Ramblings & ephemera

Zombie ships adrift off the shore of Africa

From “Happiness: The Chinese zombie ships of West Africa“:

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’. …

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. …

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 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. …

… 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.” …

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. …

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.

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