Last night, I ended up across the table from the person whom I thought was my enemy. After a long day spent at governmental offices getting handed off and shuffled around – all in the innocent hopes of receiving approval to serve as a volunteer teacher to teach Fijian kids about the importance of sharks in their waters – an urgent call came in. “Hurry up and get here. A commercial longlining captain will talk to you.”
Wait a minute… The owner of a tuna longlining boat wants to talk to me? Ok, must be some sort of miscommunication – certainly he doesn’t know what organizations I am with and my stance on tuna long liners and sharks – who have quickly become the target of their catch. In fact 7% of the tuna fishing catch in Fiji is shark – but it makes up 30% of their income/profit. And with up to 50% of sharks caught as “bycatch” by tuna longliners, I certainly have a strong opinion on these ships and their owners. I am still haunted by the memories of the horrifying images of 7,000 sharks landed in a single day in Kessenuma (LINK: ) by supposed tuna long liners (only a handful of tuna were actually landed that day.)
But what an opportunity. It is so rare to be able to talk candidly with the opposition without of course some sort of cover story and mistruths as to my identity. So I rushed over.
I met Nathan, a small operator of a commercial long lining vessel and his wife and kids, and we sat down to one of the most insightful and surprising conversations I’ve had in a long time.
Nathan is one of the only operators in Fiji who doesn’t target sharks. In fact, they have never used wire traces – long before it was illegal in Fiji to do so. And while he doesn’t target sharks – when caught – his crew does fin them. It represents significant income for them (typically, 25% of shark fin profit goes to the company, 25% to the captain and 50% split amongst the crew.) Shark fin is a huge supplement to low wages and he has heard of ships coming in after a few weeks with as much as $30,000 USD of fins. Considering this is the first point in a process that results in huge mark ups for middlemen and a resulting small bowl of soup costing $100 USD in Hong Kong, you can only imagine how many fins this is.
Nathan believes shark finning is actually more cost to the boat operator – as the fuel and time required to wrangle a shark on board and kill it is far more than actually cutting it off the line – but it has become a standard practice in Fiji – and everywhere else around the world. And make no mistake – over 95% of the sharks he catches are still alive. They are killed prior to being finned – but that doesn’t make it any less wasteful – as the body is indeed still thrown back. He’d like to prohibit all finning (which is significantly less on his boat since the use of monofilament line instead of wire traces results in far less shark bycatch) – but he’d have a nearly impossible time finding any crew.
He’s witnessed a huge decline in shark populations over the last 15 years – but not necessarily a decline in size class. He is catching less and less of the pelagic species (mostly blues with a few makos, silvertips, threshers and oceanics mixed in.) And he’s concerned about the same things we are – having these issues impact him personally and professionally as well. Illegal, Unreported and Unregistered (IUU) fishing boats taking all the tuna in the waters before they reach Fiji… The government giving away licenses to huge international fishing boats from Asia without any attention to sustainable quotas… Huge factory ships from China that target sharks and can set over 3000 hooks in one day (not to mention the purse seiners with helicopters)… Other captains not holding themselves as accountable as he does – illegally targeting sharks with wire traces even though prohibited (the saying is “only on the wharf where it can be seen is it illegal”). He sees his future the same way we see ours. He knows firsthand what is happening in our shared oceans.
Nathan worries the Fijian shark sanctuary proposed won’t be effective – the sharks will simply be taken elsewhere and legitimate operators will be the ones punished. He feels the use of wire traces should be prohibited (and enforced) around the world and it will decrease shark mortality by at least 80%. And he believes the fact none of his peers and the commercial fishing industry were properly consulted will result in its lack of the Shark Sanctuary approval in Fiji - in order to be successful, the legislation needs to consider all constituencies. Pretty sound reasoning (regardless of whether I agree or not) for someone I had assumed was going to be without a clue.
Nathan also has three children – one of whom is Haley. She was horrified when she learned her dad was one of the enemies of our cause. Like many of us, she swims with sharks, knows their importance in the ecosystem, and has come to cherish them. But Nathan openly admits, like me, he hopes for a world in which future generations will experience the oceans the way he did – especially his children. It is for this reason he has always held himself personally accountable – never targeting sharks, attempting to release bycatch, resisting the desire to “punish” the dolphins and pilot whales that steal his catch, and properly reporting all catch statistics. But he says with a sad look in his eye, “This is all I know… My dad was a fisherman. My grandfather was a fisherman. And my son will hopefully be one too.” He pauses and reflects for a moment. “I do believe fishing can be done sustainably. We need support of our government, peers, and NGOs working collaboratively to achieve this…. Until then, I am still going to do what is right, regardless of what everyone else does.”
We started the tense evening across the table as if it was a negotiation – both parties ready to fight. We ended the evening realizing we weren’t far away from what we each want to achieve, understanding we were potentially allies, and even planning to take the kids snorkeling with sharks the next week. The air was cleared as we admitted the preconceived notion each of us had. With a far more relaxed smile he said “I figured we’d be at war – and as pirates, you’d not only be unreasonable and judge me, but wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. I now know we aren’t as far apart as I thought. And in fact, Sea Shepherds, by enforcing laws that prohibit illegal fishing practices, are on my side.”
The evening was a thought provoking one for me for sure. I think conservationists often take a black and white stand on what we do. And the fact of the matter is, to really make a difference to sharks – it is really going to be shades of gray. And I was reminded the “four C’s” - collaboration, communication, consensus and compromise – with all the stakeholders (something I learned years ago in my consulting days) is incredibly important in my life as a conservationist as well. This isn’t a simple problem with a single silver bullet solution. Would I love to end all shark fishing tomorrow? Of course. But is it reasonable? Definitely not. And maybe instead of being so strongly opinionated, I could take a bit more time to learn and listen. Even from those I think I don’t ever want to hear.