This article is continued from a previous post.
As promised, after four weeks of waiting, I finally have something substantial to report.
At three o’clock on a dark, sweaty Thursday morning, I was called to the bridge by the watchkeeper. I stumbled through the alleyways and hauled myself up two rolling and pitching stairwells, my shirt clammy and wrinkled and my eyes bloodshot from a long bout with insomnia. After nearly a month at sea and nothing to show for it, I was dearly hoping that I had been summoned for a good reason, not for just another false alarm. Please, I pleaded silently, please let there be a ship out there.
My bleary eyes were directed to the softly backlit radar screen, and suddenly my adrenals shot into overdrive and I was wide awake. There wasn’t just one ship on the screen – there were four.
Somehow, in the middle of the night, we had bumbled our way right into the center of a fishing fleet.
As soon as it was light enough to see, the Esperanza’s crew sprung into action. A launch was scrambled and the boarding team shot off towards the nearest seiner, which had already set its net and was beginning to haul it in.
Our launch pulled up alongside the fishing vessel, close enough that we could almost touch the floats that kept the seine net in contact with the water’s surface. The massive net was looped around a FAD that had been bobbing in the water for a week or more. The seiner’s crew hooked the seine net drawstring to a massive, towering winch, and slowly the net began to constrict as the drawstring pulled tight: an ocean-going python of immense length and power.
Eventually the fish trapped within the net began to panic. We began to see tuna jumping and splashing frantically, churning what had been the ocean’s calm surface waters to a white, bubbly froth. The net pulled tighter and tighter, forcing hundreds, even thousands of these animals together into a lethal gridlock. The winch slowly and inexorably cranked the net aloft, as unstoppable and unforgiving as the reaper’s scythe. The massive weight of the catch forced the strands of the net into the scales and flesh of the unfortunate animals on the bottom. The seine began to weep blood.
The fish were hoisted onto the deck and dumped into the cargo hold. We boarded the ship and set about scouring the decks and holds for evidence of bycatch. Our photographer and videographer documented everything as the unwanted catch, including dorado (mahi mahi), triggerfish, marlin, and mackerel, was tossed over the side or simply tossed into a trough that served as a temporary storage for bycatch. The fishermen were actually quite pleasant and helpful as a general rule, although that may have been because the language barrier prevented us from offering an in-depth explanation of our true motivation.
Throughout the day, the boarding team cycled back and forth among the different ships, witnessing, boarding, and documenting. On two separate occasions we saw turtles ensnared by the seiners. They had been attracted to the FADs and were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the ship set. Luckily, the fishermen were able to free the animals both times. Turtles aren’t always so fortunate in these situations.
On one of the ships, I managed to sweet-talk my way deep into the guts of the ship so I could crawl into the fish hold itself. I rummaged through a pile of thousands of dead and dying skipjack, looking for juvenile bigeye and yellowfin tuna that had been netted along with their more numerous cousins. It only took me a matter of seconds to find the first, a bigeye that was no larger than my forearm. After that, I started to see them everywhere. My rough estimate is that between 10 and 15 percent of the seiner’s total catch was juvenile bigeye and yellowfin.
I grabbed a dead bigeye and a dead skipjack and showed them to a fisherman. I pointed at the skipjack and asked him in Spanish what it was called. He looked at me blankly and replied, “atun.” I nodded, and then pointed to the bigeye. “This one is different, though,” I said, “it’s a different species. What’s this one called?” He shrugged and gave me a friendly grin. “Atun,” he said.
Maybe that’s part of the problem.
We repeated these visits all day, moving from ship to ship, documenting clean catches as well as hauls that were stuffed with unwanted animals. I saw dozens of dying mahi mahi and triggerfish tossed back into the sea, left to bleed out and sink to their doom. Large, majestic marlin, crushed and suffocated by the seining process, were tucked away in back corners of the hold as a private stash for the seiner’s captain. Worst of all, we saw hundreds of baby bigeye and yellowfin tuna – species already under serious threat — meet their end as they got lost in the shuffle, mixed in with skipjack destined for low-value tins. No doubt the bigeye and yellowfin stocks will never be able to recover if we keep purloining their young, but that is precisely what is happening.
Still, as troubling as it was to witness these travesties, morale on the ship has never been higher. We have done what we set out to do — obtained photographic proof of the horrifying bycatch associated with these FAD seiners. We still have several more days to search, but even if we end up with nothing more than what we’ve already collected, it is certainly enough to convince me that something rotten is afoot in the Eastern Pacific.