by Adam Conniss
The day is almost over and I do not know if I should be enjoying myself as much as I am. I am on the foredeck of my ship the “Farley Mowat” and working around me are my friends and fellow crew. We have reached a natural break in our rhythmic task. People swap roles and fresh hands take over from weary ones. We are all sweating and a beaker of water is passed around, knives are sharpened. I feel high and elated, it is exactly a year ago today that I joined these ships and I am proud of myself and my crew. This is the work we all signed up to do; dirty, grim hard work but don't I feel happy, don't I feel alive.
The day started so well.
I had taken over watch on the bridge from the Captain who needed to complete the myriad paperwork that feed bureaucracy the world over; permits to film, permits to refuel, permits to anchor, permits to permit. As the Captain leaves the bridge, I exchange smiles with my new watchmate as she quickly retrieves a small battery powered speaker, places it on the chart table and music is soon gently playing. The low morning sun is beaming through the bridge windows and although I had other jobs to do on deck, none was as pleasant as this watch.
I checked our position and speed on the bridge displays then glanced at the radar. We were tracking several boats and ships but only one of them was a worry. It was a stationary trawler just within visual range and almost dead ahead. Trawlers drag large nets through the water that catch a variety of sea life, then they stop and draw them onto their decks to be sorted. Usually this is the only reason for a trawler to be dead in the water. I changed our course to port to leave an appropriate safe distance between us and the trawler. Soon, through binoculars, we could clearly see the birds surrounding the trawlnets, grabbing what fish they could before they were dumped onto the fishing boat's deck.
Trawling is not banned here although we are very close to the marine refuge that will be our main patrol area. It is seen as a safer alternative to gillnets as they are supposed to have channels through which species that the fisherman are not interested in (bycatch) can escape. The reality is that bycatch is still a huge issue in trawlnets and overfishing is rife.
We clear the trawler and I ask my watchmate to alter course back to our original heading. I watch the boat fall astern and train my binoculars forward. Two buoys close together soon bob into my view and I adjusted the focus to make them clearer. One square and blue, the other white and round. They were close, maybe only two miles distant and would pass by on our starboard side. I quickly rechecked our position and cursed myself for failing to spot them sooner.
Buoys are the blameless markers of the marine world and can mean many things; wrecks, anchoring spots, lobster pots or gillnets to name a few. Some even tire of their enslavement and break free to roam the seas, marking nothing but their own freedom until they wash up on a beach or are found by a passing vessel and picked up. You never know, until you investigate, what they're signaling. They may be important and gainfully employed but equally they might be just passing through.
I suspected however, that these two were up to something. They were close together, only a few feet apart, and looked new. If they were marking pots they would be smaller and would have identical buoys stretching away in a line marking the course of the boat that dropped them earlier, but these were alone and large. If they were a pair of tramp buoys they were very new at the game because neither sported the shaggy beard of barnacles and vegetation that are obligatory amongst all hobos. But, if it was a net they were marking, the other end of the net would be similarly marked.
I cast my eyes wider and there they were. Two twin buoys about one mile from the first set. I radioed the Captain and throttled back the main engines to slow the boat. The Captain checked our position and confirmed what we both already knew, that we were well within an area where trawling may be allowed but where gillnets were very specifically banned. This was put in place by the Mexican Government to give the Vaquita porpoise and the Tortoaba fish, both critically endangered species and victims of the illegal trade in endangered species for Chinese medicine, a chance to recover and pull back from the brink of extinction. This looked like a gillnet and smelt like a gillnet but we had to be sure, we still didn't know what was down there, the small boat was launched to investigate.
Launching any boat at sea is a tricky and problematic but the boat crew launched in perfect fashion without a hitch and were speeding toward the buoys within minutes. Then it was confirmed. Over the radio came the news from the small boat that the buoys were marking a gillnet. It was time to go to work. Initially the net had been clear of animals as our two divers had confirmed when they returned from the safe depth limit of their equipment. One hundred and thirty foot down and no entanglements but as we pulled in the net, so the reality of our mission was delivered starkly to our decks. Sharks became visible many feet before they broke the surface. Their gills cruelly enmeshed with the net, they are hurriedly cut free only to strike the surface dead. Of all the crew, the divers take it worse of all. These two who have dedicated their lives to spending as much time as they can beneath the waves, seem to feel each death more acutely. One positions himself at the rail, keen edged knife ready to cut away the bodies, the other, my watchmate from the bridge, smile now gone, documents every death with a borrowed notebook and camera. There are cheers as live animals begin to swim as they hit the water. Others are struggling as we cut them free and are sent on their merry way but the majority are gone forever. Some are so fresh their eyes still hold the look of life but they just couldn't hold on long enough for rescue.
Sea lions have arrived and provide comic relief and there is a gallows humour, after all this is what we signed up to do but everyone responds to grief differently. So happy!
So there I am, surrounded by destroyed gillnet spread out on the deck. It turns out to be a long one, maybe two and a half miles of perfected silent killer mesh. The break in the work is over as the latest victim is cut away. It looks to be a sizable shark and the largest one yet. I do not take a closer look and only see it's impressive tail over the rail of the ship. The camera clicks, the body drops and another name is added to the butchers list. I remember a surprisingly small splash and I imagined its sleek nose breaking the water. There is no cheer this time from the down turned faces at the rail but they still watch hypnotized. In my mind's eye the body spins gently as it sinks exposing it's lighter belly to the sunlight for the last time. So happy.
I break the silence with the single word question I ask after every stop, “Ready?” On receiving no objections, I start the winch once more. So happy.
But should I be happy that we found so many dead and dying animals in a cruel trap? I would certainly be happier if the net was empty. Happier still if they weren't there at all, then I could go home. I would not be happy if we hadn't found the net and all the sharks were dead. I will be happy again when we find the next net and the one after that and the one after that until all these nets are pulled from the sea. Then I will be ecstatic.
For now I am happy and immensely proud. Happy and proud of everyone of my crew-mates and everyone in Sea Shepherd. Proud of everyone who works to defend those who are defenseless, everyone onshore who gives time and energy to the cause. Everyone back home who provide sanity and insanity in equal measure. Everyone who donates, anyone who has so much as bought a pin badge in support of any of our campaigns. Everyone who has worked to bring this ship, to this point at this time. I am proud of you all and I can truly say that on that day, at slightly past three in the afternoon you all made me truly happy and I thank you.