REPORTER: David O’Shea
The Vezo people of Southwest Madagascar have sailed this lagoon and lived off the Toliara reef at its edge for countless generations. Whether it’s working the shallows with nets or fishing the deeper water with a hook, line and sinker. Everyone complains that the fish that sustain them are disappearing.
ROB MAMY (Translation): Before, even near the shore we could fill the boat with fish. Now you go out at sunrise and return at sunset with just enough for a plate.
This is one of the world’s largest Barrier Reef systems. Fish used to be abundant here - but not anymore. Some suspect at least part of the blame lies with the big boats they can see from their village.
FISHERMAN (Translation): We don't see them in the day but at night we see their lights. It seems they are near the reef.
BOY (Translation): Maybe they are stealing at night .
In fact nobody knows for sure what’s really happening out there. From here in Madagascar, all the way to WA, most of what goes on in the vast Indian Ocean happens out of sight, out of mind. A quarter of the world’s tuna is caught in this ocean. Up against the sophisticated industrial vessels and what activists describe as rampant illegal fishing the fish stand little chance.
FISHERIES MINISTER: Fish stocks are being depleted and catches are a mere fraction of what they used to be in past decades. It is our interest that fisheries resources in the region are exploited sustainably and are protected against illegal fishing.
As officials gather to discuss regional fish stocks, the illegal operations are high on the agenda. I hitch a ride with international environmental organisation Greenpeace on the biggest vessel in their fleet, the ‘Esperanza’. They’re on a 3-month patrol of the southern Indian Ocean fisheries.
DI MCALPINE, GREENPEACE SOUTH AFRICA: The Indian Ocean is home to some of the poorest nations in the world and a lot of them are fishing communities so they depend on the oceans for trade, food, economy and so if you’ve got these foreign fishing fleets coming in and just taking everything away because of weak infrastructure and law then it’s really not going to support a sustainable livelihood for many of these nations.
NATHANIEL PELLE, GREENPEACE AUSTRALIA: The future for the Indian Ocean is pretty bleak. We’ve seen so many vessels chasing so few fish. The catches are dwindling and these depleted stocks mean that in the future local fishermen are going to miss out.
The lead campaigner on board is Francois Chartier from the Paris office. The way he moves around the ship, you would never know he was blind.
FRANCOIS CHARTIER, GREENPEACE FRANCE: Take care, don’t fall - there is a step in a few meters.
On this leg of their mission he’s hoping to document the controversial practice of transhipment at sea. That’s transferring fish from small fishing boats to enormous refrigerated carrier vessels – or reefers – out on the high seas.
FRANCOIS CHARTIER: Transhipment at sea is one of the big loopholes in tuna fishery regulation – legal but totally unsustainable. It’s a problem for monitoring and catch report, it’s a problem for all monkey business and illegal activities.
We’re approaching a reefer called the ‘Tuna Queen’ drifting just outside Mauritian territorial waters. The 120 metre long vessel is one of 53 with a licence to receive tuna transhipments in the Indian Ocean. They’re told at least one of these transhipments occurs every single day.
WOMAN (Translation): They got 99 tonnes today.
To find out more, they’re told to contact Mitsubishi Reefer Services in Tokyo. The ‘Tuna Queen’ is doing nothing illegal here receiving this fish and there is no suggestion they’re aware of any illegal supply to them. However, Greenpeace, believes the whole practice is wide open to rorting further down the chain of supply. The problem is that it’s impossible to establish where and when this fish was caught, and whether it was caught legally. Once it’s inside the ‘Tuna Queen’s vast freezers there’s no way to know.
FRANCOIS CHARTIER: There is no chain of custody. As soon as the fish is inside the freezing vessel – inside the reefer, it’s impossible to know from which vessel it is coming. We need a scheme of trace-ability we need to be able to know from where each tuna where it is coming from.
There’s an Indian Ocean Tuna Commission observer stationed on the ‘Tuna Queen’, but he confirms he’s only recording the number and type of fish coming on board. There are virtually no observers on the actual fishing boats and according to veteran oceans campaigner Martini Gotje many of them are operating illegally.
MARTINI GOTJE: Without observers, without anybody can see, it’s an open book to cheating.
Gotje lives on Waiheke island in New Zealand.
MARTINI GOTJE: Without observers these vessels can do what they like, and you can’t believe them on their word because they don’t really care too much about the state of the fish stock all they care about really is the profits.
Gotje has lived his life at sea and is an authority on illegal fishing practices. He says theft and underreporting is rife, making it impossible for authorities to gauge the health of the fishery. His estimate of the amount of fish stolen is conservative - at 20%.
MARTINI GOTJE: One fifth of fish is stolen. Its either illegally caught or not reported or fishing in an unregulated area and that’s a huge amount.
Gotje believes the only solution would be to place observers on all vessels, which is practically impossible, or ban transhipments at sea and have the fish counted and recorded in port.
RONDOLPH PAYET, INDIAN OCEAN TUNA COMMISSION: As always there are always those vessels that try to find those loopholes.
Rondolph Payet of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission admits they’re concerned about the extent of the tuna laundering.
RONDOLPH PAYET: Well, in every regulation that’s made, there are always people who try to exploit those loopholes, and I think by identifying those loopholes we can probably close them.
One of the vessels Greenpeace finds transhipping to the ‘Tuna Queen’ is this Philippines flagged boat. Unusually for a long line fishing boat, it has no fishing gear visible on board, because of this, the activists suspect its actually pretending to be a fishing boat and collecting tuna from other boats fishing illegally before claiming the catch as its own. There is no direct evidence to prove this, but if true, once the tuna is transhipped to the ‘Tuna Queen’ any illegal catch has been laundered.
MARTINI GOTJE: There’s an official paperwork and there is an unofficial paperwork and in that way fish can get laundered.
Martini Gotje has spent his whole life fighting to protect the oceans. He was first mate on the ‘Rainbow Warrior’ when it was blown up by the French secret service in Auckland in 1985. All these years later he stays close to the sea and to Greenpeace by tracking vessels for them from his home. He’s been watching the ‘Tuna Queen’ and the other boat closely since they parted company north of Mauritius. Showing an auto identification signal is voluntary – so there is no way to tell if the vessel is in the company of other fishing boats which are not transmitting their signals.
MARTINI GOTJE: You can’t see the ones who haven’t got it on.
REPORTER: That’s the problem right?
MARTINI GOTJE: That is the problem.
So there’s no way to know if the suspicious boat received fish from any illegal operators out there. The ships owners are Taiwanese, but it’s registered in Manila. So I track down the Filipino delegate at the Indian Ocean Tuna commission and ask him about the Greenpeace tuna laundering theory. This is the second time I asked.
REPORTER: Excuse me sir have you had a chance to look at the press release from Greenpeace that we spoke about? You haven’t had a chance to look at it yet?
BENJAMIN TOBIOS, FILIPINO DELEGATE: They haven’t even sent me an email yet – they haven’t sent me an email yet.
Email or not, Greenpeace says they discussed the issue with him. Other delegates at the conference certainly knew about transhipment concerns.
REPORTER: What they are saying is that it doesn’t have any fishing equipment on board – so they are saying that it could possibly be involved in the transhipment.
BENJAMIN TABIOS: Please don’t interview me, because they haven’t sent me anything.
REPORTER: But hang on they can present you with that now if you want.
Greenpeace are not getting answers from him either.
SARI TOLVANEN, OCEANS CAMPAIGNER GREENPEACE: I mean if it’s a vessel that has nothing to hide I don’t understand why he couldn’t answer questions about what the vessel is up to in the region. About the record of fishing on the vessel and what data they have. The government gets information about the vessel from its vessel monitoring system so they should be able to show that and share info about what the vessel has been up to.
Dateline emailed questions to the company responsible for the vessel, and did receive a response. Curiously, it came from Benjamin Tabios, the Philippines government delegate at the conference. The same man who’d put his hand over my camera lens. He said the questions involved matters within his competence and that the’ fishing gear is required to be stowed in storage rooms while they are transhipping tuna and the process is documented and monitored by accredited international observers.’
The Filipinos are not the only ones attracting Greenpeace attention. As the ‘Esperanza’ arrives in Mauritius for the Indian Ocean Tuna commission meeting Greenpeace discovers a notorious South Korean vessel has just shown up here.
FRANCOIS CHARTIER: Premier, Premier, this is the Esperanza calling you. We have three Rhibs around you. This is a peaceful protest.
The vessel is owned by South Korean Seafoods company Dongwon. They paid $2 million to the Liberian government in an out of court settlement over this and another vessel’s alleged illegal fishing activities. Dongwon says it was a victim of fraud. The campaigners say it should never have been allowed into port here just before such an important meeting. It’s a small protest but the message gets through loud and clear to the Korean delegation at the tuna commission. They refuse to talk to me about it.
REPORTER: So, no change of heart? No-one wants to talk to me?
KOREAN DELEGATE: No mandate.
REPORTER: No mandate? Is that from Seoul? What did they say that you are not allowed to talk about that case?
KOREAN DELEGATE: I can’t give you anything.
The Japanese don’t want to chat either, not about transhipment, nor about the ‘Tuna Queen’ and delegates from the European Union say no-one is authorised to speak about anything – including the anti-EU demonstration going on outside.
FISHERMAN (Translation): Fishermen in Mauritius are under extraordinary pressure. It’s incredible. But we don’t give up. We must be vocal, make a noise, because the sea can’t be sold off like this.
Fishermen here say that the European Union and its heavily subsidised fleet - pressures small countries like Mauritius to sign unfair contracts, leaving local fishermen fighting over the leftovers.
FISHERMAN (Translation): We are vulnerable working people. Giving away the fishing grounds is putting a lot of pressure on the families, the children, et, even on the generations to come.
Back in Madagascar on the Toliara reef, my fishermen friends would no doubt agree. Once again - they didn’t catch enough to sell today, so this will be dinner for some of Rob Mamy’s 12 children. Playing music takes his mind off a future without fish. The impact of a collapse in fish stocks will be devastating for millions of Indian Ocean families like Rob’s, who have no other source of income or protein.
MARTINI GOTJE: We know the stocks are going down. We know we have to take measures to keep this fish stock healthy because fish for billions of people is their basic diet. They cannot go to the supermarket and fill up the trolley, you know, it’s not there.
FISHERMAN (Translation): We don't trust this job any more to earn our livelihoods because there are too many fishermen and too few fish. We know that if we find another job we will take it. a job that’s not on the water
ANJALI RAO: David O'Shea and the local fishermen of south-west Madagascar. If you want to comment on our tuna wars story, go to our website. Of course, that’s the place for your thoughts on all our stories tonight. That's at sbs.com.au/dateline.
Original Music Composed by
Additional footage courtesy of Greenpeace