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Killing time on a sea of desperation

The Independent

4th February 2004

Our dolphins are being slaughtered - and Greenpeace blames the trawlermen. But life on the Esperanza as it patrols the English Channel is harsh, and strictly for the dedicated. Rich Cookson climbs aboard

Dawn over the English Channel. The darkness of a long winter night is yielding to the first hints of sunrise as the rope ladder drops over the side of the Esperanza. A heavy swell has built up overnight and is making the ship pitch and roll at uncomfortable angles. Climbing down into the inflatable requires a degree of concentration that's difficult to muster this early in the morning. A cold wind, racing in over miles of open sea, whips icy spray off the waves and snatches at our clothes.

Three miles away a French trawler, La Perouse, is hauling in her nets. A second French boat, Elcano, is idling close by. La Perouse's powerful winch is drawing up a vast fishing net - its mouth alone the size of two football pitches - from the depths of the sea. Four fishermen in dirty oilskins stand at the stern, waiting for the catch.

The inflatable makes a sharp turn and powers through the waves, its bow high out of the water, its crew's eyes fixed on La Perouse. It reaches the trawler just in time: the end of the net is swinging up out of the water and on to the boat. "Merde," one of the trawlermen says in frustration, as he pulls it towards him. The tiny haul wouldn't fill more than a couple of buckets: an incredibly small catch for several hours' trawling in one of the best sea-bass fisheries off Britain. As the trawlermen decide what to do next, we stay alongside, hunkering down against the cold.

This is environmental campaigning at the sharp end. Ocean scientists believe that trawlers such as La Perouse and Elcano are accidentally catching dolphins in such great numbers off the UK coast that some species are in danger of extinction. Over the past 20 years, growing numbers of dolphins and porpoises have washed up dead on the coast of Britain and France. Hundreds of them, particularly during January and February, show clear signs of having been caught in fishing nets. The problem has now become so bad that Greenpeace - the pioneer of high-profile direct action at sea - has teamed up with the more conservative Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) to investigate the fisheries they believe are responsible for the killing.

An hour later, we're back on board the Esperanza, the 2,076-tonne former Russian Navy firefighting ship at the heart of the campaign. The vessel is Greenpeace's newest acquisition. In its first two years of service it has intercepted shipments of unsustainably logged wood off the coast of the Netherlands, blockaded ships carrying paper and wood from the last ancient forests of Finland and Russia, tracked down a shipment of plutonium off South Africa, been blessed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and delivered anti-nuclear protesters to the Earth Summit.

Now she's on a seven-week mission to monitor trawlers and conduct a scientific survey of dolphin and porpoise populations in the English Channel and around the Continental Shelf south-west of Ireland. Pelagic - or mid-water - fishing in both areas is thought to be the main cause of the dolphin deaths. At this time of year, more than 100 boats from Britain, France, Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark team up to trawl in pairs. Each pair pulls a huge net - some are large enough to hold 12 jumbo jets - which can capture up to 750 tonnes of fish at a time. Off the south coast of England, they're after sea bass, which come into the Channel during winter to spawn. On the Continental Shelf it's hake, mackerel, horse mackerel and herring. But it's not only the trawlers that follow the fish - huge pods of dolphins also feed on them, which is why so many end up in the nets.

Reliable figures are hard to come by, but one recent estimate put the number of dolphins and porpoises killed off Britain and France every year at 10,000. Between January and March 2003, more than 260 carcasses were washed up in south-west England, and hundreds more in France - and campaigners believe this only a fraction, perhaps 10 per cent, of those killed. Sarah Duthie, the oceans campaigner for Greenpeace, says: "The dolphins and porpoises that wash up are the tip of the iceberg. Many have broken beaks, broken teeth, torn flippers and net marks. Quite often bodies are found with slits on them - the fishermen puncture them in a bid to dispose of the evidence."

When two UK fishing boats were observed pair-trawling in 2001, 53 dolphins were killed in 116 hauls of the net. In 1999, 145 were killed during 313 hauls by two Irish boats. Greenpeace says porpoises are also killed in fixed fishing-nets set on the seabed. "Five or 6 per cent of the population could be being killed every year. Under international agreements, 1 to 2 per cent is cause for concern, so there's a real risk of extinction," Sarah says. "If you take any species out of the food chain, there's an unknown effect. It can change the whole makeup of the ecosystem. Lots of politicians, even some ministers, have acknowledged that it's a problem, but we're not seeing any action."

Greenpeace wants to force the European Union to strengthen proposed measures to reduce the number of marine mammal deaths. "There needs to be proper information about what's happening out at sea, so we are calling for compulsory observers on all pelagic trawlers. At the moment, there's an EU proposal for 5-10 per cent coverage [of trawlers], but that's too low. The first thing to do is identify which fisheries are responsible, and then take action. That might mean fisheries closures that apply to certain areas or certain species."

To do that, Greenpeace must galvanise public opinion, which is why the Esperanza bristles with satellite phones, laptops and cameras. There are two cameramen on the ship (both, oddly, called Steve Morgan). Every time the inflatables go out, they're aboard. If the Esperanza finds a trawler with a dead dolphin in its net, video footage and stills will be on their way to newspapers and TV stations within minutes.

Given the resources and determination of the Esperanza's multinational crew of 35, changes in the law are more than likely. They are well qualified (some of the deckhands speak several languages and have Masters degrees in the sciences; and how many sailors in the Channel are reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin and DBC Pierre's Booker-winning Vernon God Little?), technologically-savvy, clear about their aims, and with levels of motivation that most company bosses can only dream of.

A night has passed. On Sunday afternoon, it's quiet on the bridge. The weather has improved, and a bright sun is beating off a calm sea. A tiny strip of land is just visible on the horizon. A heavily-stacked container ship moves in from our port side and cuts across the bow; in silhouette it looks like a floating Stonehenge. Fifteen or so gulls are following the Esperanza, swooping down behind the stern, now coasting alongside the bridge. Further off, gannets patrol close to the wave crests.

The captain, Frank, is improvising a sun visor for the daylight radar. Among the state-of-the-art equipment, only a cut-up cardboard box can cast a shadow so the screen is readable. The bridge is about 10 metres across, dominated by a huge grey console covered with levers, buttons, switches, monitors, phones and lights. Occasionally the radio crackles into life, sometimes in English, sometimes in French.

Slightly built and reassuringly quiet, Frank first went to sea at 17, sailing aboard tugs and supply vessels for 10 years. When Greenpeace bought and refitted one of the ships he had worked on, they asked him to conduct the sea trials. "It was meant to be three days," he says, in a Dutch accent. "And here I am, 12 years later.” He looks at the radar, then scans the horizon with binoculars. "Still no pair trawlers," he says.

Frank may have overall command, but the decks are the domain of his bosun, Eddie. At 59, he's the oldest crewman (the youngest is 23) and a hugely experienced sailor. A lifetime at sea (he joined the Royal Navy when he was 15 and later worked on commercial ships all over the world) - has given him weather-beaten skin, thick arms and a ready supply of seafaring tales. It must be unusual for people to make the journey from the military to Greenpeace, but Eddie says he's always been an environmentalist, "even before that word was really used. In the 1940s we'd separate our waste, re-use what we could, turn off lights if we weren't using them and not leave taps running."

The rhythm of daily life on board is becoming clear. On the bridge, the mates keep watch for four hours at a time. Dolphin-spotters, muffled against the cold, stand on either side of the bridge for one-hour stretches, scanning the waves for fins. Below, the engineers work from 8am to 5pm, cleaning, testing and repairing the engines, cooling systems, sewage pipes, water tanks, heaters and pumps. In the galley, two cooks are preparing food for lunch at midday and supper at 6pm. Deckhands, also working from 8am to 5pm, scrub, mop, rub down and paint. And throughout the ship, the team of five or so campaigners tap away at laptops, read, talk into mobiles and sat-phones, or look out for trawlers...

Shortly after 8am on Monday, one of the spotters sees some common dolphins. Everyone crowds on to the decks. It's a huge pod, about 600. Some of them swim alongside, jumping out of the water - three, four, five at a time - or closing in tight to the hull. Maryke de Boer, the WDCS's lead scientist, explains that they like to ride on the bow wave - a kind of surfing for cetaceans. They come at us from every direction, from every quarter of the ocean, their milk-and-silver underbellies flashing in the dark water.

"The observers on deck report any sightings, telling us the number of animals, distance and bearing," Maryke says. "We put that into a computer that is also logging information from a GPS system every minute, so we have information about the date, time, and the ship's bearing, speed and position. That creates a huge database of sightings, which we will be able to analyse later on. Very few surveys have been done for this area, so we have little information on abundance estimations.” Today the dolphins keep on coming. By evening they've logged more than 1,100 animals.

Wednesday dawns grey and wet. Overnight, the ship found herself in the middle of a Royal Navy exercise, just off Plymouth. The mates had an active watch - frigates and destroyers were steaming along the coast at 20-plus knots, helicopters were flying low overhead, and green tracer-fire arced high into the night sky. As day breaks, warships are all around us, broadcasting warnings that live firing practices will take place later this morning. It's a welcome distraction: we've not seen any pair trawlers since Sunday morning.

The second mate, a thoughtful, self-possessed South African called Mike, says he's been on a Greenpeace trip to the Southern Ocean looking for boats illegally fishing for Patagonian toothfish. "We had some idea where they would be - fishing near shelves on the sea bottom - but the area was huge. There were six weeks like this. Every day just looking and looking.” Saving the world, it seems, means facing long periods of intense boredom.

The day wears on. Late in the morning, a small fishing-boat broadcasts an SOS call. It's nearby, so Frank changes course to assist, but when we arrive a tug has already been sent to recover the boat, so we are stood down. Hours later, there's another SOS. Another boat, much nearer shore, has engine trouble and needs help. The Esperanza is too far away and all we can do is watch through binoculars and listen as the drama plays out in strangely calm and measured radio transmissions. As we lose sight of them, a helicopter is overhead and a crew member has fallen overboard.

Then there are two blips, very close together, on the radar - the tell-tale signature of pair trawlers. We spot them through the binoculars and change course to get closer. The inflatable is readied for launching, its crew hurriedly climbing into their orange immersion suits. Minutes later, we're out on the water, roaring towards the trawlers. They are Scottish boats that the Esperanza spotted a few days ago. Sarah Duthie had gone aboard to explain why Greenpeace was out here campaigning, but today they clearly don't want to talk. We've no idea how long their nets have been out for - some trawls last up to eight hours - so all we can do is stay out here and watch them.

For two hours, nothing happens. After waiting so long to find the trawlers, there's just more waiting. Sarah keeps a close eye on the nets and the two Steves keep their cameras ready, but there's little for them to shoot. A stiff, cold wind blows up, bringing with it a heavy swell. Exposed to the elements, we hunker down as the chill slowly seeps in through gloves and socks.

As the light fades, the campaigners call it a day. They'll shadow the trawlers overnight and get back on the water at first light. Waves break over the side of the inflatable as we head back to the Esperanza.