Poaching pain: Fears of secret government deals in mass illegal shark fishing

The East Timorese people want to reclaim their fishing industry. Picture: Hayley McKenna

 By HAYLEY McKENNA

in the crystal, serene, blue waters off the coast of Timor-Leste, kids play, parents do their laundry and kilometres away international fishing boats poach hundreds of sharks for mass sale.

International activist organisation Sea Shepherd partnered with the East Timorese government to investigate 15 Chinese boats suspected of catching sharks rather than their license for broad-scale fishing.

Timor-Leste National Police asked for Sea Shepherd’s help as the small nation lacks naval resources. 

Over two weeks, Sea Shepherd documented and observed the 15 Hong Long Fisheries and Pingtan Marine Enterprises vessels, which led to Sea Shepherd Asia director and campaign leader Gary Stokes handing in the evidence to authorities.

But now, Sea Shepherd fears the perpetrators will be let go by the East Timorese government as a result of deals being done. 

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At 6am on September 9, Sea Shepherd crew watch the illegal fishing vessels, ready to pounce, stop and seize.

The Sea Shepherd vessel MV Ocean Warrior and crew plan their attack. What was originally supposed to be a reconnaissance campaign has turned into a high action mission.

Ten of the 15 boats are raided. On one, when Stokes descends below deck he uncovers mountains of small sharks, covering the boat’s floor.

“When you look around the whole room, it was just stacks and stacks and stacks … it was just horrendous,” Stokes says.

Stokes grabs a leopard shark as evidence of poaching. Picture: Jackson Oliver/ Sea Shepherd.

Stokes finds a baby blue shark with little meat on it. “That’s when you realise the scale of the devastation that was just, it was getting everything, wiping out everything,” he says.

After the raid, the Timorese police leave, leaving Stokes and the crew to “protect and guard”.

During the night, several of the detained boats raise anchor and start to move. Stokes and the Ocean Warrior crew tell them to stop immediately or they’ll destroy their communications system with water cannon. Instantly, anchors are dropped back into the water.  

The next day, 10 of the captured boats suddenly bring their anchors up and start to move.

But this time, they don’t agree to Sea Shepherd’s demands and continue to move. The crew radio the boats and the fishermen insist their company has done a deal with the Government and they are free to leave. They leave, joining other boats further down the bay. 

“We just sat there absolutely gobsmacked,” Stokes says.

The next day he goes to East Timor capital Dili to speak to the local police about the alleged deal. They deny it, saying the fishermen are still under arrest and were told to join the other boats in the bay.

Stokes says he is now unsure if the fishermen will be prosecuted or released by the East Timorese police, but thinks it is unlikely with the international scale of the issue.

He meets with the former president of Timor-Leste Dr José Ramos-Horta who asked for Sea Shepherd’s support and pushes for international coverage to avoid the problem being “brushed under the table”.

“It can’t be swept under the table now, they have to address it,” Stokes says. “It’s too public now, it’s too local and there’s a lot of very angry people in Timor.”

Stokes says there may have been a deal from the beginning, since the imposed fee of US$312,000 for 15 industrial fishing boats to fish for a year is “nothing”.

“It should have been in the millions, because that’s what they’ll be making off it. So, the chances are it was in the millions and they declared some of it and the rest went in the back pocket.”

In 2014, Pingtan Marine Enterprises reported that their vessels were estimated to generate an income $800,000 to $1 million each.

International research organisation WorldFish senior scientist Dr David Mills, is operation leader in Timor-Leste and closely collaborates with the East Timorese Ministry for Agriculture and fisheries as a research partner.

“I mean, Sea Shepherd’s concerns are very real. It’s quite possible that they might not be prosecuted,” he says. 

However, Mills argues that the issue of international boats taking Timor-Leste’s resources is not so black and white and he understands that support from the Chinese government-backed fishing vessels for a poor nation like East Timor may be seen at the political level as an opportunity to “develop various sectors and create an economy”.

“You can understand the desire to make that happen as political leaders may perhaps imagine a greater good for the people of the country in allowing that fleet in,” says Mills.

The Pingtan fleets were previously suspended from Indonesia for illegally fishing and subsequently moved to East Timor.

Stokes says Indonesian Minister of Maritime Affairs Susi Pudjiastuti told him 13 of the boats were flagged Indonesian vessels, whereas in paperwork they were flagged as Chinese.

Sea Shepherd discover sharks hidden below. Picture: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd.

Article 92 of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLS) outlines that any ship that “sails under the flags of two or more states … may be assimilated to a ship without nationality”. 

Timor-Leste police was able to board and detain the ships on the basis that the were “stateless” and did not require the permission of other countries involved.

Stokes says the success of the mission “was down to Indonesia helping.”

Monash. University anthropology lecturer Dr Sara Niner has spent many years understanding East Timorese development and culture.

Niner says the issue is very political and maintaining support from Indonesia or Australia would be difficult.

“Timor is very dependent on peaceful relationships to survive. It’s easier to get someone like Sea Shepherd to do it I imagine,” Niner says.

“It’s not really anything to do with Australia.”

David Mills disagrees. “I think it’s very much in Australia’s interest to become involved. Timor-Leste has very limited resources in terms of monitoring and management. If you look at the shark they’re fishing they are definitely shared stock with Australia.”

Varieties of fish including shark are popular in Australia. Picture: Hayley McKenna

Similarly, Stokes would love the support of the Australian government, but says they were “more concerned about a photo” taken of him with an officer of the Australian Federal Police in Timor-Leste, who was there as part of a group training local police.

“I had a phone call from the AFP guys saying, ‘can you do us a big favour and remove that picture because the people in Canberra are really, really angry’,” Stokes says.

“The AFP guys … loved what we did, they actually worked with us and they saw what was going on and they thought it was great. It’s just people in Canberra.

“They were more concerned about that than they were 15 ships that were full of sharks that were caught in the contested waters between Timor and Australia.”

Stokes is disappointed with the government’s reaction. A lot of these sharks would have technically been Australian sharks, he adds.

Timor-Leste is currently ranked 133 in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, with a very high multi-dimensional Poverty Index of 0.322.

David Mills says that, surprisingly for an island nation, fisheries are relatively unimportant in local diets, but there is still considerable potential for the East Timorese people to fish in order to help their problems with malnutrition.

“[The government are] spending massively on infrastructure to try and generate an economy that can live independently of oil, but perhaps because of that the population are getting a bit neglected,” Mills says.

In combining both the problem of poverty and illegal fishing, Gary Stokes suggests an unconventional solution. To sink the vessels in a shallow bay and then create “one of the best wreck-diving sites, kinda like the ‘dive the Pingtan fleets’.

“It will really help their tourism and it would also ensure that no more sharks or anything are killed by these boats.”

Now, Sea Shepherd and Stokes wait for an outcome that they predict could go either way.