Like longline ships passing in the night

Out here on the high seas of the Pacific Ocean, I’m discovering this side of a tuna meal. It leaves a bad aftertaste, and it needs to be cleaned up.

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Like longline ships passing in the night

The Korean longliner looked impressive from a distance. In the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean where you can go weeks without seeing anything but sea, the lights of the fishing vessel at night on the horizon were almost majestic.

Pulling alongside her, though, the reality was somewhat different. This one had a slick operation going on. The 56-metre boat was 25 years old and looked far more carefully maintained than many of the rust buckets we’ve come across out here.

But the end result is the same. Crew, many of them young men that look barely out of their teens, work most of the hours of the day and night in an endless cycle of setting lines and hauling them back in again. Each process takes many hours to complete, and typically the ship and crew are only at rest when the lines are left to “soak” for a few hours after being set. 

By the time we neared the Korean boat, hauling was well underway. Kilometre after kilometre of line (some longlines can be up to 170km long) was dragged in by strong arms and carefully coiled up, ready for the next round of fishing.

Every so often a cry rang out over the loudspeaker alerting the crew to a catch, before two fishermen appeared with poles and hooks in hand ready to spear the creature and pull it onto the deck.

In the two hours we observed this process, only about half a dozen tuna were hauled in – a meagre catch for the number of people, gear and huge distances involved in the operation. Low catch rates are a consequence of the damage being done by literally thousands of longline boats like this one that plunder the Pacific’s tuna stocks every day.

Since I jumped on to the Rainbow Warrior in Pago Pago, American Samoa to travel into the Pacific and learn about where our tuna really comes from, we’ve encountered several longliners.

The first - a 27-metre Taiwanese boat - was only eight years old, but so caked in rust it looked like it had been at sea for about 20. The crew invited us on board to look around, even offering to share some of their dinner of plain rice with me.

As well as 85 tons of tuna, they’d caught and cut the fins from more than 100 blue sharks, stacking the carcases up in a deep freezer under the deck.

Shortly after we climbed on board, a smooth hammerhead shark, a vulnerable species recently listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, was hauled up with a hook so deeply embedded in its throat that it had to be cut out. The shark was then tossed back into the ocean, seemingly dead. 

It was hard to believe there were almost 20 people living in the sad confines of this tiny, rundown operation, especially considering they’d been at sea for two months already, and had another three to go.

That might seem like a long time to be out there, working day and night on such a small ship, but for some longline fleets it’s even worse. Thanks to a scandalous arrangement with a boat we’ll call a mothership, these fishing vessels can stay out at sea for months and even years at a time, chipping away at tuna populations fish by fish, not having to come into port even when their freezers are full. 

A rusty rogue that roams the oceans, a mothership’s job is to carry out door-to-door pickups of longline catches. Leaving the longliners with empty freezers to fill up yet again with more tuna, sharks, and whatever else they’re catching. 

As sarcastic as it sounds, out here it really can be as easy as dialling a toll-free number to order pizza. Once the longliners have no space in their hold left for tuna, they’ll get a mothership to drop by and take the fish off to a faraway market. 

It’s this practice, called transshipping, that’s seeing the Pacific fished out of business. 

And because longline boats don’t have to come into port anymore, unregulated and illegal fishing is easily hidden far beyond the horizon and away from any official eye.
As well as putting huge pressure on tuna stocks, hundreds of thousands of other sea creatures like our poor smooth hammerhead friend, are caught up in the whole operation.

Out here on the high seas of the Pacific Ocean, I’m discovering this side of a tuna meal. It leaves a bad aftertaste, and it needs to be cleaned up.

A complete ban of transshipment at sea, would be a huge step forward. It would force boats to return to port with their catch, where it could be accounted for and managed properly.

If they’ve got nothing to hide, it shouldn’t be a problem, right?

For now, stay tuned: It’s full steam ahead into the dark side of Pacific tuna fishing.

- Sophie