The clouds were heavy in the sky and the water rippled under the wind as the Rainbow Warrior entered on Wednesday the Chagos marine reserve, established by the UK government in 2010.
This area is a no-take marine reserve, one of the biggest in the world, so it was with great suspicion that we saw what appeared to be a boat looming on the horizon. We quickly grabbed the binoculars and watched that dark spot slowly come into view.The boat’s automatic identification system (AIS) was turned off, heightening our suspicions. But we also needed to be cautious because we’re currently sailing through a high risk piracy area to the Maldives as part of Greenpeace’s Indian Ocean expedition focused on the problem of overfishing.
And while we watched, two other boats appeared on the horizon and we soon identified all three of them as Sri Lankan fishing vessels.
Each of the boats were deep within the Chagos marine reserve and two of them were not on the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) list of registered boats, which means they were not allowed to be fishing in the region at all, let alone in a marine reserve where all commercial fishing is prohibited.
They were pirates! Not the Somali kind, but fishing pirates.
It was quickly decided to inspect the boats, given that they were on our transit route and within range. A speedboat was launched from the Rainbow Warrior, allowing our team to catch up with the boat, and with permission from the fishing boat captain we boarded his boat.
Once on board the creaking, stinking boat, we talked with the captain to try and find out where the boat fishes and how they operate. We also looked into the hold and found it stuffed to the brim with dozens of sharks, including thresher sharks, a protected species in this region.
It was another indication of the continued threat to sharks, a hunted species across the world due to the increased, and lucrative, demand for shark fins in Asian markets.
Every hour 8,000 sharks are killed so their fins can end up as a dried status symbol in a soup – yes, that’s 73 million sharks every year! It leaves me wondering whether I will ever see a thresher shark alive and what will happen to our oceans when sharks are gone?
And with that in the back of our minds, we approached the second illegal boat, now partly obscured by driving rain and heavy swells.
Within minutes we were completely wet, but once on board the slippery wooden fishing boat, cleaner and better organised than the first, after talking with the friendly captain we inspected the hold and mainly found skipjack tuna.
But because it was not registered with the IOTC either, this fishing boat was also illegal, irrespective of the fish it was catching.
Returning to the Rainbow Warrior, we gave the details of the boats to the Foreign Office in London, urging Britain to send its patrol vessel the Pacific Marlin out from the nearby US military base Diego Garcia to inspect the vessels.
The Foreign Office said it would act on the information, but it is not yet clear what action the UK will take, if at all any. In the early hours of Thursday, our radar indicated the Pacific Marlin patrol ship was still at Diego Garcia.
Illegal fishing is a massive problem in the Indian Ocean, resulting in the plunder of fish stocks. It is stealing from coastal communities and vessels that repeatedly fail to comply with the rules must be stopped. Our oceans need fewer fishing vessles, proper controls and enforcement of fishing regulations.
The Chagos archipelago is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, which means the UK government has responsibility toprotect the Chagos marine reserve from illegal fishing.
Without enforcement this protected area is not worth the paper it is written on and pirate fisherman will continue to go unpunished. This is a situation that is untenable and totally unacceptable.
It is time for action – it is time for the UK government to act and for the Indian Ocean region to tighten rules that allow pirate fishing.