How we hunted down a destructive fishing fleet – and confiscated their gear

Industrial ships equipped with 100km fishing lines are pushing ocean life to the brink. But from the waves of the Atlantic to the corridors of power, Greenpeace crews are standing in their way.


I’m out in the middle of the North Atlantic. All we can see is the night sky, the deep, dark blue of the ocean and the green lights of the radar screens on the bridge of our ship, the Arctic Sunrise.

We’re chasing longliners; industrial fishing vessels that use vast lines, sometimes over 100kms long, with thousands of hooks attached. These boats have pushed the North Atlantic’s ecosystem to breaking point. They’ve pushed species like mako sharks close to extinction, to feed a billion dollar global industry for shark products which Europe is central to. We want to find and confiscate these lines and hooks from the sea and the mouths of sharks and other wildlife.

‘Cat and Mouse with radars in the night’

We need to wait until after midnight to see when and where the Siempre Perla, one of these industrial longliners from Spain, will start to set its hooks. We then give it time to move on so we can follow its tracks and find its fishing buoys, without being spotted. Cat and Mouse with radars in the night.

Three crew members look through binoculars out of a window. The ocean and evening sky are reflected in the window.

As night falls over the Atlantic, the crew scanned the seas for signs of fishing gear. © Pedro Armestre / Greenpeace

Most of its buoys are just little floats the size of a basketball. And of the couple of hundred buoys they’ve dropped over nearly 100kms, less than 20 will have lights. It’s like looking for a drop in the ocean. We can see the occasional signal of the longliner’s location and speed, and use this to figure out its activity. When do they like to set their lines? When do they haul in their catch? When do they sleep?

Just after midnight we got a ping with a promising speed and direction, so set off on the search. At 2am we arrive at the spot and slow the engines. Silence as we peer out the windows. Suddenly we see a little blinking green light – a friendly little light in the darkness marking a much more grisly scene below the waves.

Standing on the darkened bridge of a ship, Sophie Cooke's face is illuminated by the radar screen she's examining.

Sophie and the crew worked through the night to track down industrial fishing ships. © Pedro Armestre / Greenpeace

We now need to wait until first light so we can start to haul the line. But we have a problem. The Longliner has been setting its hooks in a loop that brings it back very very close to us. Then just a few miles away it shuts down its engine to rest for a few hours before they head off to haul in the catch. It starts to drift closer and closer to us. We don’t want to be discovered but we also don’t want to lose the buoy we have found and have to call off the action. After waiting so long for good weather, we don’t want to miss this window.

Dawn is rising slowly and first we see the blip on the radar get closer and closer. Then we see the vessel’s lights on the horizon. If they check the radar or look out the windows they could see us too. It’s too close. We need to act. Maybe they haven’t seen us. In the dim first light of day just maybe we can see those tiny orange basketball-like buoys, floating in the choppy sea.

Cutting the lines

A team of spotters with binoculars arrive and we head off in the direction we expect the next buoy to be. It’s tense, finally we have good weather but we could be losing our chance. There is the silence of concentration. Then, “I see one!!’ and then one, then two, then five hands are pointing. We turn the ship. Minutes later another calls out “I see another!” Bit by bit for the next two hours we spot and follow these tiny dots in the sea, the captain hand steering to our pointed fingers.

Slowly we edge away from the longliner, who then fires up its engines and speeds off in the opposite direction to the other end of the line to begin the haul, but we are now miles away and in the full light of day we are also ready to pull in the line, so we can stop as many sharks and other marine animals from being caught that day.

A swordfish caught on a fishing line lies on the surface of the water alongside a black inflatable boat

Activists free a swordfish caught on the fishing line. © Pedro Armestre / Greenpeace

Thankfully most of the hooks we pull up are empty, we’ve managed to get to it before too many animals took their bait, so we can remove empty hook after hook out of the ocean. But at one point the line starts tugging so we bring it in as gently as possible and a dark shiny fin breaks the water. An endangered mako shark! It looks small; likely a juvenile. Our boat team gets in as close as possible, their small boat bouncing in the swell, but the hook is buried too deep in its mouth to cut it free, so they cut the fishing line close to the hook to give the shark the best chance of life and it swims free.

Activist in an inflatable boat use wirecutters to free a lancetfish from a fishing line. One holds the fish out of the water while the other cuts the line.

Activists directly removed the hooks wherever possible, but in some cases, like with this lancetfish, they had to cut the line to give the animal the best chance of survival. © Pedro Armestre / Greenpeace

A drop in the ocean

In our time in the North Atlantic we confiscated over 30 kilometers of Industrial longline and hundreds of fishing hooks destined for the mouths of sharks, swordfish and other marine life. We did what we could but this is just a small proportion of the over 1000kms of line and thousands of hooks in the water in this area every night. About half of the fishing gear we confiscated was from within a Marine Protected Area, but it has no protection against this type of industry.

This is why we need a strong Global Ocean Treaty that includes protections from fishing – to then free 30% of the oceans from human activity by 2030.

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