In the last several years as a conservationist, I’ve been involved with many different aspects of conservation – from media to outreach to undercover investigations – working on both the demand and the supply side of the shark fin trade. The last few days were a new milestone, as I got my first real taste of official enforcement. As educational as it was exhilarating, I have now had the experience of boarding “factory fishing” boats as well as participating in law enforcement on the high seas.
The story begins months ago when we started planning Operation Requiem. We’ve been working collaboratively and successfully with the government of Ecuador for years in the Galapagos protecting the sharks - we wanted to do the same in the South Pacific. The Phoenix Island Protected Area, another world heritage site, was the perfect place – and the government of Kiribati agreed.
After spending nearly two months in the South Pacific working in four nations in the areas of marine protection, outreach, education and partnerships, we were ready to do what Sea Shepherd does best: enforcement.
Last week, with a senior police officer from Kiribati maritime unit on board the Bardot, we set off to the remote Phoenix Islands, one of the South Pacific’s largest marine protected areas, to perform their (and our) first patrol in the area. The government cannot afford to send out patrols to such a distant yet protected area – and with just a single boat – they were thrilled to partner with us. We’d provide the vessel and support – they’d provide the law enforcement and direct the boardings. Together, we had no idea what we’d find in the 107,000 square miles that make up the protected area, but we certainly couldn’t wait to find out.
With the VMS (vessel monitoring system) coordinates supplied to us by the Kiribati police and over 500 vessels from around the world legally permitted to fish in these waters, we didn’t have to wait long. We found three purse seiners late last night and decided to wait for daybreak to board. Appointed as observers and given the ability to patrol the waters of Kiribati in a collaborative effort with their police, we have the law on our side – and these fishing vessels know it - they are required to submit to inspections as a condition of their license. A few somewhat surprised radio transmissions back and forth stating our intent (and where our strange looking boat was from) and we were ready to board.
Boarding these boats was not for the faint hearted – involving “hot launching” the jet ski off the back Bardot, charging over to the fishing vessel, leaping off the back of the jet ski, climbing up the side of a slippery, gigantic factory ship often next to nets, hooks and even fish. Not easy in any condition – but add in big swells and I felt like I was in Navy seals training. Dry suit, helmet, and life vest all mandatory. My role in the process was to board with the maritime officer, serve as an observer, and document. He typically boards a vessel armed with a gun and a full sweep team, so beyond the physical challenges, it was certainly a risky responsibility for us both – unarmed with no backup.
Knowing the lawlessness of the sea and the amount of money at stake, many would think I was crazy to gear up and leap into the unknown, the risk far outweighing any benefit. However, I’ve been trying for years to get onto industrial fishing boats with no luck– to truly see what is going on and document it all – so to me, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. After all, one of the most powerful tools Sea Shepherd has is media – showing the world what goes on beyond their doorsteps – far away at sea.
As we climbed up the ships and dropped onto the deck, arriving from our strange, spaceship-looking ship – jaws dropped. In our full gear complete with pirate skulls on the helmets, arriving on a jet ski, we certainly looked like characters out of a James Bond movie. Then, when I took my helmet off to unveil not just a female face but also a blonde ponytail, you could have heard a pin drop amongst the bewildered crews.
Those that are operating legally treat officials with the dignity they deserve – and are used to the inspections becoming more and more routine. I was shocked to be welcomed onto the boat with smiles – but then again, I don’t usually roll with an enforcement officer.
Although chances are rare to say the least, the first purse seiner we boarded was actively in the process of unloading their huge nets. Having found a huge school of yellow fin and skip jack tuna, they had just set their nets and caught 50 tons of fish in little over an hour. Seems like a daunting number – until you consider the vessel I had boarded could carry over 2000 tons of fish in its hold.
The helicopters, rooms full of monitors, industrial gear, fish aggregation devices - all of it was so overwhelming to see firsthand. But what stuck with me most was the 50 tons of fish, literally unloaded in front of my eyes – dumped into a hull undoubtedly filled with more fish than I could fathom.
Being on the boats, while incredibly sad, was also extremely educational – I saw with my own eyes things I could have learned in a report. The lack of consideration given to size class, bycatch, the observer program in action, the requirements to stay within legal boundaries when fishing, refeering, bunkering – the list goes on and on. All the while documenting it for use in our future campaigns.
Of course, I would say that I am relatively educated when it comes to fishing on the high seas – and the state of fish populations. But it wasn’t until I observed it personally that the true gravity of the situation hit me. The fishing process used in purse seining, the sheer volume of the catch, the extent of the technologies the vessels were using to make it nearly impossible for fish to remain undetected, let alone escape the nets, the way the fish are literally crushed to death, the conditions of the vessels and working environments… In a few weeks, a single vessel could catch thousands of tons of fish – and there are hundreds of thousands of vessels operating around the world – and have been – for several decades. My heart sinks even thinking about what it means for the future of our oceans. I cannot believe there are any fish left.
After an hour of a thorough inspection, this vessel – and the other two – passed and were permitted to continue fishing – but not before we reminded them about the protected area and the protection extended to sharks in that area. The whole interaction was legal, civil and respectful – devoid of any unnecessary conflict.
The burden of proof always seems to fall on the side of those that want to protect the oceans, and often, it is the very same people who are villainized when it comes to enforcement and regulations. So it was an amazing feeling to get onto those vessels with the power on our side. Yes, Sea Shepherd can absolutely help in the South Pacific – and we’ve clearly proven we are about collaboratively stopping illegal fishing – not causing unnecessary drama, and that unlike other organizations, we have the resources, training and ability to do just that.
The time to act is quickly passing – we must work together to ensure legal vessels can continue to operate in a sustainable manner – and the illegal lawlessness of the high seas that is impacting all of our futures, particularly for nations like those in the South Pacific, is ended, once and for all. We are ready to do our part – and hope other nations are ready to work together as well, just like Ecuador and now Kiribati have. After all, it benefits all those who rely upon the sea for their survival.