Fuel slick hundreds of miles from land

Faintly at first, a whiff of diesel on the wind – how a fuel spill far at sea could be connected to your tuna.

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Fuel slick hundreds of miles from land

My dawn lookout watch was going well. Strong, fresh breeze coming almost straight at us. Spotted a few flying fish. In the distance, an area of flatter water. Odd. Maybe a patch with less wind? Then, faintly at first, a whiff of diesel fuel.

I ran and grabbed Maite, an experienced deckhand. “Quickly, come to the bow. We need to check something”. At first she was skeptical, not smelling anything. Then she pointed, “Oh no, look at this”. Ahead of us was a rainbow coloured fuel slick, probably over 200 square meters of it, out in the middle of the ocean.

Using fish holds as fuel tanks

Just yesterday, Lauren (a food blogger who sailed with us on the first leg of this trip) shared the story that some tuna fishing ships allegedly store both fuel and fish in the same hold (flushing it with sea water in between)…

“I entered the [Rainbow Warrior’s] campaign office to be greeted by a man who had been following our journey. He said he knew things, had deep connections to the region and felt it was very important to tell me he knew about tuna fishing in the area. 

Even more shockingly, he claimed that in some fleets it was standard practice to use tuna storage freezers for extra diesel storage. This meant that when a ship was low on fuel, officers could refill their diesel tanks from the freezer. Once empty, the freezer was filled with fresh tuna. If the tanks are were out, the diesel and chemical detergents used would most likely end up in the ocean.”

Talking about this practice afterwards, our photographer Paul realised we may have even seen an example of this on board the now notorious Shuen De Ching No. 888. When checking their holds, the crew told us not to bother with one of them because it was full of fuel.

“We opened it up and it reeked of diesel. It was full of fuel, just like they’d said,” Paul told me in the mess. “At the time I was so focused on finding the shark fins, I didn’t even think of it.”

Of course, this particular tuna boat was busted for a whole range of other things, before they could fill their holds with fish.

An unfortunately common practice

Where did the fuel slick we saw this morning come from? We don’t know. The ship responsible was long gone by the time we got there.

We took a water sample, and have checked vessel tracks for all the ships we know about in the area. Nothing matches up. We’ll share the information with authorities that might know something we don’t, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to connect this fuel slick with any specific ship.

It could have been a fishing vessel, a cargo ship, a reefer, a tanker... Outrageously, lots of ships flush their tanks while out in the open sea. According to Marine Defenders, while big industrial accidents like the Deepwater Horizon spill get the most attention, they make up just 18% of the oil released into the water as a result of human activity.

Out here, so many things can be hidden.

But there is a way you can be confident you’re buying tuna from a responsible company, one that prioritizes sustainability and fairness: Use our tuna shopping guides, and share them with your friends and family. When companies realize people care about where their tuna comes from, they demand changes from their suppliers. Your shopping choices will help change the tuna industry.

-- Andrew