Shark finning rampant across Chinese tuna firm’s fleet

Shark finning rampant across Chinese tuna firm’s fleet

  • Dalian Ocean Fishing used banned gear to deliberately catch and illegally cut the fins off of huge numbers of sharks in international waters, Mongabay has found.
  • Just five of the company’s longline boats harvested roughly 5.1 metric tons of dried shark fin in the western Pacific Ocean in 2019. That equates to a larger estimated shark catch that what China reported for the nation’s entire longline fleet in the same time and place.
  • The findings are based on dozens of interviews with men who worked throughout the company’s fleet of some 35 longline boats. A previous investigation by Mongabay and its partners uncovered widespread abuse of crew across the same firm’s vessels.
  • Campaigners said Dalian Ocean Fishing’s newly uncovered practices were a “disaster” for shark conservation efforts.

When Adhi Tayuh Braka joined one of China’s largest fishing fleets in 2018, he planned to catch tuna, knuckle down and save money to get married.

To pass the time, he photographed his co-workers, their equipment and the fish they pulled out of the western Pacific Ocean. Maybe he’d have some pictures to show his girlfriend back home in Indonesia, he thought.

After two years on the Long Xing 801, though, Adhi wasn’t surprised when the foreman confiscated the deckhands’ phones, then scrolled through and erased many of their photos.

“They were hunting shark,” Adhi, 33, told Mongabay. “They deleted the photos because they were afraid they would leak.”

The vessel Adhi worked on belongs to Dalian Ocean Fishing (DOF), a partially state-owned company that has long claimed to be China’s biggest supplier of sashimi-grade tuna to Japan, a top seafood consumer.

But DOF’s boats have also been the nexus of a massive illegal shark finning operation, an investigation by Mongabay has found, based on interviews with dozens of men who worked as deckhands throughout its fleet of some 35 longline vessels.

Longliners practice a commercial fishing technique in which thousands of baited hooks are dragged through the sea to capture tuna and other fish. But DOF’s boats used banned gear to deliberately catch tens if not hundreds of thousands of sharks each year, including protected species such as the critically endangered oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus).

In 2019, DOF’s boats in the western Pacific secretly caught more shark than the official total reported by China for the country’s entire longline fleet there, according to figures provided by former workers on DOF’s vessels who spoke to Mongabay for this story.

“That a handful of fishing boats may be taking more sharks than their entire flag-state is reporting as the total catch for the year is risking sustainability, threatens scientists’ understanding of the status of shark populations, and puts responsible fishing operations at a competitive disadvantage,” Rachel Hopkins, project director for international fisheries at The Pew Charitable Trusts, a U.S.-based nonprofit that advocates for marine protection, wrote in an email after reviewing the findings.

The Long Xing 621, one of DOF’s boats, hauls up a shark in the Atlantic Ocean. The photos were taken by the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, which encountered the vessel during an expedition in September 2019. Image by Tommy Trenchard/Greenpeace.

Shark fins are the key ingredient in shark fin soup, a delicacy in much of Asia. The appetite for it exploded in the 1990s along with China’s middle class.

While demand for the dish has recently fallen due to bans on serving it at government functions and growing public conservation awareness, it remains substantial, experts say — with much of it met by black market producers.

In detailed interviews, DOF’s workers described how their vessels made prolific use of fishing implements known as shark lines and wire leaders to intentionally target sharks. Using them simultaneously is illegal in the western Pacific, where DOF’s operations are most concentrated.

After hauling a shark on board, deckhands were typically ordered to slice off the fins and discard the carcass. The practice, known as shark finning, is outlawed in all high-seas tuna fisheries and by at least a third of all countries, including China, on sustainability and animal welfare grounds.

By taking only the fins, captains can increase profits by devoting their limited storage space to the most lucrative part of the animal.

Yet such overfishing is pushing sharks toward annihilation. Scientists say humans kill 100 million sharks each year, causing their numbers to plunge by an estimated 71% in the open ocean over the past half-century, according to a recent study.

“In the past fifty years, human populations and fishing activity have doubled while our shark catch has tripled,” Nathan Pacoureau, a marine biologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada and lead author of the study, wrote in an email. “Combined with their increasing rarity, that means relative fishing pressure on sharks and rays is now 18 times greater.”

DOF’s captains presided over the finning of all manner of shark species in disregard of rules set by treaty organizations governing high-seas tuna fisheries and international wildlife trade.

Photos smuggled off one vessel, the Long Xing 629, show large quantities of detached shark fins strewn across the deck or hanging out to dry. The fins belong to a variety of species, including oceanic whitetips, according to three shark fin identification experts who reviewed the images for Mongabay. Interviewees from two other boats said they had finned large numbers — “hundreds,” one said — of oceanic whitetips, whose fins are recognizable by their unique shape and color.

The oceanic whitetip “used to be one of the most common animals in the world, and now it’s one step away from extinction,” Demian Chapman, who manages the Sharks & Rays Conservation Research Program at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Florida, said in an interview.

“As yet we don’t see any evidence of a recovery … and one of the biggest threats is this IUU fishing,” he said, referring to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

An Indonesian on the Long Xing 629 photographed the crew handling shark fins in 2019 or early 2020.
Marine biologist Debra Abercrombie circled in red what she identified as fins belonging to oceanic whitetip sharks, which have a rounded mottled tip.
Abercrombie circled an oceanic whitetip dorsal fin and drew an arrow pointing to an oceanic whitetip tail fin. “There are also mako [Isurus] fins and more thresher fins, not indicated,” she said.

The smuggled shark fin photos circulated in mid-2020 following the deaths of four Long Xing 629 deckhands who were subjected to horrible living and working conditions at sea. The scandal made international headlines and led to the convictions of several labor recruiters in Indonesia on charges of human trafficking. A joint Mongabay investigation subsequently established that the abuse of DOF’s Southeast Asian fishers by Chinese foremen and captains was widespread and systematic across the fleet.

Now, Mongabay can reveal that these same deckhands were made to do the dirty work in an environmental heist of epic proportions. Their testimonies offer an unprecedented look inside an industrial-scale shark finning scheme, one not limited to a single boat but pervading the operations of a large corporation valued at nearly $700 million in 2018.

“This has been kind of the holy grail of shark campaigners,” said an activist who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing their professional relationships in China. “The shark campaigners I’ve talked to a lot, we’ve all dreamed of getting one of these deckhands to capture this imagery and provide these kinds of detailed firsthand accounts.”

Former deckhand Adhi Tayuh Braka stands in front of a mural at Tanjung Emas Harbor in Semarang, Indonesia, in September. His shirt bears DOF’s logo. Image by Aji Styawan for Mongabay.

Mongabay tracked down more than 70 former DOF deckhands and persuaded some to recount their experiences, interviewing 16 Indonesians from 12 of the company’s boats. Some of the interviews were more focused on labor conditions, but deckhands from 10 vessels spoke in depth about the shark operation.

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a London-based nonprofit that investigates the fishing industry, also provided Mongabay with excerpts of interviews it separately conducted with 11 more Indonesians from a further six of the company’s boats, all of whom said shark finning happened on their vessels.

Together, the testimonies account for more than half of DOF’s fleet. The interviewees all worked for DOF between early 2018 and late 2020. During that period, DOF had 24 boats in the western Pacific, seven in the Atlantic and four in the Indian Ocean, according to publicly available sources.

A 2016 complaint submitted to an Indonesian NGO by another former deckhand, seen by Mongabay, said his boat had deliberately caught “60-100 sharks” a day during a two-month stretch, suggesting DOF’s shark operation dates back to at least that year.

The longliners on which the deckhands interviewed by Mongabay and/or the Environmental Justice Foundation worked. Some deckhands worked on multiple longliners.

Deckhands interviewed by Mongabay recounted the entire process of catching and killing the sharks and removing, drying, packing, weighing and storing the fins — often deep in the hold beneath piles of milled rice and flour, apparently to avoid detection by authorities.

“The Chinese [officers] said there would be an inspector taking a look inside the boat, so put the fins below,” Rusnata, 40, recounted of an occasion when his vessel was preparing to dock in Samoa, which, like many Pacific Island nations, has banned the possession, sale and trade of all sharks and shark products. (Like many Indonesians, Rusnata uses only one name.)

Fishers from three DOF boats said officers had them throw shark-catching gear into the ocean during their return trip to China in late 2020. And deckhands from five longliners said a foreman or captain deleted their photos or factory reset their phones, presumably to destroy evidence of the shark operation and other illegal acts such as the killing of dolphins and whales, whose teeth are popular souvenirs among longline crews.

Rusnata displays what he said were two fetuses taken from a slain shark’s womb in this image he managed to smuggle off the Long Xing 607.

Muhammad Rifahmi Mudin said his captain called deckhands to his office one by one and personally erased their photos. “He said it was so the police wouldn’t find out,” he told Mongabay.

‘Not just a rogue element’

Perhaps most strikingly, DOF hunted shark on such an enormous scale as to indicate that China as a whole is drastically undercounting the nation’s shark catch.

China reported that for 2019, the country’s entire longline fleet in the western Pacific — consisting of hundreds of vessels — caught 735 metric tons of shark, equivalent in weight to about 20 fully loaded 18-wheel trucks.

Meanwhile, five DOF boats there collectively harvested around 5.1 metric tons of dried shark fin during that same year, according to Mongabay’s calculations based on figures recalled by interviewees who worked on those vessels. That much fin translates to 843 metric tons of whole shark, or more than 31,000 individual sharks, according to a methodology for making such conversions published by WWF, the world’s largest conservation group — indicating that a tiny handful of DOF boats took more shark than what China reported its entire longline fleet catching in the same place and time.

(For detailed data on DOF’s shark fin harvest and an explanation of the methodology we used to calculate some of the figures used in this story, click here.)

“From a perspective of protecting and rebuilding oceanic shark populations, this kind of behavior is a disaster,” Andy Cornish, senior international marine conservation leader at WWF-Hong Kong, told Mongabay.

A bowl of shark fin soup. Image by chee.hong/Wikimedia Commons.

Observers have long suspected China of underreporting its shark catch because it has by far the most fishing boats and is the world’s largest consumer of shark fin, yet is conspicuously absent from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s list of top 20 shark-catching nations, which relies on self-reporting by countries.

The EJF recently interviewed 116 Indonesians from 88 Chinese distant-water fishing boats, 95% of whom said they had seen sharks being finned on board the vessels.

While previous EJF reports identified illegal fishing by other long-haul fleets, such as those of South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, China’s “is suspected of conducting IUU fishing operations at a disproportionately high rate,” the group said.

“I was quite dumbstruck by the level of abuse that we found,” EJF CEO Steve Trent told Mongabay. Shark finning and other illegal fishing practices, he said, appear to be “running throughout and across the Chinese distant-water fleet. It’s not just a rogue element within it.”

China introduced a common anti-shark finning measure in 2013 when it required that fins constitute no more than 5% of the weight of all shark parts on a vessel. In January 2019, it explicitly banned shark finning as well as the deliberate catching of sharks on the open seas. But experts said enforcement was lacking.

“The primary agency responsible for this rests with the Chinese government,” Trent said. “They are responsible, they should be assessing far greater control, and they’re simply not.”

DOF, China’s agriculture ministry, which oversees fishing, and its foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment for this and previous articles about the company’s activities.

A scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini). Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

DOF was founded in 2000 by Li Zhenyu, a tycoon from the northern Chinese port city of Dalian who reportedly served as head of the ocean fisheries branch of the Dalian Marine Fisheries Association, an industry group. He remains DOF’s largest stakeholder, with 41% of the firm under his control.

Other stakeholders, direct or indirect, include some of China’s biggest conglomerates (aluminum giant Liaoning Zhongwang, steelmaker China Oriental, food giant COFCO) and state-owned asset managers (China Huarong and China Great Wall, both owned by the Ministry of Finance) as well as a host of Chinese private equity firms.

The company purchasing the overwhelming majority of DOF’s tuna has long been Toyo Reizo, the seafood trading arm of Japan’s giant Mitsubishi Corporation, though last year it wrote in an email that it had cut ties with DOF in April 2020, without explaining why.

Like other distant-water fishing companies, DOF has received millions of dollars’ worth of annual subsidies from China’s government. The firm has tried and failed to go public three times, once in Hong Kong and twice in Shenzhen.

Li Zhenyu, second from right. Before founding DOF, he worked for HSBC bank in Dalian and ran an apparel export business.

It is unclear if DOF has fished since late 2020, when its entire Southeast Asian workforce was repatriated and its fleet apparently grounded. The company has appeared to undergo financial trouble, with dozens of lawsuits filed against it in China since mid-2019 over unpaid loans and bills. The Dalian Maritime Court auctioned off 18 of DOF’s older vessels for 70,204,000 yuan ($9.7 million) in late September.

Earlier this year, however, the multilateral body governing tuna fisheries in the western Pacific Ocean, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), authorized at least two DOF boats, neither of which was included in the judicial auction, to fish until 2025. One of them, the Long Xing 906, harvested roughly 1.3 metric tons of dried shark fin in 2019 and 2020, a deckhand who worked on the ship told Mongabay. The WCPFC did not respond to a request for comment.

Four other DOF boats are permitted to hunt tuna in the Indian Ocean until 2025, according to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission website, which governs those fisheries. One of them, the Long Xing 635, was recently flagged by Greenpeace as having finned sharks on an almost daily basis, according to a former deckhand.

‘Of course it was intentional’

Tulus Martin thought he knew what he was signing up for.

A previous stint on a Taiwanese longliner had taught the West Java native, who had previously worked as a florist and as a debt collector, that it would be hard, even grueling work. And the labor recruiter made clear that the boat, the Long Xing 906, might not return to shore for the duration of his two-year contract. Instead, it would remain perpetually at sea, offloading its catch onto collecting vessels.

But once on board, he was surprised — and frightened — to learn his boat wasn’t hunting only tuna.

“Honestly, I wasn’t afraid of the danger from the sharks themselves — I was scared of getting caught,” Tulus, now 29, told Mongabay. “Because I heard that if there was a shark finning operation, it’s the deckhands who know nothing who are targeted [by authorities].”

During the boat’s initial two-week journey from port in South Korea to the open waters of the western Pacific, deckhands were asked to prepare a stash of wire-reinforced fishing leaders. Tulus had never seen this type of gear, and he didn’t think much of it at the time.

Only when they were instructed to attach shorter fishing lines directly to the buoys spaced out along the long mainline did he suspect something was amiss.

“I asked the Filipino [deckhands] why is it like this,” Tulus recalled.

“It’s specifically for sharks, they said.

“That’s when I understood it would only get sharks, never any other fish.”

A great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) off the coast of South Africa. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Experts who reviewed the testimonies obtained by Mongabay confirmed that Tulus and other deckhands were describing what are known in maritime parlance as shark lines and wire leaders. Using them simultaneously is banned in the western Pacific, DOF’s primary area of operation.

On a normal longliner, thousands of baited hooks are attached via thin branch lines to a giant mainline trailed from the back of the boat. This mainline is suspended horizontally at a pre-determined depth in the water column by vertical floatlines fastened onto regularly spaced buoys. The hooks hang several dozen meters below the surface, where tuna tend to swim.

Shark lines, on the other hand, run directly from the buoys and floatlines, ensuring the hooks on the ends of them dangle just a few meters deep. “It’s all about where the baited hooks are located in terms of the depth, because sharks tend to be found in higher concentrations in the upper part of the water column,” said Chapman, the shark expert. “A lot of times they’re fishing deeper for the tuna.”

Schematic diagram of a shark line included in the WCPFC measure banning the simultaneous use of shark lines and wire leaders.

Wire leaders, meanwhile, are designed to withstand the powerful force of a shark’s bite.

In general, a fishing leader is a short length of line that attaches a hook to the end of a longer fishing line, commonly used in saltwater fishing to avoid line breaks and snags. A wire leader consists of a short metal wire extending from the hook to a swivel that attaches to the end of the longer line.

“The wire is twisted around many times, so it’s strong,” deckhand Rusnata said. “Because sharks have sharp teeth. It makes it so it doesn’t break easily.”

Former Long Xing 629 deckhand Rizky Fauzan Alvian drew this picture illustrating the difference between a hook with a wire leader meant for catching sharks, left, and a normal hook and leader meant for tuna, right. Both were used on his boat.

Rusnata’s boat usually deployed around 200-300 buoys per fishing session, with four shark lines for each buoy. “We never used a shark line without a wire leader,” he said.

Mongabay interviewees from five boats confirmed their vessels had used shark lines and wire leaders simultaneously. Others said shark lines and/or wire leaders had been used on their boats, but couldn’t be reached for follow-up interviews to confirm simultaneous usage.

While the WCPFC allows deliberate capture of some shark species, it banned the simultaneous use of shark lines and wire leaders in 2015. China followed suit in January 2019, prohibiting the use of shark lines on longliners that bear its flag in the Pacific.

“What [DOF is] doing is they’re going around that rule by deliberately fishing with the type of gear that’s outlawed to ensure that they will catch sharks,” Chapman said.

A hook from a longline, fitted with a wire leader, off the coast of West Africa. Image courtesy of Tommy Trenchard/Greenpeace.

Deckhands dismissed the suggestion that their boats might have pulled up sharks only as accidental bycatch, without intentionally targeting them.

“Of course it was intentional,” Rusnata said.

“If it wasn’t intentional, the fishing line would have been the same [as a tuna line], and if a shark got caught, that would have been unintentional.

“But this was special, there was a fishing model using wire reinforcement, so that means it had to catch sharks. It was a shark operation.”

‘Like throwing trash into the sea’

Slaughtering tuna is a delicate business. For the fish to reach sushi plates, deckhands must be careful not to damage the meat. “You have to really be mindful of the flesh,” Tulus said. “So we didn’t spear it. We cut it in the head, not the body.”

Killing a shark was a more frantic experience: Deckhands risked their lives every time they got near one. But at least when it came to incapacitating the animal, they were free to hack, stab, spear and slash as much as they deemed fit. “It’s anywhere for sharks, because for sharks, it’s only the fins that got taken,” Tulus said.

Shark fishing doesn’t necessarily equate to shark finning. Much of the world’s shark fin comes from small-scale fishers who take the entire animal, including the meat, and legally export the fins.

But in interviews with Mongabay, deckhands said their boats had not just caught but finned extraordinary numbers of sharks.

Based on figures provided by deckhands who could precisely recall the amount of dried fin harvested during their journeys, Mongabay calculated that six DOF boats, all in the western Pacific, collectively caught shark at an estimated annual rate of 44,398 individuals weighing 1,199 metric tons.

If all of DOF’s 35 boats caught shark at the same rate, they would have annually caught 258,987 sharks weighing 6,993 metric tons. That’s nearly as much as the catch of the entire country of Ecuador, which reported a mean annual shark catch of 7,609 metric tons from 2007 to 2017, ranking it 20th on the FAO’s list of top shark-catching nations.

“There was no end to it,” fisher Didit Wijanarko told Mongabay. “[The boat] was completely full of shark, so that the boat stank of shark.”

Deckhands described using electric spears or harpoons to stun sharks from afar as they were hauled on deck.

“You have to stun it first, otherwise nobody would be able to pull the shark on board,” Tulus said. “Sharks thrash around a lot.”

While that could sometimes knock it unconscious, the only way to truly disable a shark was to cut it behind the head, deckhands said.

Severing the spinal cord would not immediately kill a shark, but it would soon bleed to death, according to Culum Brown, a behavioral ecologist at Macquarie University in Australia, who studies fish cognition and welfare.

Deckhands from the Long Xing 629 pose with a freshly caught mako shark. The gash on its back indicates a severed spine, according to an expert who reviewed the image for Mongabay.

The most humane approach, Brown said, would be to electrocute the shark in order to render it unconscious, then kill it outright. But after reviewing the testimonies, he said they indicated deckhands were often spearing the sharks while the animals remained conscious.

“While the fishermen are using this method for practical reasons, it’s probably causing the shark a LOT of pain and distress,” Brown wrote in an email.

Despite their best efforts, deckhands sometimes couldn’t kill a shark. In that case, Didit said, they would slice off the fins as quickly as possible before pushing the moribund creature back into the sea.

“Sharks are terrifying in their power,” he said. “Sometimes we needed three or four people [to subdue one]: one with a spear, one with a hand-hook, and one with a stunner.”

Deckhands were instructed to take what are commonly known as a shark’s “Big Four” fins: the first dorsal, lower caudal and left and right pectoral fins.

A shark fin contains “fin rays” — slender filaments of elastic protein, resembling vermicelli noodles. The value of a shark fin depends on the number of fin rays it has because it is they, rather than the fin as a whole, that are eaten as part of shark fin soup. Bigger fins contain more fin rays.

After being dried in the sun, Big Four fins were packed in bunches or sacks, typically weighing 25-50 kilograms (55-110 pounds) each, then placed in the freezing room for storage.

Smaller fins — like the pelvic, anal and second dorsal fins — were occasionally retained, but stored separately from Big Four fins, deckhands said. Sometimes they were fed to the crew.

Deckhands interviewed by Mongabay left no doubt that most of the finned carcasses on their vessels were immediately tossed overboard, though some were briefly retained so that the fresh meat could be cut into pieces and used as shark bait.

Rifahmi, who worked on the Long Xing 627 in the Atlantic, for example, said it caught some 30 sharks per day and discarded 90% of the finned carcasses. John Arsil, from the Long Xing 801 in the Pacific, said it caught 20-25 sharks daily and discarded 90-95% of the finned carcasses.

While partially dressed carcasses — those with certain parts removed, like the head, tail, innards and fins — and shark parts were sometimes retained for reasons other than to replenish the bait supply, the total weight of fins on board generally far exceeded that of all other shark parts, deckhands said.

The carcasses were “just thrown away, like throwing trash into the sea,” John told Mongabay. “We only took the fins.”

A deckhand on the Long Xing 626 in DOF’s Atlantic fleet displays what experts who reviewed the image identified as a blue shark (Prionace glauca) in this photo posted to Facebook. The animal on the ground is a leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).
The same Long Xing 626 deckhand crouches over what experts said was likely a bigeye thresher shark (Alopias superciliosus).
Experts identified the shark in this image, featuring the same Long Xing 626 deckhand, as a smooth hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena).

Among the deckhands who were able to precisely recall the amount of fins harvested was Rusnata, who packed and weighed fins on the Long Xing 607. He said the vessel produced more than 3 metric tons of dried Big Four fin during nearly two years of fishing.

During his first seven or eight months at sea, Rusnata said, the boat filled some 80 sacks weighing 25-33 kg (55-73 lbs) each. In mid-2019, the sacks were all moved to a different DOF longliner.

Over the next 14 or 15 months, the vessel filled some 30-33 more sacks weighing the same amount. These were still on board when the deckhands were repatriated, according to Rusnata.

All told, the boat produced some 3.2 metric tons of dried Big Four shark fin during his time on board. These were worth an estimated $488,695 wholesale, according to Mongabay’s analysis based on a 2018 survey of Guangzhou-based wholesalers, the best available data.

Rusnata in the kitchen where he works at Jangkar Cafe n Resto in Tangerang, a satellite city of Jakarta. Image by Wienda Parwitasari for Mongabay.

Some deckhands said their shark catch increased after around September 2019, when DOF’s fleet stopped motoring around in search of tuna and proceeded to drift in the high seas for up to a year, possibly due to DOF’s financial troubles.

During this period, the floatlines on the Long Xing 801 were shortened in order to elevate the mainline in the water column, effectively repurposing the entire fishing rig to catch sharks, John Arsil said. After that, the boat caught 70-90 sharks a day as opposed to 20-25 previously.

“The first year it was more of a side thing: the shark lines were just on the buoys,” said Adhi Tayuh Braka, who worked on the same boat. “The second year it was exclusive: the hooks, the lines, everything was for sharks.”

During this period, Tulus said, his boat once slaughtered 200 sharks in a single session. “My hands became so hard from holding a knife all the time,” he said.

‘It’s the captain who sells them’

On the Tian Xiang 18, Didit Wijanarko and his fellow deckhands often caught dozens of sharks per day, and once captured as many as 150, he said. But that was just the beginning of its haul.

Over a span of several days in mid-2019, he said, the vessel received fins from 12 to 15 other DOF longliners in the western Pacific. Almost every boat offloaded dozens of bunches of dried fin onto the Tian Xiang 18, which was preparing to return to China, where the contraband would presumably be unloaded, deckhands said.

“The Tian Xiang 18 was going home,” Didit told Mongabay. “If a boat was going back to China, automatically the other boats would give it their fins.”

A Mongabay interviewee from the Long Xing 601 took this photo in the western Pacific.

Almost every DOF deckhand interviewed by Mongabay and the EJF said their boat had transshipped shark fin with other boats in violation of rules adopted by the WCPFC and the equivalent organization in the Atlantic, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).

In the Atlantic, deckhands from three DOF longliners recounted open-open fin transfers to vessels outside DOF’s fleet. Deckhands from two of those longliners said they’d offloaded fins onto a vessel called the Lisboa; a Senegalese-flagged boat with the same name has a track record of illegal shark fin transshipments. The fisher from the third longliner recalled offloading fins onto a non-DOF boat on four separate occasions, the same one each time. While he couldn’t remember its name, he said it used a crane to lift the fin onto its deck.

In the western Pacific, by contrast, fins were only moved among DOF’s own longliners. Fishers from six vessels there said transshipments were made so that boats returning to China could unload them there.

Fins were also moved off of longliners that were heading to port outside China in order to avoid inspection, interviewees said. For example, when the captain of the Long Xing 629 finally agreed to bring its Indonesian crew, some of whom had already died, to Samoa so they could fly home, it first transferred its shark fins to another DOF vessel, deckhand Rizky Fauzan Alvian told Mongabay.

“Had [the] Long Xing 629 not been engaged in shark finning, it might have returned to port to seek medical help for the deceased Indonesian fishers when they fell ill,” Jinsuh Cho, a migrant fisher campaigner at Advocates for Public Interest Law, a South Korean nonprofit that interviewed the boat’s surviving deckhands, told the WCPFC’s annual meeting in late 2020.

“The close relationship between IUU fishing and human rights abuse at sea is evident,” she added.

Yudha Pratama, who fell badly ill on board the Long Xing 629, is photographed at Tanjung Perak Port in Surabaya, Indonesia. “Is this an illegal boat or what?” he recalled asking the other deckhands upon learning it would be hunting shark. “That was when I started getting really worried for myself.” Image by Febriansyah for Mongabay.

Didit wasn’t present when the Tian Xiang 18 unloaded its cargo of fins in China. Before it sailed home, he was transferred to another DOF boat. Mongabay was unable to interview anyone else from the Tian Xiang 18.

A year later, however, Didit witnessed how two other DOF longliners disposed of their fins after entering Chinese waters.

By October 2020, most of DOF’s western Pacific fleet was anchored off Weihai, a port city in China’s northern Shandong province, where it would remain for up to several weeks until the deckhands were repatriated.

Late one night under cover of darkness, two DOF boats, including Didit’s, each transferred some 30-50 sacks of dried fin onto a third smaller vessel near the Shandong coast. It looked like a local fishing boat, one not part of DOF’s fleet, Didit and two other deckhands told Mongabay.

The deckhands were woken up after midnight and ordered to carry the sacks onto the third boat. One deckhand said he could make out the name written in Chinese characters on the hull, though he couldn’t read it. No government authority was present, all three said.

When it was done, the two DOF captains boarded the third boat, which sailed away to parts unknown. A day or two later the captains returned, without the fins.

The deckhands said their boats, the Long Xing 801 and 802, transferred a total of 1.9 to 2.8 metric tons of dried fin onto the third boat — worth an estimated $282,582-$409,001 wholesale.

“I would think he sold them because … the captain went with the boat that was carrying the fins,” said Adhi, who was aboard the Long Xing 801.

Adhi Tayuh Braka drinks a cup of coffee in Semarang, Indonesia. Image by Aji Styawan for Mongabay.

While the third boat probably landed the fins somewhere nearby, it was all but certain they weren’t reported to customs authorities, according to three shark fin trade experts who reviewed the accounts of the transshipment for Mongabay.

Experts said this could mean captains were making money on the side or that DOF’s own executives were in on the scheme.

“It will be either company policy or the business of the crew themselves,” said Rossen Karavatchev, fisheries section coordinator at the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

Deckhands from five vessels in the Pacific told Mongabay they had specifically heard from Chinese officers that their captain would pocket the money from selling fins. Adhi provided one such account.

“Me and ta fu, the head foreman, I was close with him, I often chatted with him,” Adhi recalled.

“When we were at sea, I was packing the fins, and ta fu was there, I said, ‘Ta fu ni money sa sa lah,’ meaning, ‘Ta fu, you’re going to get a lot of money.’ Why a lot of money? Because there’s a lot of fins, I said like that.

“He said, ‘No, I don’t get anything from the fins — it’s only the captain who sells them.’”

Didit heard something similar on the Long Xing 802.

“The foreman said the fins are worth a lot of money, big money,” Didit recounted. “So I said, ‘Are you going to share it with us?’

“‘It’s for the captain,’ he said.”

Sacks and bunches of shark fin, each weighing about 50 kg, are seen inside a Hong Kong shark fin trader’s warehouse in 2018. Image courtesy of

Even if the captains were organizing the operation themselves, they might have had the company’s tacit support, said Gary Stokes, co-founder of Hong Kong-based marine conservation group OceansAsia, who has investigated the shark fin industry for two decades.

“There’s a possibility the company knows it’s going on, and basically says to the captain, you can go out and get the tuna for us, and whatever you get for you and the boys, that’s for you,” he said.

Steve Trent, the EJF founder, said that while a captain has “overarching power and control over the vessel and everybody on it … it’s pretty clear that the fleet as a whole is involved, and that the operators of that fleet, the Dalian company, are responsible.”

‘We’re taking too many of these animals’

Recorded shark fin imports to mainland China and Hong Kong have decreased over the past decade-plus.

A 2015 FAO report said that while the causes of the drop were “not entirely clear,” possibilities included Chinese government curbs on conspicuous shark fin consumption, awareness-raising campaigns targeting the Chinese public, increased regulation of finning globally and changes in customs codes.

DOF’s illicit activities, however, may suggest an alternative hypothesis: that real imports, rather than or in addition to declining, are going unreported.

“Another possibility is that [China’s] vessels are going out and bringing in shark fin without it being recorded,” shark expert Chapman said. “So they still have enough fins to satisfy demand, but it’s invisible.”

The DOF worker testimonies, he said, offer “on-the-ground evidence that maybe these dips aren’t quite as steep as the official landings or the official statistics would suggest.”

An WildAid ad on the side of a bus in Shanghai, seen in 2011, carries the slogan, “When the buying stops, the killing can too.” Image by Frank Hebbert/Flickr.

Marine biologist Pacoureau said that because unreported catches weren’t factored into his study that found ocean-going sharks had declined by 71% in half a century, that figure may be an underestimate.

“The perennial problem is that overfishing of oceanic sharks has far outpaced effective management of fisheries and control of trade,” he said. “Governments have failed in their treaty obligations to protect these threatened species.”

Snorkeler with three juvenile whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez off Baja California, Mexico. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
A snorkeler with three juvenile whale sharks off Baja California, Mexico. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and flag states should outlaw shark lines and wire leaders, conservationists said.

The WCPFC is the only RFMO to restrict the use of shark lines and wire leaders, with its ban on simultaneous usage. A proposal to ban both outright didn’t make it to a vote at last year’s annual WCPFC meeting. Conservationists plan to try again at this year’s meeting beginning Nov. 27 in Vietnam.

China banned shark lines and wire leaders in March 2022. But experts said the country must act more aggressively to enforce existing rules.

To crack down on misbehavior at sea, they said, China should improve in-port and at-sea inspection operations, including by sending its coast guard to do high-seas boardings of fishing vessels, as some countries do.

Read more: ‘There are solutions to these abuses’: Q&A with Steve Trent on how China can rein in illegal fishing

RFMOs and flag states should also increase the presence of observers on fishing boats, whether with human observers or electronic monitoring systems. “This is the sort of thing that argues for tamper-proof cameras recording continuously on these vessels,” Chapman said.

The WCPFC currently mandates only 5% observer coverage; a 2021 proposal to increase it to 10% didn’t make it to a vote. Experts told Mongabay it should be at least 20%, if not far higher.

“The tools to [detect and stop illicit activities] exist, but governments need to be held accountable to ensure that loopholes are closed, catch is accurately reported, and illegal fishers are stopped before they can do more harm,” Pew’s Hopkins said.

Adhi Tayuh Braka walks through a fish market in Semarang, Indonesia, in September, nearly a year removed from working for DOF. Image by Aji Styawan for Mongabay.

Like many DOF deckhands, Adhi Tayuh Braka only received a fraction of his promised salary after two years of working for the company, both on the books harvesting tuna and off the books finning sharks. Southeast Asian deckhands appear to be last in line to recover their dues as a cast of suppliers, creditors and Chinese crew members sue DOF in China, even as its fleet harvested shark fin estimated to be worth millions of dollars per year.

But Adhi isn’t bitter. He feels fortunate to have landed a job at a Honda showroom with only a middle school diploma. Last year he fulfilled his dream of getting married, even though it meant deferring his plan to buy a piece of land before his wedding day. In September his wife gave birth to their first child.

“I’ve let go of the money,” Adhi said. “God taught me that in this life, relationships are more important than money.”

Read our 2021 investigation about labor abuses on DOF’s fleet, which received a SOPA award for investigative reporting: Worked to death: How a Chinese tuna juggernaut crushed its Indonesian workers

Banner: A deckhand on the Long Xing 626 in DOF’s Atlantic fleet displays what experts who reviewed the image identified as a blue shark (Prionace glauca) in this photo posted to Facebook. The animal on the ground is a leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). 

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