WHEN Greenpeace activists boarded a Chinese Taipei fishing vessel last week, they made a grim discovery.
Inside the freezer of the longline tuna fishing vessel Ming Maan Shyang No.20, they found more sharks than tuna headed for the Asian market.
The Chinese Taipei vessel had been on the high seas for just two weeks.
Boarded by activists from the Greenpeace ship Esperanza in international waters that border Papua New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, the crew of the Ming Maan Shyang No.20 were more than happy to show off their catch.
"Shockingly, the hold of this long liner contained 40 tuna and 41 sharks, including the vulnerable oceanic whitetip shark, as well as 22 swordfish, nine blue marlin and one striped marlin," said Greenpeace spokeswoman Josephine Prasad.
"Coupled with the significant amount of by-catch ù in particular sharks ù this vessel is amongst the 3000 longliners that fish in the Pacific high seas without any control or enforcement. "
Ms Prasad said some of these vessels "essentially steal millions of dollars worth of fish from Pacific island nations by fishing in national waters after claiming to only fish in international waters, ignoring the need to pay license fees".
The Esperanza ù on the Defending Our Pacific tour which aims to prevent the plunder of Pacific tuna and stress calls for the restoration of the health of the world's oceans through the creation of marine reserves ù crossed the path of the Ming Maan Shyang No.20 while it was fishing.
Ms Prasad said the activists were invited on board and documented the catch and licenses of the vessel which is fishing in the Pacific Commons, an area vulnerable to pirate fishing and in urgent need of protection as a marine reserve.
The Ming Maan Shyang's tuna catch was split evenly between bigeye and yellowfin tune, both of which are classified as vulnerable and near threatened in a recent assessment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Greenpeace estimates 35 per cent of longline catch consists of non-target species, such as threatened oceanic sharks and turtles.
Many longline tuna vessels also engage in controversial shark-finning activities, slicing off the fins and letting the ancient predator sink to the bottom of the ocean where they die slow, agonising deaths.
Some of these vessels have been documented in numerous illegal fishing activities.
It is estimated that between 21-46 per cent of the tuna caught in the Pacific is taken by pirate fishing ships, mostly longliners.
Ms Prasad said with tuna stocks in other oceans now depleted, fishing fleets from Asia, USA, and Europe have turned their attention to the Pacific, the source of more than half of all tuna consumed globally.
Greenpeace and other conservation groups ù including the Coral Reef Alliance and the Pew Environment Group, which are pushing for legislation to turn Fiji's waters into a shark sanctuary ù say longline tuna vessels are notorious for their by-catch of endangered species as well as pirate fishing and the laundering of unreported tuna catch from the Pacific Commons.
These international waters of the Pacific are protected from purse seine fishing by surrounding Island nations.
Greenpeace is calling for marine reserves off limits to fishing to be established in the Pacific Commons and is also seeking the reduction of fishing efforts in the Pacific by 50 per cent in a bid to keep valuable fish stocks at a sustainable level, ensuring fish for the future.
"Greenpeace is demanding the Pacific Commons be closed to longliners as they are prone to illegal activities and responsible for slaughtering ocean life including sharks, rays, marlin and turtles while driving Pacific tuna to the brink of collapse," said Ms Prasad.
According to shark campaigner Angelo Villagomez of Pew, shark meat and their fins are mostly taken to Hong Kong, from where they are transferred to mainland China for processing at cheap labour.
They are sent back to Hong Kong for marketing back to mainland China and to Taiwan at a higher cost.
Taiwan has discussed a ban of shark fishing but a number of its population still buys shark fin soup, which is a delicacy that is showed off by hosts as a sign of wealth. On mainland China, there is growing awareness of the danger of an extinction of sharks, whose existence ensures the sustainability of the world's reef system.