Ten years ago, almost to the day, we find ourselves in the middle of the Pacific Ocean standing tall on the deck of the Maka Koa. She’s sandwiched between the Hawaiian island of Maui and crescent-shaped Molokini Crater. Excitement and nervous anticipation fills my every fibre as I am about to log my first night dive. I slowly check and re-check my gear and catch myself imagining that I’m a secret agent sent to infiltrate some unknown territory. I quietly hum the Miami Vice theme song. As the sun and horizon gently hold hands, I slip beneath the surface into another world. It’s the time of day when you witness the changing of the guards; diurnal animals are brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed while the nocturnal ones are wiping the sleep out of their eyes and having a cup of coffee in preparation for the hunt. Dusk and dawn, when you’ll find the two groups briefly intersecting, is always a dangerously good time for secret critter-spotting missions.
It doesn’t take long for the dive leader to put his hand to his forehead mimicking a shark’s dorsal fin. I follow his gaze and spot three small White Tip Reef sharks about 50 feet away. Adrenaline dances through my system as they draw near and swim by completely ambivalent to my presence. Their sandpapery skin tightly bound over thick perfectly formed muscle. I look around trying to make eye contact with my dive buddy to signify my delight, but instead I spot the dive leader fiddling with some rocks on the ocean floor. He pulls something out from underneath, tosses it upward and watches it float slowly toward the surface. But whatever the object is, it will never make it to the surface.
Twenty or more Black Tip and White Tip Reef sharks appear from all angles to sample this lovely little mystery morsel, and the feeding frenzy begins. Sharks shoot through the water surrounding me like a bullet through thin air, grazing each other occasionally but never colliding, in this graceful and chaotic symphony. Hypnotised by their sheer force, determined focus, and striking beauty, I’m surprised to find that I’m not scared. The shark’s oblivion towards me stirs my imagination. It would take little or no effort for any one of them to sink their teeth into me, and I realise this is my first encounter with a creature that knocks me off the top of the food chain. I feel the frailty of humanity and am instantly humbled. Instinctively I know that this is their territory and, as long as I respect that, they mean me no harm. I check my gauges, kick back, relax and watch the show.
Ten years and hundreds of dives later, opportunity knocks so I swiftly and naively answer the door. I’m a green deckhand on an 85’ prawn trawler in the Gulf of Carpentaria, off the coast of Northern Australia. Day one and we’re heading out to sea full speed into a building storm. Our working day starts at 530pm and ends at 10am the next morning, every day of the week. As the sea eclipses the sun, we begin to bring the nets up for our first ‘shot’ of the night. The screaming winches haul the gear out of the water and above our holding tank. The nets drop their payload and the conveyer belts bring a vast assortment of half dead creatures to our fingertips. My job is to pick each prawn off the belt and let the rest go down the ‘shit shoot’ which dumps the carcasses of everything else back into the ocean.
With two pairs of gloves on, I reluctantly reach for the first prawn, and immediately shriek and toss it half way across the deck. The kicking and jumping of this doomed life startles me and I begin to realize what kind of hell I have just signed on for. Bradley, the skipper’s 13 year old home schooled son is teaching me the ropes. His wealth of knowledge regarding the sorting of prawns is astounding. As the conveyer belt brings a multitude of never-seen-before bottom dwellers parading past us, the number of lifeless baby carpet sharks was uncountable. Limp and mutilated sting rays march by with the click of the belt tracks.
A 3’ reef shark rolls out of the tank and over on to our sorting table. Clearly exhausted from fighting our nets for the last 3 hours, and barely alive, Bradley quickly grabs it by the tail and launches it behind him, where it lands hard on the steel deck, and suffocates as we greedily finish our task.
Not a moment to loose. We do two ‘shots’ on and then head off to so-called better fishing grounds.
Our nets have what is optimistically called a Turtle Ejection Device. It’s an oval-shaped metal frame with a few bars running vertically and horizontally creating a grid. The theory is when a large animal gets caught inside the net it hits this frame, and is ejected by force out the side of the net via a large hole. It doesn’t look like it would be a very enjoyable process, and apparently it doesn’t work either. Day two and we pull up our first shot of the night and to my ultimate horror, there is a large green Sea Turtle struggling to free itself from the net. Knowing that turtles can only hold their breath for so long, I can foresee its fate and my heart sinks.
My fellow crew members winch the nets over our holding tank, release the contents and then sink the nets back to the sea floor where they will continue to destroy everything in their path while we sort. No one makes any attempt to save the turtle and there is no time, and no way, I can do anything as the rookie on this boat so I knuckle down and sort these dreadful prawns and try to bear witness to this tragic fishery.
After 12 days, I walked off this boat with no pay. I didn’t want their blood money. I tried my hardest to save every shark, or sting ray, that I could and each time I handled their limp and lifeless carcasses, I found myself childishly wishing that I could somehow breathe life back into them. I find it shocking that not only did I not know how much damage trawlers cause; I had never even wondered how prawns were caught, I just knew that I enjoyed having them on my dinner plate. And I think it’s this ignorance that allows a terrible practice like this to continue. I had no idea that during Tiger Prawn season only 10% of the catch is prawns while the other 90% are what the industry calls ‘bi-catch’.
This would be akin to throwing a net over a forest, picking out a few animals and throwing everything else away. It is the most wasteful and depressing fishery I have ever witnessed. The general disregard for sea life on board was appalling.
Not to stereotype fishermen but, from what I have witnessed, generally they tend to care more about the bottom line than anything else, least of all the bi-catch. And of course, no one cares about sharks because they are a nuisance; supposedly a dangerous enemy (Even though we harm and kill far more of them than they do to us). There has to be a better, more functional way to catch prawns rather than just randomly killing everything in your path. One thing is for sure, prawns are no longer on the menu for me.