A Greenpeace boat in Antarctica
All photos by Andrew McConnell / Greenpeace
climate change

The Battle to Save Our Oceans from an Invisible Threat

I joined Greenpeace on the high seas at the end of their year-long project to abolish a severe threat to our oceans.
06 April 2020, 4:49am

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Crammed around a table in a makeshift maritime office, a team of ten investigators, campaigners and technicians are hunched over a small television screen.

As Sophie Cooke briefs the international group of activists – from China, Russia, Turkey, Mexico and Britain – on their upcoming mission, we're all occasionally forced to grab hold of a bookshelf when a particularly large wave rocks the boat.

For weeks now, from the Greenpeace ship MV Esperanza, Cooke has been tracking vessels coming in and out of the waters surrounding the South Orkneys, a group of islands in this remote corner of the Antarctic.

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Lead Investigator Sophie Cooke tracks a reefer (refrigerated cargo vessel) in the Southern Ocean en route to the South Orkney Islands, from the Esperanza in the Drake Passage.

I'm joining Greenpeace on the final leg of a year-long project that has seen the organisation travel from the North to the South Pole to draw attention to the existential threats facing our oceans. Through a combination of research and direct action, they've looked at the biggest challenges facing an area that covers 71 percent of the planet – from climate change to plastic pollution, deep sea mining and oil drilling – while traversing the length and breadth of the globe.

Home to an abundance of penguins, whales and seals, the Antarctic is one of Earth's last unspoiled wildernesses, barely touched by humankind. But the sheltered bays of the South Orkneys have, in recent years, also become a hub for transhipments: the largely unregulated process in which fishing vessels transfer their catch to cargo boats, taking supplies on board in exchange.

On this expedition, it's this complex and opaque practice – and the environmental and human risks it poses in fragile ecosystems like the Antarctic – that Greenpeace want to push into the spotlight. And it looks like, finally, there's a target in their sights to help them do this.

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A Greenpeace team operate a ROV (Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle) to film whale bones on the ocean floor, in Whalers Bay, Deception Island, in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica.

"We picked up this transhipment boat – the Taganrogskiy Zaliv – over the last couple of days," Cooke explains, holding a grainy picture of the 143-metre-long vessel. "Once it had gone past the Malvinas [Falkland Islands] yesterday morning we knew it was coming here."

Bringing up a digital map with lines criss-crossing the globe, she takes the team through the last few months of the ship's journey, from West Africa to Brazil and into the oceans off the coast of Argentina. "According to its course," Cooke continues, "she's making her way directly towards us."

There's no indication that the Taganrogskiy Zaliv has taken part in any illegal activity, I'm reminded. In fact, there's no reason to suspect it's been doing anything against any specific letter of the law. But that, according to Greenpeace, is part of the problem: our international system for monitoring and protecting our oceans, they say, is simply not fit for purpose. And they hope that by taking actions like the one I'm about to witness, soon that might change.

The Taganrogskiy Zaliv is registered to the shell company Delia Navigation Corp, at 80 Broad Street, Monrovia, in the West African country of Liberia – an address that comes up time after time in documents leaked in the Paradise and Panama papers. Liberia is a tax haven popular for ship registration, offering owners the chance to avoid the higher taxes and stricter labour laws of the countries in which they might otherwise be based. The Taganrogskiy Zaliv flies the flag of Panama, which means its owners can, if they so wish, pay their workers less and take advantage of looser regulations, while avoiding income tax themselves.

The Taganrogskiy Zaliv is operated by the Laskaridis families, one of Greece's richest families. Two brothers, Panos and Thanasis Laskaridis, founded their shipping business in 1977 and have gone on to build a corporate empire, investing not just in boats but hotels, casinos and even an airline. Today, Thanasis Laskaridis is based in London. The Laskaridis family wouldn't confirm to VICE whether they actually own the vessel, although they have been the beneficial owners of at least three boats of the same name in the past.

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Will McCallum paints a fender, found on Elephant Island, with the words "Ocean Destroyer" ahead of an action in the waters around the South Orkney Islands, Antarctica.

At 5PM on the 15th of December, 2019, the Taganrogskiy Zaliv departed from Rio De Janeiro. Four days later it arrived in an area off the coast of Argentina known as the Blue Hole: a vast expanse of ocean that's home to a unique ecosystem. Satellite data shows it remained there for over two months, and that for long periods it looked to be transhipping.

The monitoring of fishing, and the protection of our oceans, is governed by a series of complex regulations. Coastal nations have jurisdiction over the waters up to 200 miles from their shores. Accounting for 42 percent of the world’s oceans, here states have the power to ensure stocks are kept at sustainable levels. Everywhere beyond these invisible borders is the high seas – almost entirely ungoverned international waters.

In an effort to bring some order to the total chaos – which has seen catches from the high seas increase by 400 percent since the 1950s – a bunch of regional intergovernmental bodies were created, tasked with protecting specific areas. They've had limited success, mostly because it's a fragmented approach to a distinctly global problem.

But the Blue Hole waters of the Southwest Atlantic, where the Taganrogskiy Zaliv spent January and February this year, are even more exposed: with almost no governance whatsoever, when boats fish here – sometimes over 400 vessels at a time – it's a total free-for-all.

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Alena Kislitsina trains on board the Esperanza in the Beagle Channel, en route to Antarctica.

Just like fishing boats all over the world, vessels in the Blue Hole are reliant on transhipments. Refrigerated cargo ships (known as reefers) like the Taganrogskiy Zaliv travel the world servicing fishing boats in the remotest of areas, swapping food, fuel and workers for fish to be taken back to land. Away from the eyes of any serious policing, monitoring or oversight, all manner of wrongdoing can occur. There are well-documented instances of human rights abuses: more than 2,000 enslaved fishermen from Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos were rescued from horrific conditions on trawlers back in 2015. Trafficked via transhipments, some had been held captive for two decades or more. There's no suggestion the Laskaridis company is involved in these activities.

Transhipments are also how fish that is deemed Illegal, Unreported or Unregulated (known as IUU) enters the global market.

While Illegal and Unreported fishing refers to fish caught through the violation of state laws or international agreements, what comes from places like the Blue Hole is Unregulated: nobody will ever know who caught it, how they did so or the potentially devastating environmental impact extracting it from the ocean might have had. And when placed on board these reefers, thrown in the same freezers as regulated fish, it's laundered into the legitimate system, becoming impossible to trace. All in, IUU fishing is estimated to be worth between $10 and $23.5 billion annually.

Dodgy fishing vessels, then, aren't the only problem – the owners of the reefers keeping them operational should take responsibility too. Over the past three years Greenpeace has identified around 1,600 ships which look to be part of this global network.

The Taganrogskiy Zaliv – edging ever closer towards us – is one of them. And having studied its activity closely, Greenpeace believes it to have unregulated fish on board.

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Greenpeace's Alena Kislitsina speaks with the Russian 'reefer' vessel, Taganrogskiy Zaliv, near the South Orkney Islands, Antarctica.

We're just 14 nautical miles from the shores of Coronation Island when a stench that's crept into my cabin becomes overwhelming. Chucking on my polar gear, I head outside to the deck for some air; a few penguins are swimming alongside us. On the other end of the MV Esperanza, a small crowd has gathered: a handful of huge fishing ships are approaching the horizon.

Fishing for krill began in the Antarctic in the 1960s. Boats from the Soviet Union were the first to harvest the small shrimp-like creatures from the waters here.

Today, the fishery is comprised of ships from Norway, Ukraine, Russia, Japan and South Korea. Being so far from land and human habitation today, these floating factories can spend well over a year in almost constant operation. Just like the vessels operating in the South Atlantic, the krill fishery here relies on transhipments with ships like the Taganrogskiy Zaliv. It would be almost impossible to operate a profitable fishing business in the Antarctic if boats regularly returned to port.

In 2018, Greenpeace had a breakthrough in their Antarctic campaigning, after highlighting how krill fishing boats were threatening wildlife by competing for fish with penguin colonies and whale feeding grounds. Greenpeace campaigned hard against the Norwegian company fishing here: Aker BioMarine. After public pressure, the industry was forced to respond. By targeting the biggest player, and a company based in Europe, Greenpeace eventually managed to get Aker BioMarine to support their campaign, by having them help broker a voluntary agreement to create no-go buffer zones up to 40km around land.

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Crew from the Esperanza assemble an inflatable boat on the heli deck, while traveling towards the South Orkney Islands in Antarctica.

Greenpeace is hoping a similar campaigning approach might pay dividends with transhipment vessels, too. As VICE reported last month, 26 reefers have been operating within the Antarctic in the past three years, and in that time these vessels have been inspected by port authorities 168 times. In at least 119 instances, those inspections failed – a failure rate of 70 percent. And in waters like this, the consequences if things go wrong could be catastrophic.

Take The Uruguay Reefer, which sunk after transhipping in the Antarctic in 2017. While the crew of 43 people were safely evacuated, the reefer ended up at the bottom of the ocean, as did the 560 tons of heavy fuel oil (HFO) it was reportedly carrying. The use of HFO is banned in the Antarctic because of the serious risks it poses to the environment.

Just like the Taganrogskiy Zaliv, the Uruguay Reefer was owned by the Laskaridis family, the owners of one of the largest fleets of reefers operating internationally – and by a long way the biggest fish in the Antarctic. While the Falklands Government confirmed to VICE that they believe the Uruguay was carrying HFO, it is understood that the Laskaridis family disputes this. They could not comment because of ongoing legal proceedings.

Back on board, Alena Kislitsina – a Moscow-based Greenpeace activist – speaks with the Taganrogskiy Zaliv crew in Russian. The ship is about to cross the 60th parallel, the start of protected Antarctic waters. They confirm there is fish from the unregulated Blue Hole in their hold. Kislitsina asks them to turn back, a request that's ignored.

"To allow ships – some with unknown owners and flagged to countries that require lower health and safety standards – to operate in the unregulated fisheries of the south-west Atlantic makes a mockery of the claim that the Antarctic Ocean is being managed properly," Will McCallum, Head of Oceans at Greenpeace, tells me when we catch up in the ship's lounge.

Any fishery that's serious about sustainability and transparency, he argues, cannot allow ships with unregulated fish on board, and poor health and safety records, to operate in the area. "Doing so makes them complicit in IUU fishing and labour rights abuses at sea." The Laskaridis company disputes Greenpeace's conclusions, suggesting many issues with their boats in the Antarctic are minor, and remedied immediately.

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The South Orkney Islands, Antarctica.

It's barely light outside, but by 6AM on the morning of the action our boat is buzzing. Having taken cover behind an iceberg in the hope that the crew on board the Taganrogskiy Zaliv won't see what's happening, and so buying the Greenpeace team some precious extra time, on the decks of the MV Esperanza preparations are well under way for a direct action. There’s a team using a crane to lower a Yokohama fender emblazoned with the words "Ocean Destroyer" into the water. It’s a huge rubber bumper used to help boats come together to tranship at sea, which has been repurposed after they found it surrounded by penguins, washed up and deserted on an Antarctic beach.

Meanwhile, a team of climbers who’ll board the Taganrogskiy Zaliv from a speed boat without permission are doing their final checks. For days, the three of them have been training to prepare themselves for this tricky operation: wearing full polar gear, they’ll attach ladders to the reefer’s stern before clambering up with the intention of completing an inspection – only icy waters below them. They want to check whether health and safety standards are being met, and to see firsthand the IUU fish their target is carrying.

Direct actions can often feel like a form of vigilantism – but out here, the sense that Greenpeace are taking the law into their own hands feels particularly pronounced. Of course, they plan on holding a peaceful protest to generate attention, but the desire to inspect the boat is real. There’s nobody else here bothering to do it.

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Greenpeace activists board the reefer Taganrogskiy Zaliv, in order to carry out an inspection. The refrigerated cargo vessel was on its way to carry out a transhipment.

A drone takes off to film from above, when through the tannoy Fernando – the Esperanza’s captain – gives the signal: it's all systems go. I board a separate speedboat following closely behind the climbers, and watch on as – using a series of poles, clips and carabiners – Greenpeace's climbers attempt to make their way onboard.

After two botched attempts to clip their ladder on, they make it. One by one, the Greenpeace activists head up. While in the end their request to inspect the boat was refused, they hope those on board – and the owners and authorities who’ll later hear about what happened – will get the message: that until they get their shit together, actions like this will continue.

"Part of the problem with this industry is that it operates so far away from land," explains McCallum, one of the self-appointed inspectors, once the action over. "And when it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. Countries need to step up and start properly enforcing the law in international waters, and we need a Global Ocean Treaty that closes the governance gaps existing in the high seas. And they need to do it quickly."

Later this year, depending on coronavirus restrictions, international delegates will meet at the United Nations' New York headquarters for the Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. After two years of work, it’s set to be the final meeting at which an international treaty to address conservation in the high seas will finally be completed.

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Greenpeace activists supported by the Esperanza tow a fender bearing the message “Ocean Destroyer.”

Greenpeace is arguing that 30 percent of the world’s oceans should be protected by 2030 to ensure it can continue to provide food for our planet, while playing its vital role in regulating the global climate. And to help achieve this, they want to see urgent action taken on transhipments. They say no vessel posing a threat to the environment or the safety of workers should be allowed to tranship starting immediately.

Professor Rashid Sumaila, Director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at Canada’s University of British Columbia, reckons the best possible outcome on the global fishing front would be to ban it in the high seas completely. "In our latest research," he tells me over Skype, "we've found that this would radically improve biodiversity, not just in those areas but also in fishing spots covered by national jurisdiction."

The science is clear: when we leave areas of our oceans alone for good, they have time to heal. And fish being fish, they’ll soon swim into the areas where they can be caught with stricter controls. This would also, Sumaila explains, make for a much more equitable system. Currently the five biggest fishing nations take over 60 percent of value from the high seas. Hardly fair, given these oceans supposedly belong to all of us. And it would bode well for the workers on board fishing boats too – forced labour and modern slavery are much harder to hide when authorities exist to enforce the law.

Our call over, I head outside onto the deck. A message in the ship's WhatsApp group informs me we're coming to a halt. I step outside into the bitter cold to see we’re surrounded on all sides by whales. I count at least 40, stretching out through the falling snow in every direction. More than any Greenpeace stunt, fact, figure or statistic, it’s sights like this which act as a stark reminder of what we have to lose.