The crew had been aboard the Japanese longliner for seven months. Mostly from Indonesia, the men didn’t speak much English, but a few did recognize the name ‘Greenpeace’. It was clear the ship had seen its fair share of fishing, but was still relatively new. Somewhere on the ship a late lunch was being cooked, a pungent sweet smell that made the ship’s fishiness even stronger.

It was my first time boarding a foreign ship. There to inspect whether its catch was legal, I wasn’t sure what to expect or how the crew would react to us. We were accompanied by two fisheries inspectors from Mozambique who were authorized to conduct inspections. Find out who the captain is, ask to see the fishing license, get a list of the catch on board, and then check that against what’s really on the ship – that’s what an inspection entails, and it’s pretty neat on paper, but a lot more tricky in real life.

21 September 2012 Inspecting the hold of Chiho Maru No 18

Ceasar Mophossa, a Mozambican fisheries official, inspects the freezer hold of the Chiho Maru No 18, a Japanese Longliner. September 13. Photo: Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

As we spoke with the Captain, crew members lounged about in the sun. They’d clearly just woken up after working through the night to haul in fishing lines. Fishing boats like this one come from the likes of Spain, Taiwan, and Japan every year. They’re here for tuna and tuna-like species, although shark are also heavily targeted for their fins, especially at this time of year when most of the tuna have moved further south.

The ship’s license is all in order, so it’s down to the hold where fish are stored. Dressing in thick padded overalls with snow boots and a woolen balaclava might seem like lunacy in muggy Mozambican weather, but it’s something you cherish inside a freezer at minus 60°C. As tuna are caught, they’re gaffed and pulled onto the boat, ‘processed’, and put straight into the hold where they’re stocked until the boat transfers its catch. Months’ worth of frozen fish and fins can be stored down there: a frozen catacomb in a hazy yellow light, stocked floor to ceiling.

We want to follow up on the amount of shark fins on board, but are told they’re packed far into the hold behind walls of other fish. No game. And it dawns on me then just how futile this can be. Take shark fins for instance. The total weight of fins on a ship cannot be more than 5% of the total weight of shark bodies on board. So, first you need to know how much shark fin is scattered around the ship, and then how many kilos of shark. It’s a tangle of numbers, percentages, and bodies – in this case frozen and supposedly inaccessible down below. 

The reality is that if there was anything illegal onboard, it could be hidden almost anywhere, and there’s no way to unpack and go through the entire freezer. That's why port inspections are essential.

Finally the captain’s reluctance to facilitate the inspection is noted, and later he’s reported to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission for not cooperating. In the meantime our team on the Rainbow Warrior has found another boat for inspection, and we get ready to leave. In two hour’s time this crew will start pulling in their fishing lines again; there’s still some space in the freezer that needs filling.

We’re moving from ship to ship, checking if each one’s catch is inline with Mozambique and Indian Ocean Tuna Commission regulations. Are they colouring inside the lines, do they have the correct licenses? Enabling existing laws to be enforced is an important step towards the effective monitoring of Indian Ocean fisheries. But of course whether a catch is legal or not – well that’s completely different to whether it’s sustainable.

  • More updates from our Indian Ocean tour: Click here