The last place in the world I thought I’d be is standing in a huge blast-freezing morgue with one eye on the door to ensure I didn’t meet a similar untimely demise, counting the number of blue shark carcasses deep in the hull of a long liner in the middle South Pacific, hundreds of miles from shore. But here I was…
“Long liner ahead!”
Up until now, we’d only boarded purse seiners – so I’ve been looking forward to hearing those words. To me, long liners meant sharks – and probably lots of them. Another new opportunity to learn as much as possible about those doing a considerable amount of the fishing that is decimating shark populations around the world. And the potential to arrest fishermen for their illegal shark catch.
Iaekana, the marine officer, and I kitted up quickly and prepared to board the Korean vessel – with a legal license to fish in PIPA. Putting on our dry suits, Iaekana told me about a recent shoot out aboard a long-lining vessel, which resulted in a fisherman’s death. Clearly a warning — purse seiners were one thing, long liners another. We approached and boarded with caution.
While Iaekana went through the boat’s paperwork, I inspected the large ship, filming and observing the beacons, the long lines and buoys, and the bags full of hooks. It wasn’t long before I found the shark fins — drying on the stern of the boat; hanging on a line amongst the crew’s newly washed clothes. Blue shark fins — and plenty of them — a variety of sizes from immature to sharks undoubtedly bigger than me. Dorsal, pectoral, and caudal (tail) fins, all hanging in the sun to dry.
When a crewmember approached, he told me in broken English they only catch a few sharks now — today they had caught two. A sad statement reflecting the state of sharks in our world’s oceans, thanks to being hunted in every ocean on the planet for their fins. I asked where the shark bodies were that belonged to the fins since, while shark fishing is only illegal in small areas of PIPA, there are regulations that stipulate a vessel may not land shark fins that weigh more than 5% of the “dressed” weight of sharks. He motioned over to the hull and confirmed that the shark’s bodies were on board as well.
Determined to hold this vessel to the letter of the law and finally get the chance to arrest someone on behalf of sharks, we asked to enter the freezer and the hull. Iaekana told me to go by myself — he said if we both went, we could easily be shut in and never heard from again. So he’d stay outside and watch my back —and I should keep an eye on the crew that took me into the freezer — and the heavy, small door that stood between the tropics and the arctic, and in this case, life and death. I looked down the tiny passageway, frosty and covered in ice. Though I couldn’t see for more than a few feet, I bent down and trudged forward into the cold darkness affirming I would definitely do anything to save sharks. The huge caverns of a blast freezer held the days catch — dozens of huge tuna and two small blue sharks.
With the fins of more than 50 sharks drying on that line, I needed to witness a lot more shark fin carcasses than that. Emerging from the freezer, I asked where the rest of the sharks were, thinking to myself that we had caught ourselves the first illegal fishermen of the trip. Unfortunately, they led me to another hull, this time in the floor. Opening the massive hatch, I peered into the deep darkness and as a light was lowered, my heart sank when I saw more sharks than I could count.
The fact that the shark meat was separated from the far more valuable tuna didn’t surprise me either. Shark meat is worth nearly nothing compared to its fins — but fishermen keep the bodies onboard to keep to the letter of the law, sometimes disposing of them in port. However, these sharks, blast-frozen, were headed to Korea, where an emerging market for shark meat, undoubtedly created by the lack of other fish, existed. The same place the sharks we saw being offloaded, frozen in Tonga, were headed as well.
But there was no safe way for me to be lowered into the hull and maintain an escape route, nor would I have been able to actually count more than the first few rows of sharks as they were packed very tightly behind vast amounts of bait. I really had no way of truly knowing how many were on board, forced to rely upon the fishermen’s records. I knew for certain there were more than 50 and, most likely, the fins drying were representative of only a small amount of fins on board — or that were on board at one time prior to being transshipped. But hours of searching and a team of 20 probably wouldn’t have resulted in findings beyond ours. Frustrated, I realized inspections and observers could only do so much.
I brought Iaekana to the fins I found and asked him if there really wasn’t some law we could enforce. Certainly this crime against nature and future generations had an appropriate punishment, right? Deep down, I knew the answer, having had to become an expert in Kiribati fishing and environmental laws — not to mention all of the conventions and treaties they are signatories to. Without knowing where the sharks were caught, and without clear laws in place to protect them, he shook his head slowly, “no.” The fishermen had done their part, recorded their catch to the degree we could inspect it, kept the shark bodies and also shown us their logs containing the areas in which they fished. Maybe this boat had met the requirements, but I knew many others weren’t — and were getting away with it. But at this rate, we’d need an armada of vessels and an army of officials to make an impact.
Although there are no black and whites in conservation, there certainly needs to be in the laws that protect sharks. Otherwise fishermen will always be able to get away with their catch. If the possession of shark fins is prohibited or shark fishing (NOT FINNING) is 100% illegal in any waters, then it is a clear case of the law being on our side. There are a growing number of places around the world where this is the case, and Sea Shepherd stands ready to help enforce those laws, taking the burden off countries who already have much on their shoulders.
I know I’d personally climb into all the blast freezers in the world if it meant a chance to save sharks from a looming extinction.