It’s now been 60 days since the Rainbow Warrior set sail from Auckland, New Zealand, travelling far into the Pacific Ocean on a mission to expose why our tuna are going belly up.
In that time we’ve covered 7,400 miles of deep blue.
While we’ve been lucky enough to observe the beauty of the ocean and the marine creatures that live here, we’ve also witnessed the shocking behaviour of an industry that is threatening it all.
Today we navigated into port in the small island state of Palau, drawing our Pacific tuna expedition to a close. It felt more than a little strange, that first step on solid ground.
But even though our work at sea is over, the efforts of people around the world involved in making it a success continues. The discoveries made over the past two months have had promising knock-on-effects to tuna fisheries in the Pacific, and precedents have been set.
Tuna fisheries are out of control, and if something is not done to protect our Pacific tuna stocks urgently, this apex predator will slowly fade away.
On board boats
The sheer size of the Pacific Ocean can’t be underestimated. You could sail for weeks without coming across another boat, making it easy for pirate fishing operations to be hidden at sea.
But having done seven other expeditions focusing on Pacific tuna fishing in previous years, the Greenpeace crew on the Rainbow Warrior have a fair idea where fishing boats lurk.
Five days into the tour, and the night watch team spotted a glimmer of light reflected on the clouds in the distance – the first sign of a fishing vessel in this vast ocean.
Our investigations had begun.
In total, Greenpeace activists boarded nine boats throughout the tour: Seven Chinese flagged, and two Taiwanese flagged.
Food blogger Lauren Reid, a first-timer on board the Rainbow Warrior, joined activists on several of these trips.
For her, seeing the living conditions on longline boats was a rude awakening. Cramped cabins, rusting fire extinguishers and little access to fresh water or even bathrooms comes with the territory of many longliners, which spend months and even years at sea with minimal maintenance.
On one boat, the fishermen were fined if they broke any of the rules listed on a scrap of paper, tacked to the wall.
It was a $20 dock in pay for drinking bottled water without the captain’s approval – that water was reserved exclusively for the officers, and the rest of the crew were required to drink from open, dirty jugs on the deck.
And although longline fishermen are often expected to work up to 17 hours a day, on this boat falling asleep on the job would cost them $100.
It is hard to imagine people working in these conditions, often for as little as US$300 per month, but for the people doing it it’s a way to earn a living, and for some a way to support their family.
For the more seasoned members of our documentation team, many of the boats we boarded looked pretty normal, maybe even better than average. Such is the harsh reality of the fishing industry.
The big bust
On September 9, a Taiwanese longline boat popped up on the Rainbow Warrior radar system, fishing in the high seas bordering Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
By the time we got close, the Shuen De Ching No. 888 had already deployed 50 miles of line weighed down by 2,000 hooks, and was ready to start hauling in tuna and any other sea creature caught up in the process.
The captain of the longliner agreed to allow us to board, and 10 minutes later we had two inflatables full of Greenpeace activists out in the choppy seas, heading straight for it.
The first red flag was raised after an analysis of the captain’s logbook, the official book he’s required to fill in daily and to present to fishing authorities when required.
The log claimed the boat had only caught three tonnes of fish over a two month period, a highly unlikely scenario. As our Taiwanese oceans campaigner Yen Ning puts it: “From statistics of Taiwan longliners, we know that they catch at least 20 individual tunas each time the lines are set, which means at least half a tonne on average daily.”
Upon further questioning, the captain admitted that the boat had transferred some of its catch to another vessel.
Known as transhipping, this practice is only legal in certain circumstances. Although longliners are still allowed to transship their catches at sea, they must be authorised to do so and the Sheun De Ching No. 888 was not.
The big moment came upon closer investigation of its freezer holds. There, at the back, we found sacks and sacks of shark fins – almost 100 kilograms in total.
By law, shark fins may not exceed 5% of the weight of the shark catch, and with just a few shark carcasses in the hold, the vessel was in clear violation of this rule. Subsequent consultation with shark experts has revealed that many of the fins probably came from vulnerable and endangered species like the silky shark and the scalloped hammerhead.
Greenpeace reported its findings to the Taiwan Fisheries Agency (TFA), which sent a patrol boat to investigate Shuen De Ching No. 888 and confirmed the illegal activities. The pirate fishing boat is currently being escorted back to Taiwan, where it faces suspension of its operating license.
Nauru acts in wake of bust
In response to the bust of the Shuen De Ching No. 888 Nauru announced it had put an immediate and complete ban on transshipping in its waters.
That’s a big stand for the smallest state in the South Pacific, especially in the face of significant pressure from the many foreign fishing fleets sniffing around and competing for fish.
It became the third Pacific Island state to do so, following the footsteps of the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu.
It’s an important move for the Pacific Ocean and its residents, because the Pacific Tuna Commission must adopt rules for the high sea areas that are compatible with those put in place by Pacific Island countries.
This means domestic bans by coastal states, like Nauru, are vital. The more countries that declare transshipping bans in their waters, the stronger the impetus to close the high seas to the practice becomes.
Nauru is now encouraging its Pacific Island neighbours to follow suit.
Finding fish magnets
As we moved further through the high seas, travelling through a variety of Pacific Island EEZs along the way, we came across a number of odd floating contraptions in the middle of the ocean.
On the face of it they look like abandoned barrels, but the reality is they are actually something far more sinister. Called Fish Aggregating Devices (FADS), these are fish magnets, placed there by purse seine fishing boats intent on attracting and catching more and more tuna.
Some are even anchored to the sea floor, more than 4,000 metres below.
Our on board campaigner Karli Thomas explains that fish are naturally attracted to floating things.
In such a vast expanse of ocean with not a lot happening on the surface, it makes sense that life would swarm to something new and interesting, to the little barnacles and mussels that begin to grow on the object.
The fish magnets we saw had a whole circus of marine life surrounding them including silky sharks, trigger fish, mahi mahi and rainbow runners.
It was an incredible thing to get into the water and see them there, but knowing the purpose of the fish magnet made the experience bitter sweet. We knew all the life there had been lured in and was destined to be killed.
The only way to make fisheries fair is to ban purse seiners’ use of FADS altogether.
It’s already hard enough for the fish as it is. They have to cope with the huge industrial fishing fleets that roam the ocean, pulling up thousands of tonnes of tuna a day.
Trashing our oceans
Even though the high seas of the Pacific Ocean is about as remote as you can get, humans have somehow still managed to make a mark.
As well as the fish magnets, it was all too common for us to see pieces of trash floating by - anything from Coke cans to old shoes and mini cocktail umbrellas.
Whenever possible, we’d get in and collect them up.
But beauty too, and hope
There is nothing like the colour of the sea miles out in the Pacific Ocean, an amazing hue of blue that’s soft and velvety and catches sun beams, reflecting the sky above.
This area is bigger than the surface of Mars and is home to so many roaming creatures - more than we could possibly imagine.
We’ve seen pods of hundreds of cruising dolphins, no doubt on the lookout for fun and games or a tasty meal.
There have been sharks too, of all shapes and sizes, patiently tolerating the little fish that insist on swimming alongside them like shadows.
The whales have been magnificent. We’ll never forget watching a Bryde’s whale feed on baitfish one afternoon, trapping them with cleverly positioned bubbles before plunging upwards, mouth open, snacks-galore.
And, of course, there was the tuna: What a beautiful fish.
We came out here in hopes of changing tuna: Changing the way that the fishing industry targets them so destructively, changing the perception that they’re just meat in sushi or flakes in a can, changing their grim future.
Because as their numbers spiral downwards, time is fast running out for these predators that are vital to the ocean’s ecosystem.
For us, it’s been a gift to have the opportunity to watch schools of thousands of them, alive and swimming, out here in the Pacific.
So agile and far bigger than you’d imagine, seeing tuna in their natural environment definitely changes you.
We are now preparing to collate our findings and deliver them to fishing authorities around the world.
The waves are in motion: For the first time, the Taiwan Fisheries Agency is taking a hard line on illegal fishing, and we’re waiting to see how they prosecute the shark finning boat Shuen De Ching No. 888.
Little Nauru, with its bold decision to ban the transfer of fish in its waters, could well set a precedent in the Pacific, sparking a movement among neighbouring countries to take the power back.
Greenpeace is using the case of the Shuen De Ching No. 888 to urge attendees at the Technical Compliance Committee meeting, where fishing rules are discussed, to consider a blanket ban on transshipping fish between vessels at sea.
And thanks to coverage in global mainstream media like The Guardian about our findings, people around the world are now gaining a greater understanding about the problem with Pacific tuna.
We need a butterfly effect to save our oceans. Perhaps it will start with tuna.
- The Rainbow Warrior team