Pirates, Hotlines and Diego

Posted by simon clydesdale - 25 October 2012 at 2:52pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: © Greenpeace

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.

I have just received an email advertising a job as an intern at Greenpeace.  This is one of many such emails that I receive from you each year.  Greenpeace should be ashamed of itself for perpetuating this internship culture. 

1. if you have a job worth doing, then pay someone properly for it.

2. this system puts those unable to work for free at a significant disadvantage and may prevent you from recruiting the best talent

3. when you do so much to protect the environment, why do you not extend the same concern to your staff (by paying them)?

I am sure this post will be removed and no answer provided, but I hope that it is reflected upon that people like me, who support your goals and actions, are moved to write to complain about your employment practices.



Sorry to hear that you're upset Drew. Personally i have worked 10 years as a volunteer for Greenpeace before i got paid. I know many many people within Greenpeace who have started as volunteer. The fact is and remains that Greenpeace would have never come to where it is now without the thousands who have volunteered one way or another. 

Hi Drew,

I have also been involved in Greenpeace for 4 years, working a volunteer/intern in a variety if capacities including working on the ships. For me, Greenpeace is something I believe in and support 100% and as my dream is to work on the GP ships but I do not have enough/sufficient sailing experience from outside GP to join as paid crew, I have been on board twice as a volunteer.

GP is 100% funded by public donation and as a financial supporter myself, I would much prefer they spend the limited financial income they have on campaigns, research and finding out who the bad guys are. In the UK only 7% of our total annual income goes to adminstrative costs which include salaries. To me, that is a brilliant thing, that our money is going to the right place and not just spending all of it on salaries with no results to show for it.

I truly believe in the work that GP do, and for me, yes, I am lucky to be in a position to be able to take an unpaid job to do so. I know some people are not in such a fortunate situation but for me, the commitment I wanted to make to help protect our planet, highlight environmental injustices and be part of an amazing organisation making positive changes and getting results, far outweighed my need to be paid.

GP looks after anyone who interns/volunteers. They are the lifeblood of GP. GP could not function without its networks of volunteers and activists across the world. I am proud to be one of them. If you give a little to them, show your commitment and believe, they give a whole lot more back, believe me.




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