic responsibilities of a boat captain. Klemp says that, if convicted, she has vowed that she will fight the verdict all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
“We have only followed international law, especially the law of the sea, where the highest priority is to save people from distress,” Klemp said in an interview with Swiss newspaper Basler Zeitung.
Klemp studied biology at the University of Bonn. According to her LinkedIn profile, she speaks three languages: German, English, and Bahasa Indonesia. She has worked as a dive instructor at reefs around the world and has been involved in conservation projects in Thailand, Indonesia, and Germany.
She joined Sea Shepherd, an international marine conservation group, because she said she wanted to protect the ocean from pollution and from what she sees as human “greed.” She also works as the executive director of a group called Aquascope which works to combat illegal fishing in waters around the world.
Klemp is now facing trial for her work rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean. Italian authorities are charging that she helped to save about a thousand people who were trying to reach Europe, and she has been charged with assisting illegal immigration.