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Happiness: The Chinese zombie ships of West Africa

Chinese Zombie Ships

This article was first posted on the “Defending our Oceans” blog by Greenpeace on March 29, 2006. That site has been retired, but here’s the original on the Internet Archive.

We’re in the big African Queen inflatable, cruising alongside an anchored trawler. It’s more rust than metal – the ship is rotting away. The foredeck is covered in broken machinery. The fish deck is littered with frayed cables, and the mast lies horizontally, hanging over the starboard side. A large rusty Chinese character hangs on railings above the bridge, facing forward. It reads ‘happiness’.

Zizi – our Chinese translator – shouts a greeting. A head pokes out from the accommodation, puzzled at this disturbance. A female voice, out here? He picks his way through the debris to the side of the ship. He’s friendly, but a bit perplexed at our presence. Sarah asks questions – Zizi translates. He’s the 2nd mate, and says that he’s been sitting here on his own for five days, awaiting a new crew, He doesn’t know when they’ll arrive. The trawler itself has been anchored here, at this spot, for three months.

“Is this ship ready for fishing?” we ask. “Yes, of course”, he looks around, gestures at the deck. He seems surprised that we would ask. We’re amazed it’s even floating.

Moff turns the boat, taking us to another of the rusting fishing vessels, 70 nautical miles (130km) off the coast of Guinea, West Africa. We had been told this was where old pirate fishing boats were left at anchor, abandoned. We didn’t expect to find living people on board the dying ships.

Earlier, after leaving the Esperanza, we’d found a big red Russian tanker engaged in the refuelling of Chinese trawlers – with one alongside, the Zhang Yuan Yu 1 was practically falling apart at the seams. The skeleton crew were friendly enough – and told us that they awaiting a new crew, so that they could go fishing again. Except for some brief words with an engineer in overalls on the stern, the Russian crew on the tanker Wkotobo were unfriendly, and didn’t even return our waves.

We head away, going with the current, which was purple and green with the dregs of spilled fuel. Throughout the afternoon, I keep noticing just how dirty the water is, with oil and fragments of plastic.

We arrive at Long way 08, which is in line for refuelling. This trawler is in a poor state, with the hull covered in masses of good-sized shellfish.

Four young Chinese crewman meet us with smiles and welcomes. They tell us that some of them have been on board for 2 years, non-stop. The trawler itself has been out here for eight years, and would probably be kept going for another six or so, or as long it lasted.

Here’s the thing – these ships seldom, or ever, visit a port. They’re re-supplied, refuelled, re-crewed and transhipped (unloaded) at sea. The owners and crews don’t seem to do any basic maintenance, apart from keeping the engine and winches running. There’s no glass in the portholes, and the masts are a mess of useless wiring. These floating deathtraps don’t carry any proper safety gear – on one boat, I saw the half-barrel case of an inflatable liferaft being used to store a net.

We head for the ‘graveyard’ itself. The first battered ship, the Lian Run 02 has holes near the waterline. They’re so big, I could reach out and put my fist through. The two crewman are cheerful enough – or maybe just happy to see new faces. They’d been waiting there a month, in the hope of getting new crew – so far, there’s no sign.

Next was the crumbling ‘Happiness’ ship already mentioned, the Zhang Yuan Yu 15. After we wave goodbye to the lone occupant, we head towards the next two ships. They appear roped to each other – the Zhang Yuan Yu 17 and the Lian Run 16. No one answers our calls on the first ship – but I see some movement behind the bridge, a cat… I’m not sure.

We move to the second ship, where again, a bunch of friendly young guys have been sitting at anchor for two months, waiting technical help and a new crew. Their engine doesn’t work, and they no safety gear or radio. They can, however, run their watermaker, for desalinating seawater. Lines of drying fish hang over the deck, but they’re running out of other food, and are often forced to signal other fishing boats for help. Like everyone else, their future is uncertain.

It’s horrible situation – these young men wasting away on a shambles of a ship, while their employers reap the benefits. Sarah gets on the radio, to organise some supplies for them from the Esperanza – meanwhile we head back to the lonely guy on the Zhang Yuan Yu 15. A much fresher trawler is coming alongside his vessel. Was this his relief crew?

Apparently not – tying up alongside, the crew of the newly arrived Lian Run 29 proceed to strip everything of value from the rusting hulk. The 2nd mate seems to be getting stuck in with the work – perhaps in the hope of rescue. The others are busy, brusque and not too interested in us – so we talk to the chirpy Guinean fisheries observer on their vessel. He’s very chatty, and tells us what is going on – that the other trawler was basically being dumped here. He says that the Chinese boats were in poor shape generally, and that last year, one had sunk, taking 14 crew with it. What are conditions like on this boat? He shrugs: “Not good. But I have to have a job”

We drift away from the Lian Run 29, toward a line of bycatch – discarded fish. Several porcupinefish are floating around in the water, discarded by the Lian Run 29 – but we’ve omitted to bring our bycatch net. Porcupinefish are covered in spines, and like pufferfish, they can puff themselves up into a round ball.make themselves into a round, spiky ball – and they don’t have many predators.

So, no net, and we aren’t about to pluck one from the water barehanded – instead, it takes a vigorous team effort between Sarah and I, using my and Zizi’s hats to catch one. It’s a brief moment of levity in an otherwise sad afternoon. I hold the fish inside my hat, for Pierre to photograph.

Its gills are still moving Despite having been ripped up from the Atlantic’s depths, mauled in a fishing net and turfed out the side of a trawler, it’s still breathing. I release the weird little fellow, on the off chance it might survive.

Later, as we drop some supplies to the engine-less trawler, we see one of the crew hauling himself along on a rope, while standing on a small raft. It’s bizarre sight, but this is how they get between the two decrepit vessels. We ask the others what he’s doing.

“Gone to get his monkey”, comes the answer. The penny drops… this is the ‘cat’ I’d seen earlier.

Back on the Esperanza, we try to put together what we’d witnessed. When asked what it was like ‘out there’, we answer ‘grim’. I wondered how the fishing company could convince these men to spend time living on such dangerous ships, half around the world from their loved ones. Do their families know where they were? These trawlers might be engaged in illegal fishing activities, stealing fish from the countries of West Africa, but it seems that the fishermen themselves are just pawns of some brutal corporate policy, where human life is cheap, and profits take priority.

Earlier in the day – before the graveyard of zombie trawlers, fisheries inspectors had told us of where the fish actually goes. Caught by the Chinese and other trawlers, it’s transhipped to several different vessels. ‘High value’ stock goes to Las Palmas, in the Canaries and off to the dinner tables of Europe. The ‘dirt’ fish is transhipped to Africa. The Chinese fishermen, it seems, barely get a look in. ‘Happiness’ indeed.

Read Part II: Return of the Zombie Ships »

This article was first posted on the “Defending our Oceans” blog by Greenpeace in 2006. That site has been retired, but here’s the original on the Internet Archive.

The Environmental Justice Foundation: Oceans. The EJF continues to work on the issues of illegal fishing and labour issues in Africa.
Report – All At Sea: The Abuse of Human Rights Aboard Illegal Fishing Festivals

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