From Italy with love.. going undercover with The Black Fish

My name is Libby and I’ve just spent an exhilarating 10 days in Southern Italy working as an undercover investigator for The Black Fish’s Citizen Inspector Network (CIN). The mission was to inspect fishing ports and vessels for the illegal use of Fish Aggregated Devices or FADs under the guise of ‘la tourista’.

How it all started

My partner Andy and I were about to quit our office jobs to spend a few months travelling around Europe in our beloved little campervan (a.k.a Vooby) and then hopefully do some diving in Asia. A few years back we’d spent three months volunteering with Global Vision International (GVI) helping to gather research on coral diversity, so were keen to help with another marine conservation project that would fit in with our travels.

It all started at the Dive Show in Birmingham, UK. Andy was drooling over underwater cameras, so I checked out the speaker slots. That’s when I spotted Wietse Van Der Werf (Founder of The Black Fish) who was about to give a presentation about this new opportunity for ordinary citizens to become directly involved in the protection of our oceans.

I listened, totally enthralled.. probably with my mouth open. There was this guy, looking more like a start-up tech founder than an activist, talking about fighting illegal fishing in Europe. Not by hunting down fishing vessels on the high seas – but by gathering evidence over the course of months, even years, to help prosecute criminal gangs working in the fishing industry. This methodical approach was working and a totally different approach to other headline grabbing organisations. The attraction of gathering evidence, whilst remaining totally invisible, really appealed to us. We just HAD to get involved!

How we became undercover agents

Being a part of The Black Fish’s Citizen Inspector Network is not just about whether you can fund it or not. You need to prove your dedication to the cause and a willingness to learn new skills. The aim is to build-up experience over time to help the organisation for the long-term.

It all started with an application form, then an interview via Skype (to show that you are committed and not a total nutter). Once we passed these stages, we then attended a four day training course with a group of other wannabe undercover agents. We were worried that we’d be the token old farts in amongst a load of sprightly young students, but were relieved to meet people of all ages and backgrounds. It was great to chat to all these inspiring individuals over delicious vegan food.

The course was packed with information, covering the identification of fish species, vessel types and fishing gear. They also set up a mock investigation of a local port. Once you’d passed the course, exam and an unofficial personality test it was time to be assigned to a project and start crowdfunding with the #OceanCrowd

Innovative approach

Crowdfunding sounds like the start-up tech company again doesn’t it? This is because The Black Fish are free-thinkers; creative, intelligent and passionate for the cause. They use the latest innovations and technology to help with investigations, such as drones. The Black Fish collaborate with other organisations, most recently with the Wildlife Air Service to help keep a watchful eye on illegal fishing out at sea through aerial surveillance.

The Black Fish do things differently, with hardly any external funding. This is why crowdfunding is a vital and novel way to raise money for projects; and your family and friends will be more invested in the work you are doing.

Crowdfunding our mission

We waited with anticipation for our mission. Then it came.. 10 days in Southern Italy over the summer. Perfect! When we told our family and friends what we’d be doing, I’m sure they all thought we were having a mid-life crisis. One friend asked if Andy, who is as bald as a coot, would need to wear a wig whilst working undercover. Another worried that the mafia would bundle us into the back of a car and knee-cap us.

We launched our crowding funding page and emailed it out to our family, friends and work colleagues. I also posted a more light-hearted “Losing Nemo” campaign on Facebook and was delighted to receive lots of support from fellow scuba divers. Within a month we’d raised well over our target, so sent a personal thank you to everyone who contributed – along with the promise of Italian inspired dinner parties when we returned.

The great unknown

It would be a lie to say that we were feeling relaxed about the project. We are British after all and it is not in our nature to take photos of things we shouldn’t, or to strike up conversations with fishermen in ‘Del Boy’ style Italian. So we decided to get to Italy a few days before to acclimatise to the people, the culture and THE HEAT! Nothing prepares you for the amount of sweat you will ooze during a southern Italian summer. At some points, you actually sweat through your eyes.

Cameras, lights, action!

Before we were due to start the project, we were informed that we were to be joined by a film crew for the whole 10 days! “WTF” we cried! We did know this was a possibility from the training but didn’t expect it to be on our first mission! Will this be like Italian Big Brother? Are my teeth white enough? But I thought we were supposed to be invisible? We calmed down, realised it was a fantastic opportunity for The Black Fish, so made a pact to enjoy the experience.

The ‘safe house’

As we drove into the village that was to be our home for the next 10 days, we were greeted with a smile and a hug by The Black Fish staff. We were also met by two Citizen Inspectors that were ready to leave after their 10 day stint inspecting ports. Both of them were buzzing with excitement and didn’t want to leave.. a very good sign indeed!

The apartment was perfect for the project. It was located in a lovely un-touristy village by the sea. One person in the team commented that this was “the loudest, quietest village I’ve ever known”. It was like being in a fun fair at times, what with the fruit man selling his giant melons from a rickety Tuk Tuk announcing his arrival to the Italian Madres with what sounded like the call to Allah. Then there were the Church bells ringing at unsociable hours and the bar playing ear bleeding Euro Trash pop from the sea front. But this was nothing compared to the circus that was taking place in our apartment. There were a mass of sweaty people coming and going, gadgets strewn all over the place and plug sockets heaving with charging devices. Big pans of pasta bubbled over as volunteer cooks produced amazing vegan food for the troops.

The mission starts

We had an initial briefing on what had happened during the previous 10 days and how we were going to continue with the great work that had already been done. FADs were being constructed and illegal driftnets unloaded from vessels. It was the big change-over from one illegal fishing gear to another. So this was a prime time for us to document sightings of FAD gear being loaded onto vessels and deployed into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Our target port and the vessels moored there were presented and we were assigned to our teams.

Andy and I were split up to avoid bickering on inspections. Plus we had been together 24/7 in a small campervan, so the change was as good as a rest! I got a rare opportunity to do some dangerous driving in a hired Fiat Panda. I had seen the Italian Job so decided to style my driving around what I’d seen in the film.. to my passengers’ absolute horror.

We were both paired with a member of the opposite sex to inspect ports under the guise of tourist couples in love. Andy had two wives over the course of the project – so almost a harem! My ‘husband’ was 10 years younger, so the cougar fantasy was to become a reality. He didn’t seem as keen as me to act it out though. So off we all went (albeit awkwardly at first) to our port inspections.

Undercover inspections

The team inspections were staggered so that the target port could be observed at all key times of the day. Fisherman could arrive with FAD gear (palm leaves, plastic containers and stones) on the back of a truck and unload it onto a vessel within minutes, so it was very easy to miss this vital evidence.

The first day was more of a test run to get to know our fellow Citizen Inspectors and familiarise ourselves with the port and vessels moored there. As predicted, we felt rather awkward at first and just marched up and down the dock – as far from the vessels and fisherman as possible. BUT THEN we spotted a huge illegal driftnet being taken off of a vessel! We took photos from a distance, but now wish we had gone up and taken closer shots and chatted to the fishermen. After a couple of days, you gain the confidence to do this. In this particular port the more obvious we were, the least likely we were to be considered suspect. But this may not always be the case.

We carried out two inspections every day, each lasting three hours. With the several teams operating in shifts, this meant the port was monitored for around 14-16 hours each day. Each team reported back its findings and photographs to the Intelligence Officer.

As we all relaxed with our partners and roles, the evidence of illegal fishing gear was being pieced together. The most exciting moment was when we spotted a car turn up to port LOADED with palm leaves. 20 minutes later, another car arrived pulling a cart heaving with everything you need to deploy FADs – palm leaves, plastic containers tied together and stones.

One vessel in particular remained a mystery because you couldn’t see in to it to suss out what fishing gear they were carrying. With a wink and a smile, my CI partner and I were invited aboard. Our hearts were racing as we knew we just had to make the most of this opportunity. The Captain had a BIG personality, so was keen to show us around and even turned on his navigation computers to show where he would be fishing over the next few days. Then, he left us alone on the bridge! We managed to photograph documents and containers with fishing gear that were otherwise hidden from view. So, after I’d diplomatically declined the Captain’s romantic advances, we left the vessel with adrenaline pumping through our veins.

Mission highlights

There were two stand-out highlights from the mission. Firstly, the feeling that you are really making a difference with the work you were doing and secondly, the opportunity to work with an incredible group of people. It renews your faith in humankind as you share a collective passion for environmental conservation.

Advice for future CIs

This is a SERIOUS volunteer project, so not for the feint-hearted.

• Be a people person – you will be working and living very closely with others.
• Be prepared to muck in with chores.
• Be ready to step out of your comfort zone.
• If you have a problem, don’t sit on it – air it!
• Keep smiling and laughing!

The Black Fish allocate 10 day periods for each citizen investigation as its HARD WORK. They want to get the best out of you whilst you are A1 fit. We had to work in intense heat and had some early morning starts. So it’s important to drink loads of water and catch a siesta when you can.

It was a truly memorable and rewarding experience. We have the utmost respect for the work The Black Fish are doing for marine conservation, by focusing on illegal fishing activity, and the unique opportunity to become directly involved in the front line activity as an ordinary citizen. We are looking forward to signing up for our next investigation!

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