On the shimmering blue high seas, there is a grey area. Known as transshipping, this common practise of transferring fish catches from one vessel to another is also a loophole, as it can lead to fish from illegal sources getting into the chain of custody without detection. It also means that otherwise legally caught fish might not be adequately reported, leading to fishery management problems.
Many tuna fishing vessels, mainly longliners, stay at sea for long periods and transfer their catch to bigger boats, known as reefers. These cargo vessels are like floating freezers. They collect the tuna caught by fishing vessels, which are then put in freezers and brought to tuna processing facilities, like canneries in Mauritius, Seychelles or Madagascar. Sometimes they also supply markets in Asia, so these reefers are key players in the tuna industry.
Often more than 100 metres long, they not only receive tuna from longliners, but also supply boats with food, bait, water and sometimes fuel. This means longliners can stay at sea for many months, even years. The crew on one vessel we witnessed transshipping last week told us they had been at sea since December 2012 and will probably stay on the waves until the end of this year.
Transshipments at sea are not authorised in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of several coastal states, including Mauritius, but are permitted to happen on the high seas. This means there are many opportunities for those wishing to cheat to do so. Vessels can, for example, transfer catches from boat to boat so only one vessel ends up meeting the reefer.
Without any independent observers on board the fishing boats it becomes very complicated to keep track of which vessel caught the fish and where – and if the coastal state was adequately compensated for the fish caught. .
In an area north-east of Mauritius’ EEZ, the team aboard the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, saw just how common transshipping is. A reefer was constantly seen waiting to pick up tuna from longliners and over the course of three days we saw three transshipments from longliners to a large Panama-flagged reefer, the Tuna Queen.
According to some of the crew we spoke to, there is usually one transshipment everyday, sometimes more. We also saw longliners with no obvious fishing gear on board, indicating they may act as a small reefer between the longliners, further complicating the process.
So it’s impossible to properly manage fisheries with so many transshipments in the middle of the ocean. This creates gaps in data needed by the region's fisheries managers. That’s why Greenpeace, at the upcoming Indian Ocean Tuna Commission meeting in Mauritius, is calling for all transshipments at sea to be banned as an essential pillar of sustainable fishing in the Indian Ocean.
Each of the transshipments observed by Greenpeace International took several hours. Just after sunrise, the longliner and the reefer would come along side each other. For the next five to eight hours, tonne after tonne of frozen tuna was transferred from the longliner to the reefer.
A crewmember on one of the vessels we spoke to said around 100 tonnes of tuna were transferred each day. Due to the lack of regulation, however, this number could be much higher.
These catches, from different fishing vessels, are all stored together in the reefer. As there are no observers on board these smaller vessels nobody can know for sure where the fish came from and if it was legally caught, rendering the whole load possibly stolen.
François Chartier, Greenpeace France Oceans Campaigner