Some days just have it all.
A long day ends at 5am after my piracy watch onboard the Rainbow Warrior. We cross the Indian Ocean, moving through a piracy zone. Our security toolbox includes the eyes and ears of crew and campaigners onboard this beautiful vessel. My two hour stint was beneath a mind-bending lattice of stars and shooting stars striping the sky, with Orion’s belt crowning the massive A-frame that bestrides the Warrior.
It was all rather different 18 hours earlier. We were transiting through the world’s largest marine reserve, the 550,000 km2 of marine protected area that is the Chagos Archipelago, when the Captain informed us that we had fishing vessels ahead. First thing we do is make sure these are not Somali pirates; they would be a long way from home but it’s not unknown.
We see they are three Sri Lankan vessels, most likely targeting sharks and tuna. Not in these waters, boys. Time for us to get into our inflatables and find out what’s going on.
My colleagues jump into an inflatable and head over to our new friends. Meanwhile I hit the phones. My UK Government Foreign Office contact isn’t in yet, so I try the private office of the UK Fishing Minister Richard Benyon. This is outside his remit but if they can’t hook me up with the right contact then things really have gone to pot.
I get through and encounter someone who clearly wasn’t expecting a call from the Rainbow Warrior in the middle of the Indian Ocean to start his day. Before long I’m talking to the man in room K218. From this room, the Head of the BIOT Section in the Overseas Territories Directorate oversees one of the most important protected areas on this planet. All this semi-imperial terminology makes it hard to banish images of patrician figures draped in linen, reclining deep within red leather armchairs perusing freshly pressed copies of the Daily Telegraph. Refreshingly I encounter a business-like approach, and I supply co-ordinates of the three vessels and request that the UK send its patrol vessel Pacific Marlin to engage with these Sri Lankan boats.
With permission from the captains we board two of the three fishing boats; one's full of thresher sharks, a protected species in this region. The other had been catching skipjack tuna. Our documentation of the boats and liaison with the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission proves that these two boats are illegal and have no right to be in these waters. The third boat is legal, but I have an inkling this crew didn’t sail 1,800 km south from Sri Lanka for the air and a chance to see the world. These are fishermen. They fish. They are deep inside a marine reserve. But we don’t have proof they were fishing here. Interviewing the tuna wouldn’t get us far, so we chalk this one in the ‘close but no cigar’ column.
At our behest, my man in the Foreign Office is now looking into using our documentation to blacklist the two illegal vessels. He tells me he has informed the UK patrol vessel Pacific Marlin of our intelligence. However our radar shows this vessel remains moored in Diego Garcia. One boat patrolling half a million square kilometres? The UK government needs to put its money & boats where its mouth is.
Did I mention my new acquaintance Diego Garcia? Not a Latin American footballer, rather the US military base in the Chagos Archipelago: the ‘black box’ island leased from the UK in a dirty deal that has denied the Chagossians their homeland since the mid-1960s. Diego Garcia has become a prime US military outpost, marvellously remote and therefore perfect as a staging post for bombing exploits, rendition and the transit of nuclear warheads. On my watch I see the roving searchlights scouring the skies above Diego Garcia off in the distance - echoes of Gotham City lights that would lift the heart of my Batman-obsessed 3 year old son who I haven’t seen for three weeks.
Spending two hours in the dark, keeping watch for pirates, helps puts things into perspective. Who are the real pirates here? Who is stealing what and from whom? The Sri Lankan fishermen we encountered today in their illegal vessels form just one small piece of the Western Indian Ocean jigsaw, where 18% of fishing is estimated to be illegal. The guardians of the Indian Ocean region must act to tighten rules that allow pirate fishing.
There are also legal boats in these seas doing even more damage. Unmitigated longliners fishing with lines up to 170 km long with thousands of hooks; and purse seine fleets indiscriminately encircling their giant nets around the destructive marine minefields created by FADs (Fish Aggregation Devices). Both of these fishing methods impacting not just tuna, but also devastating sharks and rays, pulling at the threads of ecosystems until they unravel. Other ways are possible: we're on our way to the Maldives, where we will see pole and line tuna fishing with practically no bycatch that supports thriving local communities.
The first glow of dawn rises behind Diego Garcia. My shift is over. Others rise to take my place. We’re watching. Bearing witness, and more.