Well, at least that is what we were told and what we were able to surmise from an extensive amount of research we did prior to our arrival.
The next stop for Operation Requiem was Tonga, where we’d regroup as a team, exchange stories from the Bardot’s time in Vanuatu and our time in Fiji, and celebrate the some of the animals we work so hard to protect: humpback whales.
We headed to Tonga with much enthusiasm, thanks to the official invitations from the government, a welcoming ceremony at the airport and several meetings with key ministries – another South Pacific partnership on the horizon. We also brought with us the “Shepherd of the Sea” award to thank the prime minister and his royal government for their commitment to the whales by providing them with a long-standing sanctuary. The very whales we fight for in the Antarctic.
Of course, as part of our South Pacific shark campaign, we wanted to determine what the state of sharks truly was – and what threats they were facing – as well as how we could help.
With a handful of local long-liners that focused on snappers inshore and big eye tuna on the high seas, and less foreign vessels than most other Pacific nations, and far less stock, a shark fin trade didn’t seem to have established itself locally yet. Several years ago, warm waters brought in the tuna, but Tonga didn’t have the populations of albacore and yellowfin that swam in the waters of Vanuatu, Fiji, and Solomons – and the accompanying blue, mako, thresher and other pelaic sharks. So it was plausible that perhaps Tonga had escaped the focus of the fishing fleets driven by greed chasing around the world to catch the last remaining sharks- but not likely. We also knew in our hearts that it wasn’t a question of “if” there was an issue with shark finning but rather “when”.
As we rushed to our meetings with the ministries of environment, education, fisheries, and tourism using our hotel as a base, we could hear an odd metallic banging coming from the nearby wharf. It almost sounded as if it were fireworks. But we were busy learning about Tonga’s MPAs, their whale sanctuary, their fisheries, their dive tourism, their regulations to prevent bycatch and outlining, to give it much thought.
At the end of an incredibly successful and invigorating day, in which we learned Tonga was working towards much in the way of MPAs, sanctuaries and laws to protect the animals we defend – we headed to the wharf to jump in the Bardot’s skiff.
A long liner had come in earlier that day and the wharf was buzzing with the news of the catch – hundreds if not thousands of tuna, flash frozen in the big Taiwanese trawler’s hull. I had heard the tuna was shipped straight to Tskigi – and was quite interested to see it myself – since I had been to that market a few years prior. As soon as I was in view of the fish I quickly recognized they did not resemble tuna. My stomach turned as I realized they were sharks. I saw hammerhead, mako, thresher, blacktip, silvertip, and oceanic all dressed and loaded in a container. I later found that the banging I heard all day long was sharks being loaded as well. It wasn’t more than a minute before a burly looking man started threatening us and told us we could not watch the catch being unloaded – telling us he would make us move if we didn’t move ourselves. Having been in the field undercover for several years and knowing how to read situations, I certainly believed him. And I certainly believed he knew what he was doing was wrong – whether legally or morally.
Further investigation uncovered the fact that two other long liners were coming in that night with fins and sharks as well. While these fishermen were supposedly fishing for tuna, all I saw were sharks. And I heard that the very ministers we met with that day were hosted at a banquet with the king – the appetizer? Shark fin soup. As it is not part of the culture, it is clearly influenced by the large amount of Chinese aid and dignitaries that visit Tonga.
Turns out Tonga needs help as much as any other South Pacific nation – and like anywhere else in the world with a coastline, sharks are under attack. Fortunately though, the new Tongan government seems keen to take action.