File photo: The new Rainbow Warrior III of Greenpeace arrives at the harbour Eemshaven to demonstrate against the use of coal at the coal power plant of RWE/Essent.

Johannesburg - It took four men to pull the swordfish up. Its body was slick, metallic. It slid across the wet floor of the fishing boat.

The men got to work immediately, removing the baited hook that had caught the fish – just one hook of thousands on a single fishing line about 100km long.

A man in a wide-brimmed hat lifted a hakapik and chopped at its bill, disarming it. From swordfish to fish in two seconds.

Red spots pooled on the black floor. A man with a machete sharpened his blade against a wet stone.

Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior III had been tracking the boat through the night.

It was the organisation’s first visit to the Indian Ocean.

It had been campaigning for healthy oceans since the 1960s.

Against nuclear testing, toxic waste dumping, sealing, whaling. And now, pirate fishing – illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU). And that’s above and beyond the decades of overfishing that have already left the world’s fish stocks severely depleted.

Greenpeace had already had successes in the Pacific and west Africa where, earlier this year, Senegal banned foreign vessels fishing from its waters so that the Senegalese people could finally reap the benefits of their own resources.

And those were the vessels with licences, sold for a pittance though they were.

The IUU vessels sneak into waters where they aren’t allowed. They misreport their catches. They disregard conservation measures. And for developing countries without the means of patrolling their waters or enforcing their laws, they’re hard to catch.

Greenpeace had been helping where it could, patrolling Mozambique’s waters for two weeks and inspecting suspect vessels. But they were in the high seas now – somewhere between Mozambique and Madagascar – the wild west of the ocean under the control of no country, where regional organisations can often only attempt to manage the activity of fleets from around the world.

This boat was Taiwanese.

The captain was Chinese.

He offered the activists “American Cola” as they examined his catch records.

“Their main catch is albacore [tuna],” translated Taiwanese student Lizzy Chen.

“And do they trans-ship at sea?” asked Finnish oceans campaigner Sari Tolvanen.

The organisation was new in these waters.

Tolvanen needed to figure out how the system worked here. When was prime season for longliners? And purse seiners? Where did they dock? When did the season start? And did they trans-ship? “Sometimes,” said the captain.

Trans-shipment is just one way that makes IUU fishing difficult to detect: boats transfer their catch to large reefers at sea, and then go on to catch even more fish. When they finally declare their catch in port, the authorities see only those fish still in the freezer.

It throws the stats out and undermines any attempt at determining how many fish can be sustainably caught each year. In this way, even licensed vessels – like this one – were conducting pirate fishing, explained Tolvanen.

The first fish of the day was neither tuna nor swordfish, but by-catch – just another unwanted fish lured by the bobbing bait. The fisherman jerked the hook, ripping out the fish’s jaw, and tossed its body back.

The swordfish came next. But it had value and the Machete Man got to work.

The tail went first. Then the fins. The red river streamed.

The fish contorted against the deck. Its gills opened and closed, opened and closed. Its eye – large as a cricket ball, dark blue as deep sea – stared as the Machete Man cut those gills away.

Then, a slice through the back of the head.

It would die soon, maybe before being thrown into the freezer, maybe only after, and one day, after months at sea, after cleaning and processing and packaging, after being sold and sliced and diced, it would end up on a plate somewhere in the world, just a portion of the millions of tons of fish that will be eaten this year.

Now, body and head still attached by nerves and sinew, it squirmed, shook, shivered on the deck. Welcome to the world of seafood. - The Star