Catching pirates from the sky

by Joan Meris

December 10, 2011

By: Joan Meris, Greenpeace Phillipines

Pirates, in my imagination, are valiant seafarers in search of richness and glory in the high seas. In the olden days, they where regarded with fear and loathing for tales run wild of ghastly misdemeanors. They rob, hijack and loot treasures questionable acts indeed. But they exude such an aura of fierceness and might that one cant help but get enthralled in their way of life.

All of these are just romanticized images of pirates. For in present day there is nothing mystical or captivating about them. What I witnessed are illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) vessels plundering the Pacific high seas. Robbing Pacific Island people of their economic prosperity and for the marine ecosystem, its life.

During the second leg of the Defending our Pacific ship tour I had an opportunity to join a helicopter operation to document actual pirates engaged in several illegal acts. From almost hundred feet above sea level, it is the perfect frame to document pirate fishing. Just imagine an illegal transshipment, an un-marked purse-seine vessel, unlicensed fishing vessels and a FAD all in the same location High Seas Pocket #1

Pirate fishing is a term often used to refer to IUU fishing. IUU vessels are one of the culprits of stolen fish. These vessels sail through national boundaries and high seas without any respect, plundering marine resources of their bounty. In the Pacific, pirate fishing is one of the most rampant activities that disregard the efforts in the region to sustain tuna stocks. Between 21%-46% of fish caught in the Pacific are sourced through piracy. These areas are prone to these illegal activities as there is limited capacity for some nations to oversee its management. Pirate fishing, other than its capacity to impede sustainable fisheries, has serious implications for labor policies, food security and destroys markets as well.

As we document the scene below, I was able to witness how IUU transshipment actually operates. There were two main vessels, the purse-seiner and the reefer. Both are being pulled by smaller boats (almost like a tugboat) so there is enough space to place the catch to be hauled. Crew members from both vessels dive and swim in between the space to manually scoop back the tuna catch to the net. The crane then lifts the scoop-net to be hauled to the reefers storage. Crew on deck of the reefer will then place ice above the newly set tuna catch. This process happened for a good hour.

As Greenpeace is out in the Pacific to bear witness with rampant over-fishing due to illegal and destructive fishing practices, two rigged inflatable were sent out from our ship, MY Esperanza, to facilitate a direct action towards the vessels. Activists of different nationalities then branded the vessels pirate for explicitly stealing tuna. It is the perfect term that encaptures their unscrupulous acts. Pirates may still be for some people a glamorous term popularized by Hollywood. But pirate fishing is an unsustainable malpractice.

Adrenaline rushed through my veins as these scenes unfolded before my eyes. As an activist that truly supports the call for marine reserves network in our oceans, these dubious acts further give us the imperative to change and alter the current way we source our fish. There is a need to strengthen regional enforcements of laws to secure sustainable fishing. It means vigilance of fishing nations to put appropriate measures to control and stop piracy. It means support from industry players to protect the very oceans they derive profit from. It also means vigilance from consumers to know where their food comes from. We cannot simply go on our current practices, in this case, illegal and immoral theft. From my view up in the sky, I know that our oceans deserve more than that.

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