The hunt for rogue fishing boats

Sea shepherd: Rob Dickinson is fighting illegal fishing in West African waters

Watching majestic humpback whales frolic in Tongan waters was a turning point for Queenstowner Rob Dickinson.

Dickinson’s always felt connected to the sea having grown up near a port in England and later taking up scuba diving as a hobby.

But it’s when he went swimming with the awe-inspiring mammals while on a holiday with friends in 2014, his outlook changed.

“I just thought how can certain countries slaughter these creatures for consumption, and I felt I had to do something.”

On his return home, he contacted marine conservation organisation Sea Shepherd, and subsequently founded the Queenstown chapter to raise awareness about how commercial whaling and illegal fishing is having a detrimental impact on ecosystems.

The marine activist set up his first stall at Remarkables Market to campaign for change and collect donations, in 2016, and he also co-founded Sustainable Queenstown.

Having proved his dedication offshore, Dickinson was then chosen to work as a marine engineer on the Bob Barker – one ship of a 12-vessel fleet – in July last year, and remained on board until October.

Currently in West African waters and on his second stint, Dickinson boarded the boat in February and won’t disembark until June.

The Bob Barker crew is made up of about 20 people from different countries, including Italy, Australia, Germany and Israel, all of whom share a passion to protect marine animals by stopping people who exploit the sea.

Dickinson says research shows 15 to 40 per cent of fish stocked at supermarkets are caught through illegal fishing activities.

“It’s horrific what we see on these ships, and it’s not just what is getting caught in the fishing nets, it’s also working conditions for the people on board – they are slaves.”

The Sea Shepherd fleet works alongside authorities to carry out inspections on commercial fishing boats. They check to see if they have a licence and are operating within the relevant parameters.

“We’re interested in what they’re catching, how much they’re catching, and also the bycatch – turtles, whales, dolphins and sharks die in these nets.

“The fishing industry is not transparent; they might claim it’s been caught through sustainable fishing, but it’s not true.”

Hot temperatures, choppy seas and no days off make for a rocky journey, Dickinson says, but it’s all worth it when the crew assist in having illegal fishermen arrested and charged.

He’s asking Queenstowners to think about taking small steps to be more environmentally friendly.

“Whether it be diet or waste consumption, it’s about doing the right thing – we can all make a difference.”