Oceana on the Water
Mediterranean Expedition (2007): Overview
Ranger’s 2007 expedition took place in the Mediterranean Sea. Ranger identified and documented illegal fishing activities, researched vulnerable marine habitats, protected marine areas and examined the damage made to some seabeds as a consequence of destructive fishing.
Read a selection of expedition diaries below or check out the complete list of entries.
A Trawler in the Park
María José Cornax
We practically haven't slept at all. The dive with the ROV was impressive, in spite of the fact that it was in shallow water, we spent three hours observing the nocturnal feeding habits of squid and cuttlefish and the dark shadows of the predators hunting the small fish attracted to us by the lights.
At 2 a.m., when we thought we were going to sleep, Jesus saw a fishing boat within waters of the National Park at less than one mile from the coast. We couldn’t believe our eyes -- another trawler trawling at less than one mile from the coast, at seven meters depth and within waters of the National Park. What’s more, the area around the National Park is a fishing reserve where trawling is prohibited. We took pictures and video images of the boat and returned to the area where we anchored.
At 6 a.m., Carlos wakes me up to show me something. As soon as I wake myself up and look in front of me, I can't believe my eyes and I have to go downstairs to make myself a cup of coffee because I just can't believe it's possible, I must be interpreting the law incorrectly. Directly in front of us, in Area B of the fishing reserve and within one mile of National Park waters, there are 16 dredgers working away. As a fishing technique, a hydraulic dredger is towed by a boat and uses high-pressure water to raise the sea bed, destroying the sediment where it operates in search of clams.
Once again, we report the fact to the National Park guards and the Guardia Civil. A patrol boat appeared shortly after, but the dredgers had moved on to Area C, where they are allowed to operate. After documenting all of this, we set sail towards Rota, where Mauro and Tomeo (the ROV technicians), Gorka (one of the divers) and Pepe disembarked.
Trawlers on the Seabed
María José Cornax
Today, we wanted to finish mapping the area where we found the gorgonians in order to delimit it and prepare a proposal for its protection. But when we reached the waypoint, our hearts were broken in two.
Two trawlerswere fishing atop the sea beds we had documented the day before. The Nuevo Panchita and the Abuelo Pichin were illegally trawling their nets at approximately 23 meters depth and at less than six miles from the coast.
We reported this to the General Secretariat of Fishing and to the provincial office of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council of the Regional Government of Andalusia.
One of the trawlers picked up their tackle and left in a hurry; we think they left the top of the net in the water. The Nuevo Panchita, however, was still fishing in the same area six hours after we reported to the authorities, their nets loaded with the gorgonians they had ripped out of the sea bed.
It’s difficult not to imagine the tackle destroying the sea beds and the scars left behind. At 7 p.m., we tried the Guardia Civil, reporting the vessel to the patrol boat in the area, but they still had not arrived when we left and although we called again to ask, we didn’t get any more information until the trawler came into port shortly after we did and tied up at our side.
María José Cornax
Today, no one had hopes of finding anything exceptional on the sea bed. After five months of campaigning, the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean and the marvelous ecosystems we’ve observed, it's difficult to make everyone understand the importance of these waters and their riches.
That’s why, when we submerged the ROV after mapping the area with the sonar, we were completely dumbfounded when a dense forest of gorgonians appeared before our eyes. We saw gorgonians that were probably hundreds of years old and reached up to 2 meters in height and Dendrophylla corals rooted in a rocky sediment, covered by a fine layer of mud. The area was so dense that each movement made by the ROV was a threat to some of these animals, so we cancelled the dive with the ROV and the divers will continue in the afternoon.
The divers collected all the graphic material they could during a difficult dive with such poor visibility that they had to stay close together in order to not get lost. After speaking with Ricardo Aguilar, we found out the majority of the gorgonians were different species belonging to the Leptogorgia genus.
We set sail towards Mazagón to spend the night, still impressed by what we've seen.
Seco de los Olivos
More surprises in this area. We continue investigating the area around Seco de los Olivos. Near the main seamount, there is a group of smaller elevations that almost surround it, as if they were a crown. All of them are proving to be quite interesting.
Today, we’ve decided to use the ROV to go down to 200-210 meters on the seamount closest to the coast. The summit is located at 120 meters depth and it plunges to more than 350 meters from there. It is very rocky and like all the ones we’ve seen, is plagued by fishing tackle and abandoned ropes. There is not one single place we’ve sampled that is untouched by human hands.
The surprise came when we found some fabulous sponges. They are hexactinellids, large upside-down hat-shaped glass sponges. They are the same ones that have been found in El Cachuco bank in Asturias and are referred to as “hat sponges”. The ones we’ve found are 40-50 centimeters in height. There are other sponges that are difficult to identify; some also look like hexactinellids (similar in shape to the Rosella species but less wrinkled) and others are desmosongias, amongst them, if we’re not mistaken, possibly Phakellia ventilabrum.
Although there are also gorgonians in the area, such as the whip gorgonian (Viminella flagellum), sponges are the dominant species.
We spotted the popular swallowtail seaperch, a few scale-rayed wrasseand large grey groupers. It’s interesting that this species of grouper occurs frequently in seamounts and in large sizes, whereas it is not very common in coastal areas and almost all the specimens we find are quite small.
During the second dive with the ROV, we returned to the main seamount to take a look at the area we haven’t seen. The landscape we found here is similar to the other areas we’ve sampled -- sandy bottoms with small and medium-sized rocks, many gorgonians and other anthozoans. As far as fish are concerned, we spoted a large monkfish and amongst the rocks, seabass, rainbow wrasse, scale-rayed wrasse, and greater forkbeards.
The divers take their turn in the afternoon. We continue to collect data about the mixed seagrassprairies in front of Punta Sabinal. The Mesophyllum alternans reef occurring amongst the rhizomes where we’ve been today is more deteriorated. Even so, it is still rich in fauna and flora.
Encountering an Oil Slick
Yesterday, we continued to study the sea floors around Cabo de La Nao.
We carried out a couple of dives with the divers between Isla de Portixol and Cape San Martin. Again, we spotted gorgonians, including the white sea fan, the yellow sea fan, many nudibranchs, cardinal fish with their eggs in their mouths, conger eelsand many other fish. Posidonia oceanica was present on the sea floor, along with large banks of salema fish.
We used the ROV for only one dive, because when we were preparing the second dive, we heard the news about the Don Pedro in Ibiza. We decided to pick up and head towards Denia to fill up the tanks and sail to the Balearic Islands.
We reached the area in the morning, at approximately 7 a.m. The first thing we noticed was the strong smell of fuel and then we saw the oil slick and amongst it, a group of bottlenose dolphin
After sending letters to the Maritime Authority in Ibiza, to the SAR team and the local government of the Balearic Islands offering our collaboration, especially using the submarine robot to analyze the ship's hull, we travelled around the affected area to assess the situation.
The oil slick extends various miles towards the southeast coast of the island, especially around the port where the merchant ship had sunk. For the most part, the oil slick was not very dense although larger, thicker slicks were concentrated in other areas.
As we passed over the area where the accident took place, we could clearly see the bright yellow merchant ship on the sea floor at 43 meters depth. Two small vessels belonging to the local Balearic government were working in the area, removing as much fuel as they could. Further north, the SAR vessel Clara Campoamor was carrying out its job, and occasionally a second vessel could also be seen in the area. Later, some airplanes flew over the area and provided information about the location of the denser slicks to the vessels in charge of removing the oil.
We were surprised that no beacons had been installed and there were barely any anti-contamination barriers. The truth is everything was strangely calm, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened there. Only the divers seem to be taking it seriously, as they work to seal the cracks so no more fuel leaks out into the ocean. They are the ones who are working on site at the wreck, trying to remove as much fuel as they can.
Soon after, the oil slicks started to appear on the coast and the first radio alerts were given about the closing off of beaches.
According to what we have seen here, if it had been a tanker like the Prestige carrying 80,000 tons of fuel and oil instead of this merchant ship with 200 tons of fuel and oil, Ibiza would have drowned in fuel from coast to coast.
Although this is the area with the heaviest summer maritime traffic in Spain, there is practically no infrastructure in place to fight against spillage or to respond when there is an accident. And the same occurs off most of the Spanish coast. We still don't have satellite detection systems for spills or many other things necessary to be prepared for a disaster.
After sailing a few miles around the affected area, we anchored and waited for a response, but 12 hours later, we’re still waiting.
We’ve gone to see the beaches, rocks and coves in the area, where the oil slick was beginning to pile up and some workers started to remove it. We spoted the first oil-stained animals: cormorants stained with fuel, crabs, barnacles and coastal algae completely smothered in oil and fish swimming between the slicks. As the day went on, new oil slicks reached the coast.
Luckily, it wasn’t a large tanker that wrecked, although in isolated cases, the contamination is serious. We are, however, feeling quite discouraged. We realize no lessons have been learned, that the same mistakes are made over and over again.
After six o’clock that night, when the recreational fishing boats come back to port after spending the day at sea, another pitiful scene takes place: yachts sailing all around the SAR vessel, from stem to stern, on all sides. All the vessels were sailing at high speeds, making waves and causing the oil slicks to pass over the containment barriers. Since there are no beacons in place, the port has not been closed and no system is in place to detour maritime traffic, the returning yachts created the same chaos they always do when coming back into port.
But the people in charge of removing the fuel really became angry when another vessel belonging to ISCOMAR, the same shipping company that owns the Don Pedro, passed by at high speed and caused waves that made pure venom come out of the VHF radio.
If it weren’t for the seriousness of the event, this would look like one of those funny Mediterranean movies.
Tomorrow we’ll see if the authorities give us any news. We don't want to take action on our own because this type of work needs to be coordinated in order to avoid hindering the removal of the fuel and the work of the divers.
Oceana Ranger attacked!
Following five days spent in Marseilles with the weather unsettled and the driftnetters moored and waiting for the good weather conditions that would allow them to return to their habitual robbery, we finally set sail at dawn on 18 May, bearing for Hyeres, fearing that we would again find driftnetting activity near the port. If so, we would again film the illegal fishing.
We left the bight of Marseilles, sailing through the strait between the island of Ratonneau and the shore. As with so many places that we have encountered in our campaigns in the Mediterranean in recent years, there is history evident at every turn.
There are city walls, castles or stone buildings that have seen pass before them the square sails or lateens of legendary seafarers, merchant adventurers and fearsome corsairs. It makes us think of those times when the Mediterranean was probably brimming with life and would have contained specimens of sizes that today seem incredible, as we observe the usual catches in this over-harvested sea.
At two o’clock in the afternoon, we arrived in Hyeres and after a brief wait, as we feared, the drifnettersset sail again.. Alter filming some of them casting their driftnet, we withdrew and waited patiently until they had most of their nets in the water.
At about 11 p.m., we approached again and by locating the buoy’s beacons on the radar, we measured a pair of nets that were each of 6 to 7 kilometers.
We continued our routine for another day, checking the Cavalaire area. We recovered a life raft for 30 people that we found drifting, fortunately with no sign of having been occupied by the survivors of a shipwreck, and reported the finding to the maritime authorities via the radio. On 20 May, we docked in Port Frejus to take on fuel. After leaving the raft at the fuel wharf so that the authorities could pick it up, we stationed ourselves off the port of San Raphael to wait for possible driftnetters setting sail for their fishing grounds. They didn’t take long to appear and we returned to following their activity.
We again filmed some of them at work, casting their illegal nets, and when it was getting dark, we withdrew a few miles to remain in the area until daybreak and then to try to document them taking in their nets. We had seen dolphinsin the area and believed that more of them would be caught today. When this happens, they usually delay in taking in their nets and it’s possible to film the fishing in daylight. After two weeks of doing the same thing with no incident to report between the driftnetters and the Ranger, today we were in for a shock.
Obviously, the fishing was significant. We were documenting the catch of the Gallus and after watching us for several minutes, they decided to fire a flare at us, which passed across the bow of the Ranger. Despite this grave infraction of the international shipping regulations and the huge criminal negligence involved in firing a flare close to people, in the beginning I thought the intention of the madman was to scare us, to put it one way. I remind you, respectfully and with no intention of
, of the boy who died in the sad incident of the flare that was fired across a football ground.
However, in the video recording, we could see that the flare was aimed directly at us and that it was only the lack of accuracy that caused the flare to divert from the trajectory intended by the criminal who fired it. Anyway, we remained impassive and calm, not reacting and not preventing or obstructing their work, hoping that they would realize what they’d done and believing that, after this crazy tantrum, their usual indifference would return.
Well, that’s what happened, at least at the beginning, and so we documented two more trawlers. With the last of these, the Santa II, things changed radically. We believe that the trigger was a catch that the driftnetters particularly fear, especially when they are being filmed. Several members of our crew sensed at a particular time, when just the last few meters of the net were left in the water, that there was a cetacean (probably a dolphin) in the catch that they had begun to lift from the water.
The fishermen reacted immediately and in a second threw the net back into the water, preventing us from filming the catch. After a moment of indecision, and while we could see that the trawlers that had already finished gathering their nets were closing in, we saw the crew of the Santa II rush to their net and begin to cut it away, leaving a buoy attached to it so they would be able to pick up the last few meters later, which we assumed contained the trapped dead dolphin that we had almost managed to film.
From that point on, it’s quite simple. The criminals, having been filmed and photographed throughout the previous afternoon and that morning, decided to attack the Ranger. This is no surprise given the rabble we were looking at, although you never get used to the fact that these shameless delinquents, subsidised by our taxes, do what they want in front of intimidated governments and helpless citizens. Yes my friend, with your money, taken from your pocket and ending up with the “poor pirate drifnetters.” It is something else to be added to the list; they make millions at your expense. Remember that when you are thinking about paying your mortgage or the options for education of your children.
The seven fishing boats that had gathered around the Ranger attempted for an hour and in every way possible to immobilize us with nets and ropes hurled at our propellers, while some threatened us, showing us their backsides and their genitals, the latter, unfortunately, in a state of repose, which somewhat lessened the feeling of danger.
When we saw how things were developing, we decided to call the French authorities to let them know was happening and request their intervention. As was bound to happen -- seven against one, we can’t perform miracles! -- they entangled our propellers. With the Ranger immobilized, they began to hurl rays with poisonous stings. This was extremely dangerous for those on board the Ranger, as one of these can put you in hospital, at the very least. They also threw other “discarded” fish that they had on board, plastic bottles filled with water. In all, they were giving the vessel a real lashing. Some were trying, boat hooks in hand, to board the Ranger to take our cameras and tapes.
That was the situation when the first helicopter sent by the French coast guard arrived and the result was devastating. After a moment of being disconcerted, the attacking fleet began to disconnect itself from the ropes they’d been able to attach to the Ranger and took flight in a display of clean conscience and exemplary citizenship. Minutes later, a Navy helicopter appeared.
For our part, we lowered Carlos Suárez down to the propellers and after an inspection, we set to work, managing to cut away and disentangle the ropes after almost half an hour of work. After confirming that we had managed to avoid serious damage to the propellers and shafts, and with the valiant band of assailants put to flight by the arrival of the helicopters, we decided to head towards Bastia in Corsica, where we docked the following day. I’m sure that Xavier will later report what occurred, in the form of a campaign report, in order that you will be able to appreciate the significance of what the Ranger is doing in documenting the activities of drifnetters in the Mediterranean.
To my colleagues on the crew,
…on board the Ranger