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Authorities are investigating a series of blood-curdling crew testimonials.

Taiwan’s Tuna Vessels Caught Illegally Shark Finning, Killing Dolphins & Turtles

2018/12/05 , News
Nick Aspinwall
Credit: AP / Wong Maye-E
Nick Aspinwall
Nick Aspinwall is a journalist based in Taipei and an editor-at-large for The News Lens. He has also written for The Diplomat and News Deeply. When he’s not reporting, he can be found on a diving boat or perhaps stranded deep within a remote mountain range.

Warning: Some images in the following report may be disturbing to some readers.

Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency (FA) is investigating after a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) based on crew testimony revealed illegal shark finning, along with the hunting and capture of protected species including dolphins, whales and turtles, aboard five longline tuna vessels flagged or linked to Taiwan.

The report and accompanying video by EJF, a London-based nongovernmental organization, also detailed potential human rights abuses on four of the five vessels, including verbal threats, salary deductions, physical abuse, and long working hours in violation of Taiwanese law.

Aboard these vessels, which fished in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, dolphins were used as bait for sharks, and shark fins were hidden from investigators at the bottom of freezers before being unloaded at port in Taiwan in the early morning, out of sight from investigators.

According to the report from EJF investigators who traveled to Indonesia to interview crew members of the five vessels, fishermen would harpoon dolphins and drag them alongside the boat until the dolphin became exhausted, at which point they were hauled onto the boat to be used as shark bait. If they were still alive, crew members said they would use a car battery to electrocute and stun the dolphin.

“Dolphins have a lot of blood, like humans, so it attracts the sharks as their sense of smell is sharp. Then they eat the bait,” one crew member told EJF.

Fishermen would harpoon dolphins and drag them alongside the boat until the dolphin became exhausted, at which point they were hauled onto the boat to be used as shark bait. If they were still alive, crew members said they would use a car battery to electrocute and stun the dolphin.

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Credit: EJF
Dolphins, such as this short-beaked common dolphin shown with a gaff puncture wound to its head, were used as shark bait after being hunted and sometimes electrocuted with car batteries.

Crew members on the vessels reported catching between 30 and 600 sharks per day, often using dolphins as bait. These included vulnerable species such as smooth hammerheads and bigeye threshers, both of which are on the IUCN’s red list. Crew members on all five vessels would usually throw the bodies of the sharks back to sea, keeping the fins.

The crew of one Taiwan-flagged vessel recalled unloading shark fins in the early hours during occasional port stops in Taiwan.

“We would unload in the middle of the night at 3 a.m., pull the fins out and sell them,” one crew member said. “Captain would often tell us to hurry when we were unloading the fins.”

Shark fins were hidden from investigators at the bottom of freezers before being unloaded at port in Taiwan in the early morning, out of sight from investigators.

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Credit: EJF
Blue shark fins shown in a basket aboard one Taiwanese vessel.
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Credit: EJF
A recently finned blue shark. Shark finning is illegal under Taiwanese law.

Crew members from another Taiwanese-owned vessel flying under a Panamanian flag of convenience (FOC) reported catching a false killer whale at the insistence of a Taiwanese foreman who was on duty. They then decapitated the whale and removed its teeth to make necklaces.

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Credit: EJF
After the crew caught the false killer whale, they proceeded to decapitate it and remove its teeth to be made into necklaces. Photo from Nov. 2017

The crew of this vessel would also catch vulnerable species such as silky sharks and olive ridley turtles. The practice is forbidden by Taiwanese and Panamanian law.

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An olive ridley turtle (L) and silky shark caught by crew members. Credit: EJF

The ship’s senior crew, reportedly consisting of a Taiwanese foreman and Japanese captain, would threaten to withhold salaries and food from Indonesian crew members. One crew member tried to pull in a shark, only for it to cut the line and swim away.

“The Taiwanese foreman saw this and he came down the steps shouting at me,” said the crew member. “When he got to me he slapped me on the back of the head for my mistake.”

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Credit: EJF
Crew members provided photographic and testimonial evidence to EJF investigators of hunting dolphins, sharks and turtles.

This series of incidents marks the latest occurrence of Taiwanese vessels running afoul of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices. Taiwan’s fishing fleet has operated under a “yellow card” warning from the European Commission for IUU fishing violations since the fall of 2015. A “red card” would result in a full ban on Taiwanese seafood exports to the European Union, which Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture (CoA) estimates would cost the industry NT$7 billion (US$243.6 million) in annual losses.

Allegations of human rights abuses on board are also not new for Taiwan’s high seas fishing fleet. A May Greenpeace report unveiled a series of rights abuses aboard several Taiwanese vessels. In June, the Taiwanese vessel Fuh Sheng 11 became the first ship detained under the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Work in Fishing Convention (C188), which regulates working conditions on deep sea fishing vessels, after Indonesian crew members reported abuse and nonpayment. Taiwan, despite the protestations of EJF and several other NGOs, has not ratified the convention.

Experts concur that IUU fishing violations and human rights abuses at sea are reliably correlated.

The vessels in the latest EJF report have not been identified per the request of the FA, which is currently investigating the evidence provided by crew members to EJF. As of press time, the FA had not responded to a request for comment from The News Lens.

Improved monitoring needed

EJF Deputy Director Max Schmid told The News Lens the latest findings highlight the need for Taiwan to proactively upgrade its electronic monitoring of its high seas fishing fleet.

Taiwan’s FA, which regulates the Taiwanese fishing industry, strengthened its vessel monitoring regulations in 2016, but they remain a step behind the world’s most advanced monitoring schemes. Countries have begun to normalize the installation of CCTV cameras aboard all vessels and have rolled out DNA testing of blood and other marine residue to determine whether ships carried shark fins and endangered marine life species, said Schmid.

“In 10 years, every fishing vessel is going to have” advanced systems such as CCTV monitoring, said Schmid. “Taiwanese longliners are a high priority to have it first because of [their] high level of bycatch” of vulnerable and endangered species, he said.

At present, Taiwan tracks the movement of its high seas fleet via vessel monitoring systems (VMS), which determines whether ships have entered areas in which they are not allowed to fish but fails to track what those vessels actually catch.

Taiwanese ships also send daily electronic logbooks to Taipei, a system which relies entirely on the testimony of captains.

“They’re not filling out: ‘Today we caught 10 endangered sharks,’” said Schmid. “There’s no way of knowing what they’re saying is true.”

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Credit: EJF
A crew member poses with a bigeye thresher shark.

Taiwan’s FA sends investigators to global ports to perform spot checks, but captains and crew members are often able to hide evidence of IUU fishing violations.

The FA has also come under fire for inadequate investigations of work abuse aboard Taiwan’s deep sea vessels, which employ predominantly Indonesian migrant workers. The Fuh Sheng 11, detained by South African ILO investigators in June, was initially cleared of wrongdoing by the FA after its officials were unable to communicate properly with Indonesian crew members due to a language barrier, according to the FA.

The FA later reopened its investigation, sending officials to Indonesia to interview crew members and fining and suspending the Fuh Sheng 11 while referring its case to the Kaohsiung District Prosecutor’s Office to investigate potential violations of Taiwan’s Human Trafficking Prevention Act.

Schmid expressed confidence that the FA has the resources to conduct a thorough investigation of today’s revelations. “We hope for a vigorous and robust investigation,” he said.

Crew members must be empowered

Fishermen aboard four of the five vessels reported work abuse, including threats, physical abuse, and underpayment or nonpayment.

Crew members on one vessel made US$400 (NT$12,315) a month, of which US$350 (NT$10,775) of an individual salary was withheld and sent to a crew member’s family, giving captains the ability to economically coerce their employees, according to EJF.

Read More: Welcome to Taiwan: Beatings, Bodies Dumped at Sea and a Culture of Maritime Abuse

The ILO Work in Fishing Convention, which Taiwan has not ratified, contains stipulations mandating training of crew members to raise awareness of what constitutes a legal catch. Most fishermen aboard Taiwanese vessels, says Schmid, are not armed with a complete knowledge of what to catch – and what to avoid.

“There’s no reason why [vessel owners and the FA] can’t give basic instructions of what’s legal and what’s not legal,” said Schmid, which would make crew members “reliable witnesses” for FA investigators when they return to port.

The false killer whale decapitated by crew members on board one vessel, said Schmid, was killed because the Taiwanese foreman wanted to extract its teeth, which are highly valued, to be made into a necklace. Dolphins, he said, were killed based on the idea they made for ideal shark bait.

“This is the business model of the vessels,” said Schmid.

Ultimately, crew members do not see financial benefits from illegally hunting and killing vulnerable and otherwise protected species.

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Credit: EJF
A smooth hammerhead shark, classified as vulnerable by the IUCN, caught by a Taiwanese-owned vessel in August 2017.

“All this profit is going to the vessel,” he continued, mentioning that some European ships operate on a profit-sharing system in which crew members retain catch percentages after the vessel’s haul is sold at port.

“Taiwanese contracts are set at a monthly rate,” said Schmid. “They’re being told to do this by the captain.”

Crew members must be given space to provide confidential whistleblowing information, said Schmid. At present, Taiwan’s workforce of migrant fishermen is not empowered.

“If [crew members] try and become environmentalists, it’s not going to stop the practice,” said Schmid. “The captain will just get rid of them, and their family will go without food.”

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