‘It was a shark operation’: Q&A with Indonesian crew abused on Chinese shark-finning boat

2022-12-17 12:39:47 By : Mr. Jason Ren

In November, Mongabay revealed a massive illegal shark fishing and finning operation across the fleet of Dalian Ocean Fishing (DOF), a distant-water fishing firm that has claimed to be China’s largest supplier of sashimi-grade tuna to Japan. The investigation followed from an earlier story revealing widespread labor abuses across the same fleet. Both articles were based on dozens of interviews with Indonesian men who worked on the company’s longline boats between 2018 and 2020.

One of these former deckhands, Rusnata, now 40, was born and raised in Majalengka, a district in Indonesia’s West Java province. The first time he left the area was in 2014, when he went to work on a Taiwanese longliner fishing for tuna in the Atlantic Ocean. After returning two years later, he struggled to find work on land, having only a primary school education, so he took a job on the Long Xing 607, one of around 35 boats then in DOF’s fleet. Shields Rubber Marine Hose

‘It was a shark operation’: Q&A with Indonesian crew abused on Chinese shark-finning boat

The following account has been combined from multiple interviews Mongabay conducted with Rusnata in 2021 and 2022, that have been heavily condensed and edited for clarity.

Mongabay: How did you end up going back for a second stint on a fishing boat?

Rusnata: I was enjoying being back on land, and I was with my wife. But slowly the money started to run out. We needed more, and there was pressure from my wife’s family. So I decided to go back to sea.

When I got home the first time, my intention was to start a business. But after thinking it through, it was better to build a house first, so we could have our own place. If I wanted to start a business, I could go to sea again.

Mongabay: How did you connect with the recruitment agency, PT Setia Putra Nelayan?

Rusnata: I contacted one of my friends from the Taiwanese boat I’d worked on previously. He mentioned the agency, said it was good. I got the phone number and met the guy, submitted my documents. I left about a month later.

Mongabay: What were the arrangements outlined in your contract?

Rusnata: The contract was the same as the one from my first boat. The only difference was the salary, because now I had some experience. The first time, I was paid $300 [a month], the second time $450. Four hundred dollars would be transferred to my family’s bank account, and I would get $50 on the boat.

Mongabay: You didn’t have any problem going back to work on a longline boat?

Rusnata: No problem at all, based on how it went the first time. But gosh, the Long Xing turned out to be very, very different.

Editor’s note: In November 2018, Rusnata flew with a group of some 50 Indonesians from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta to Busan, South Korea, where the longline vessel on which he would spend the next two years, the Long Xing 607, was docked. He spent about an hour at a facility in Busan before the group was shuttled to the port and loaded onto two DOF boats: the Long Xing 607 and Long Xing 608.

In Busan, he said, “One of us ran away. They ran away in Korea. Maybe they found a job on land. Because the salary was probably higher working on land, even for a runaway.”

Mongabay: What did you do in the first two weeks at sea, when the Long Xing 607 was still sailing to the fishing grounds in the western Pacific?

Rusnata: During the first two weeks, it was still nice. We couldn’t tell yet what it would be like with the food supply because we were still on the way out to sea. We’d wake up at 6, eat breakfast, start work at 7, and finish at 5 in the afternoon. It was all still preparation work — preparing the fishing gear, the hooks, the lines; training the first-time deckhands. We hadn’t started operating yet.

Mongabay: What do you mean by the food supply?

Rusnata: When we were at sea, the breakfast was like … In Indonesia we’d call it rice porridge, but this porridge was like cooked rice that you added water to, that’s it. Mushy rice with some water, that’s all.

For meat, sometimes we got bait fish, that was the most common. Some deckhands couldn’t eat pork [because of their Muslim faith], but because they cooked the vegetables with pork, they ate it anyway whether they liked it or not. Otherwise they wouldn’t eat.

Mongabay: How about the water?

Rusnata: Distilled water. No clean freshwater at all.

Mongabay: What did the distilled water taste like?

Rusnata: When the [distillation] machine was working well, we couldn’t taste anything. But most of the time we could taste something. If we didn’t taste anything, maybe it was because we had already gotten used to it, but yeah, it was like the water was mixed with rust.

Sometimes we would keep a stash of the water in the room. After at most two weeks, it would turn yellow in the bottles. We’d keep the water in the room so we could drink after working at night without having to go out for it. So we’d stash like three or four bottles, but after a week or two the water in the bottle would turn yellow.

Mongabay: Did anybody ever get sick on the Long Xing 607?

Rusnata: Yes. Their legs swelled up, like elephantiasis, and it lasted for a while. And the treatment, gosh, the thing with the Chinese boat was that everything was expired, not only the food, but also the medicine.

[The person who got sick] was called Andi. It was four … six months after we departed.

Mongabay: How long was he sick?

Rusnata: A month or more. Full recovery took almost two months. Because the treatment was just the bare minimum. Poor guy. He still had to work, he didn’t get any rest.

Mongabay: The swelling was limited to his legs?

Rusnata: For him, it was just the legs. Luckily he immediately told the foreman, so it was immediately treated, even though just with whatever was available. If it hadn’t been immediately treated, it’d be like that case, who was it, Efendi Pasaribu, who was swelling all the way up to his face.

Editor’s note: Efendi Pasaribu was one of four deckhands from DOF’s Long Xing 629 vessel who fell sick and died in 2019 and 2020.

At least 30 deckhands from five boats whose workers we interviewed about labor abuses experienced symptoms similar to those that affected Andi and Efendi, deckhands told us. The symptoms described — most commonly severe swelling, a condition known as edema, but also weakness and pain in the legs, difficulty standing or walking, dizziness or confusion, and chest discomfort — were likely caused by the limited diets and/or the drinking water, according to five clinicians we asked to review their testimonies.

Mongabay: It was just him on the Long Xing 607 who was sick like that?

Rusnata: There were many, almost all of the inexperienced deckhands had it. But maybe some were immune, so it was quick with them, like it was only a week and then they recovered. [Andi] was the only one who had it bad, who looked very bad. The others only had a bit of swelling, but they didn’t feel any pain. In [Andi’s] case, he was really sick, he couldn’t even walk.

Mongabay: How many more had that swelling, even if it didn’t get really bad?

Rusnata: A lot, like eight people. That’s why they asked to be sent home. Maybe because they felt the treatment was poor, the medication was poor.

Actually, when we learned it wasn’t nice on the boat, we all asked to be sent home. We staged a protest in front of the captain. We stopped working, the Indonesians refused to work at all.

Mongabay: How long had you been on the boat when that happened?

Rusnata: Three months. Because we realized the [food] supply was not good, and then there was physical contact.

Editor’s note: Most of the former deckhands described some form of unwelcome physical contact, ranging from being hit or kicked by senior crew members — with some interviewees vague on whether it crossed the line from horsing around to full-on violence — to being slapped across the face for disobeying an order or being beaten with objects like rope or metal rods, sometimes hard enough to leave a bruise. Rusnata says he fell on the milder end of this spectrum.

Rusnata: It didn’t happen to me. The physical contact was because maybe the inexperienced deckhands were … Well, everyone is different. Some immediately understood [how to do the work], but some didn’t. So, there was physical contact.

The other deckhands [the ones who weren’t subject to physical contact] couldn’t stand it there either, which is why we asked to be sent home. But the captain ignored us. So we staged a protest, stopped working. All of the Indonesians agreed to it.

Mongabay: How long did you stop working for?

Mongabay: Which deckhands experienced physical contact?

Rusnata: Almost every first-time deckhand, almost every inexperienced deckhand received it.

For example, those who immediately understood [how to do their jobs], the most they’d get was only a light hit, like on the butt. But the deckhands who were really difficult to teach — I was told this, I never witnessed it myself — I was told they got hit on the head.

Mongabay: Was it described to you what the hitting was like? Was it like a smack or with a closed fist, or what?

Rusnata: Just like a smack. But maybe it’s a normal practice for [the senior officers] because we saw them do that to each other, like it was normal. But for Indonesians, when it’s on the head, it’s very impolite.

Mongabay: Was there ever any physical contact that was like a fight, with punches flying?

Rusnata: No, no punches like that. It was just like smacks, like parents do to their kid.

Rusnata: Yes, there was some kicking, but it wasn’t very hard. Just light kicking.

Mongabay: It wasn’t like causing bruises or…

Rusnata: Oh, no. Nothing that caused bruises.

Mongabay: So eventually everyone staged a protest, two days of no work and demanded to be sent home. How long did it take until someone was sent home?

Rusnata: Gosh, so long. It was almost a year. So we were just ignored. The boat was going to dock [in Samoa, in late 2019], and the deckhands were going to be moved to another boat [instead of being allowed to go to port with the Long Xing 607].

Mongabay: But it didn’t happen?

Rusnata: So we staged another protest. We heard from a Chinese crew member who said the boat was going to dock, but we [the Indonesians] wouldn’t be coming along. Of course we didn’t accept that. How come only the Chinese got to go back to land, and we didn’t? That’s why we staged another protest. In the end we were allowed to go to port, in Samoa. For two weeks.

Mongabay: What did you do in Samoa?

Rusnata: No work at all, actually, because our catch had already been transferred to the collecting boat. And the bait had been refilled. So basically we were just playing around. And it was actually time for the boat to dock.

Mongabay: How long had it been on the boat when it went to port in Samoa?

Rusnata: A year, more or less.

Mongabay: During that year, were there any deckhands who were transferred off the boat?

Rusnata: On the Long Xing, if a deckhand asked to be sent home, really demanded it, they’d be moved to another boat, and then I’d meet them again down the line. Like when I was in Manado [a city in Indonesia, where the Indonesians from DOF’s Pacific fleet were repatriated to in late 2020], I met that person again. It turned out he hadn’t gone home for the full two years. I don’t know if it was the captain playing games or what, but if you asked to be sent home, you’d be transferred [to another DOF longliner, without being sent home].

Mongabay: This happened before the Long Xing 607 docked in Samoa?

Rusnata: Yes, it was during the first two or three months [at sea]. A lot were already asking to be sent home. And when there was no response to the protest, three deckhands really demanded to be sent home. There was even one who, when the tuna was offloaded onto a collecting boat, he jumped onto the collecting boat. He was really determined. But the captain of the collecting boat refused to take him, since it was problematic … He was ordered to jump back.

Read more: How Mitsubishi vacuumed up tuna from a rogue Chinese fishing fleet

Mongabay: These three deckhands were replaced with other deckhands?

Rusnata: Yes, there were replacements. So because there was the Tian Xiang 8 [another DOF boat] which was going home, some of its deckhands hadn’t finished their contracts, and so they were moved onto our boat.

When we were in Samoa, there were some deckhands who went home because they were instructed to do so by their recruitment agency. There were three people who were told by their agency to return home, and another five asked to be sent home. And when we were at sea again, new ones came on.

Mongabay: In terms of fishing, what was it like on the Long Xing 607? What were the main targets and what gear did you use on the boat?

Rusnata: The main target was actually tuna, because it was a longliner. But when we were working, what was prioritized were sharks.

It was different fishing gear for sharks. For tuna, it was just a line that was sometimes attached with lamps to attract tuna. Meanwhile for sharks, there was a special wire for a few centimeters, like 30-50 centimeters [12-20 inches], and the line itself was short. So if one broke, we had to make another. For sharks, the line wasn’t very long, just 10 meters [33 feet].

The hook [for sharks] was almost the same [as the one for tuna], just a bit bigger. It also used wire. So from the hook to the branch line, you give it some wire, for around 40 centimeters [16 in] you use wire.

For tuna, you also use wire. Only for tuna you use one, and it’s small. For sharks you use a lot, you double it up. The wire is twisted together many times, like a rope, so it’s strong. That’s the only difference.

Mongabay: Why is it twisted around?

Rusnata: It’s twisted around to make it strong, so it won’t break off. So, when you’ve got it hooked, when you’re pulling it up, the shark is thrashing around, twisting and turning as it’s being pulled up and you’re about to hit it with the hand hook. It’s so it won’t break off.

Read more: As shark numbers plummet, nations seek ban on devastatingly effective gear

Mongabay: That was from the beginning of the trip?

Rusnata: Not right at first, because it would have scared the first-time deckhands if they were pulling up sharks. It was around two to three months in [before we started targeting sharks]. After three months, we were given the fishing gear for sharks. What was prioritized was shark, the shark fins. We took only the fins.

For the sharks, if for example we only got a few sharks, the captain would rack his brain to find a way [to catch more], by changing out the bait or something. The main thing is that the upper part [of the branch line] would be ordinary filament. Beneath it, attached to the hook, we used wire. The wires were small wires that were twisted around.

Mongabay: ​OK, does that mean they were used together?

Mongabay: At the same time.

Rusnata: Yes, the one attached to the end, the one attached to the hook — a shark’s teeth are sharp, right, if you use a regular line it’s easy to break. If you use a wire it’s strong.

Mongabay: Does that mean it’s always like that? Always together like that?

Mongabay: I just want to make sure. I’m afraid, for example, that sometimes there were times when you only used the wire and other times where you only used the shark line.

Rusnata: No, it was like that on everything. The difference is like this: if it’s for tuna, you use wire on everything, only the position is one wire for tuna. If it’s for sharks, the wire is double, triple. It’s different, stronger, because sharks have sharp teeth. It makes it so it doesn’t break easily.

Mongabay: Yes, that’s right. You mean it’s always like that, right?

Rusnata: Yes, it’s always like that.

Mongabay: You never used a shark line without a wire leader at the end of it, right? Or if you did, it was an exception to the rule?

Rusnata: Yes, always. Always used with wire. So, never used a shark line without a wire leader. For sharks, always used with wire.

Mongabay: On every round of setting, you would have shark lines all along the mainline, with wire leaders at the ends of them, right?

Rusnata: There always were. Even during the normal tuna operation, we used the shark lines with wire. The wire would be wrapped around three or four times.

Mongabay: To be clear, this means the Long Xing 607 intended to catch sharks, yes?

Rusnata: Of course it was on purpose. lt was set up, so that means it was intentional. ​​If it wasn’t intentional, the fishing line would have been just the same [as a tuna line] and if a shark got caught on it, that would be 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.

They called it “additional,” they said it was for the captain’s money, they said it was for fin money or something like that. But it was intentional. That it was set up like that means it was intentional.

Mongabay: Who taught you to set up the shark-catching gear, how to catch the sharks, all that stuff?

Rusnata: It was an order from the foreman. We made the type of fishing line, right. A line, using wire, we made them first, and when it’s done, you wait for the foreman’s order for setting.

Mongabay: They spoke in Chinese?

Mongabay: Can you give examples for their instructions on how to catch sharks, to process sharks, while they were speaking in Chinese and most of the newbie deckhands couldn’t speak the language?

Rusnata: So, they gave the instructions to the seniors [the experienced deckhands, like Rusnata]. The orders would come from the foreman and be given to me, for example, even though they were a bit vague: catch sharks. He would then show me as an example like this and that. That’s all.

Editor’s note: Like other former DOF deckhands interviewed by Mongabay, Rusnata gave a detailed description of how they would incapacitate the sharks, using a kind of electrified spear or harpoon to stun the sharks being hauled up on deck and knock them unconscious.

Mongabay: Was there ever a time when the shark was stunned and it looked like it wouldn’t move, like it already looked weak as it was raised up, but then it woke up?

Rusnata: There was. You know, sharks are difficult to kill. If you don’t cut off the upper part, that [spinal cord] — if you don’t remove it, sometimes even when you’ve removed it, it’ll still move, it stays alive. Sharks are very difficult to kill.

Mongabay: After you stun it and it’s hauled up, what’s the first thing you do?

Rusnata: You cut the head off with a knife. If that’s done, it won’t move. Basically you need to hit that [spinal cord] first, otherwise the sharks rarely die. If you don’t want it to fight back, you have to do that. If you don’t cut it, it will thrash around.

The most rebellious ones you can hit with a hammer. That’s the easiest and fastest way to kill it. Electrocuting it makes it weak. If it’s thrashing around on board, shock it again, and if it’s convulsing, you quickly cut it, the top, and it’s weak, and blood comes out.

Editor’s note: Rusnata gave a detailed description of how they handled the finned carcasses. He clarified that while they discarded the entire finned carcass “most of the time,” sometimes they retained certain body parts, like the stomach or innards, or the meat to eat or save for later use as bait to catch more sharks.

Sometimes, they would cut the carcasses into thin strips and dry them in the sun, which the chef would later cook up for the crew. The shark meat was for everyone, the Chinese crew members as well as the Indonesian deckhands, but after Rusnata tasted it once and didn’t like it, the rest of the Indonesians never ate it.

Meat from “all kinds of sharks” were used as bait, he said. Meat from mako sharks made for the best bait, Rusnata said. “It doesn’t break down, it’s durable,” he said. “The meat of blue sharks will break down after a while. But [mako] sharks don’t get mushy.”

Rusnata said his boat produced a total of around 110 sacks of dried fin during their journey, each weighing around 30 kilograms (66 pounds). Some of these sacks were transshipped to another DOF longliner midway through the journey, while the rest were still on board when Rusnata was repatriated in late 2020. He described the shark fin transshipment, done in the middle of the Pacific Ocean:

Rusnata: We used a rubber buoy, it was like a car tire, and on the underside there were rubber floats that were inflated. We loaded it with the dried shark fins and then lowered it [into the water]. Two people from the [Long Xing] 607 also boarded it. Our boat then moved away from the buoy. And then the other boat, I don’t remember if it was the Tian Yu or the Tian Xiang, got close to the buoy. They threw a rope and the people on the buoy would catch it to get closer to a door on the other boat. And then they would move the dried shark fins onto the other boat. We did it three times. Only one transfer event, but we did three trips back and forth. The first trip, one of the two people from the 607 was Rizki who’s from Aceh. I was actually asked to do it, but I refused, saying I was scared. So the first trip, it was Rizki and the deputy foreman. Indonesians are actually not allowed to do it, like it was supposed to be done only by the Chinese. I don’t know why that is. But Rizki insisted and jumped on the buoy. I think he just wanted to meet other Indonesians. The second and third trip, it was the deputy foreman and freezer chief.

What’s inside the sacks were only the big fins. The small fins were to be eaten for the Chinese. We never mixed the big fins and the small fins in the sacks. The sacks only contained the upper fins, the side fins and the large tail fin. On my boat, the small fins, like the pelvic fins, were never dried in the sun, but they were for food for the Chinese. The big fins were dried in the sun and packed in the sacks.

Mongabay: You’re quite sure of it? That about 80 sacks were transferred and they weighed between 25 and 33 kilograms [55 and 73 lbs]?

Rusnata: Yes, I’m sure, I was the one putting them in the sacks. I weighed them. I’m sure.

Editor’s note: By the end of their journey, Rusnata said, they had filled up about 30 more sacks of dried “Big Four” shark fin. When the boat was anchored off the coast of China’s Shandong province for 10 days, before they were repatriated, the fins, he said, “were still kept inside [the boat] … Nothing was moved. In fact it was stacked, for the shark fins, they were completely covered with the remaining food supply like flour, rice, like that. The fish [other catches] was also neatly arranged.” After heading back to China, Rusnata never saw the Long Xing 607 offload any more shark fins up until he disembarked for the journey back to Indonesia.

Like other deckhands, Rusnata wasn’t completely sure where the initiative to catch sharks came from. However, he heard from the Chinese foreman on his boat that the money from shark fins would be pocketed by the captain.

Rusnata: As far as I know, the shark fin money is for the captain. It’s extra money for the captain’s salary, the shark fins, they were saying, that’s what I heard.

Mongabay: Where did you hear this? You mean the Chinese crew members on the boat?

Rusnata: Yes, the Chinese crew members, from the foreman, he was saying that. “Money Money cuan cang,” like that.

Mongabay: What does that mean, “money money cuan cang”?

Rusnata: “The money is for our captain”; cuan cang is captain. So it’s the captain’s money. It’s like, if the captain does well, then it’s a bonus. “Postion bonus,” “fin money bonus,” something like that. For the position bonus, the captain decides. If you’re from the office, the salary is for example $400. If there’s a bonus it will be from the captain. Maybe he takes it from there, from the fin money.

Editor’s note: Around the time the Long Xing 607 left Samoa in late 2019, DOF’s boats in the Pacific Ocean stopped fishing for tuna and began to drift through the high seas, apparently due to financial troubles at the company. They still threw in their shark lines, and some vessels caught many.

Rusnata: So the Long Xing [607] stopped working for a year. So the boat just stayed in the middle of the sea. If it was operating, it would be moving. But it didn’t, it just stayed like it was waiting, but it would throw some fishing lines on a whim to look for sharks.

Mongabay: So there wasn’t much work after you left Samoa?

Rusnata: Yes, no work. It was like working but not exactly working, because normally the work would be very hard, and compared to that, it was like not working. Because if we had to work, it was just throwing lines from the sides and that was over in half an hour. And we just let it be until it was time to pull them back in the evening. And then we would set them up again for pulling in the morning. It took an hour at most. Just a few lines, because it was to look for sharks. For sharks, the line isn’t very long, just 10 meters.

Basically the boat stopped its operations. Normally we would throw 180 buoys. But every few weeks the boat would operate, but we only threw 30, 50 buoys. The work was only half a day.

Mongabay: So, ever since Samoa, the workload drastically declined?

Mongabay: Did the captain ever say why?

Rusnata: At first, there was no fuel. And after a while we became curious because two months later there was a boat that brought fuel, but the work continued like that. So we asked again, and they sort of explained with their body language, they said: first, there was no operation letter from the office. And then we became curious again and asked, and they said there was a virus. And then we just followed along.

Mongabay: Ok, but there was never any talk about Dalian Ocean Fishing being bankrupt or something like that?

Rusnata: No, never. But what I heard was that one of the Chinese crew members said there was no money. But they meant they were not getting a salary. But we didn’t think that it was about the company being bankrupt or something. There was a language barrier as well. When they explained it we could only understand bits of it.

Mongabay: Right. So your understanding was just that they were not getting their salary?

Rusnata: Yes. Just about not getting paid, that’s all. We didn’t think that the company was bankrupt or anything. That’s all we thought about it.

Editor’s note: In late 2020, all of the DOF’s remaining vessels in the Pacific gathered together in international waters and sailed for China, where they anchored off the coast of Shandong for up to several weeks before the Southeast Asian deckhands were repatriated to Indonesia and the Philippines. The Indonesians were all loaded onto two DOF vessels, the Long Xing 601 and 610, to be transported by sea to Bitung Port in Manado, Indonesia.

Mongabay: While you were anchored off China, did you get off the boat at all?

Rusnata: No, we just anchored, and we didn’t immediately return home. It was very different when we were in China because we were already so close to land, we could see the land. So the remaining bait fish from the operation was exchanged for fruits from small boats. The fuel was sold by the captain, and we only got the fruit, like fresh soft drinks. That’s all, we didn’t have to do any work.

Mongabay: During that time, could you communicate with the outside world, with your family in Indonesia or your recruitment agency, SPN?

Rusnata: No, no communication at all while I was in China. Some of the Chinese crew members got off the boat once, and sometimes we’d ask for something, sometimes we’d persuade them to give us a Wi-Fi hotspot, not for long and only a few deckhands could access it. So if a family member happened to be online, on Facebook, you could update them.

Rusnata: I didn’t do that.

I tried to call [Sugiyono, the director of the recruitment company], and he never picked up. Even on WhatsApp, for example, I’d text him, he’d only reply late at night, and that’s if he was replying. Sometimes it was the following day or only the day after that he’d reply.

Mongabay: So while the boat was anchored off China, what happened to the shark fins?

Rusnata: They were kept inside.

Mongabay: So nothing was offloaded?

Rusnata: Nothing was offloaded. In fact it was stacked, for the shark fins, they were completely covered with the remaining food supply like flour, rice, like that. The fish [other catches] was also neatly arranged.

Mongabay: Even though it was already in China?

Rusnata: Yes, already in China. Because the Chinese crews also said, yeah, they explained that it was like there was no money [the company had run out of money or wasn’t paying the Chinese crew members’ salaries]. They explained it in Chinese and we could only understand bits of it, but we could understand that there was no money, that’s all.

Mongabay: So the catches couldn’t be unloaded?

Rusnata: Yes, they couldn’t be unloaded, and they said the reason was corona, the virus. And we only believed that there was a virus after we refueled for the last time. The crew that brought up the hose happened to have an Indonesian guy. He said there was a virus everywhere. And so we couldn’t really protest against the captain. But our contracts had finished in October, so it was only fair that we should protest because the contract was over and we were still not going home and there wasn’t any clarity about anything. We didn’t work, we did nothing. But when we heard about the virus, we didn’t dare to protest too strongly.

Mongabay: During the 10 days when the Long Xing 607 was just anchored, did you get to meet any officials?

Rusnata: There wasn’t any who boarded. No Chinese official from land entered the boat. It was just like when we were in the middle of the sea, nothing happened. The only difference was that we could see the mountains, that’s it.

Mongabay: When did you see any progress, like finally getting to return to Indonesia?

Rusnata: So, we were 10 days in China. On the ninth day, the captain suddenly called us up. I was considered the leader of the Indonesian crew, so I was called and given the letter. It was just a printout, but I saw the stamp of the Indonesian Embassy, and the writing was in Indonesian, saying that all 155 of us [from across Dalian’s fleet in the western Pacific] would be going home on two boats. So there was that notice. Before that, there had been nothing at all, it was just silence.

Mongabay: What were the two boats?

Rusnata: The Long Xing 601 and the 610. The 607 group went home with the 610. The trip was about 10 days.

Mongabay: What did you do during the 10 days?

Rusnata: Just eat and sleep, eat and sleep. And, gosh, the water was like the color of syrup. It tasted very much like a mix of rust.

Mongabay: What was the food like?

Rusnata: There was food, we were also given noodles. Basically one person got half a box, 12 packets for one person. When we got in, it was already there. And there were cookies, that’s all, vegetables, fish to be eaten together. That was all the personal supply.

Mongabay: OK. But you didn’t work at all, right?

Rusnata: No work whatsoever. Many of us had already finished our contracts anyway.

Mongabay: Did anybody get sick while on that boat?

Rusnata: Nobody. But the 601 carried two dead bodies.

Mongabay: You knew about the two bodies that were on the 601?

Rusnata: Yes. I knew because some of the deckhands from the [Long Xing] 907 were on the 601, some on the 610. I think they’d heard earlier that there were bodies on board. They told us and we were curious, because some of us might have worked on the same boat as them. So I met a guy on the 610 who’d been on the same boat as one of the deceased. He hadn’t heard the news, in fact he’d been asked by [the deceased’s] parents how [the deceased] was doing. He guessed he was still on the 601.

Mongabay: So, at that point, everyone on the 610 knew that there were two bodies on the …

Mongabay: Did you also know who they were, their identities?

Rusnata: No, I didn’t know. We just knew that one was from Ambon, the other one was from Cianjur, if I’m not mistaken. We just knew where they were from.

Mongabay: When you found that there were bodies on the 601, did anyone say what caused their death?

Rusnata: I only heard it later when I was in Manado, because I met [some of the men riding back on the 601]. So, we hung out with the other crews, sharing experience. They said it was from sickness, but I don’t know what disease.

Mongabay: On your way from China to Bitung, did you get to speak with any Indonesian authorities?

Rusnata: I didn’t. Most of the deckhands didn’t communicate with any Indonesian authorities, or with their family or [recruitment agency] office. Most of the deckhands didn’t while in China, either. We had to play cat and mouse just to communicate. We collected the rest of our money before we departed, we still had some rupiah, and when we arrived in Bitung, we’d ask [local fishers] on the small boats passing by at night to buy us a SIM card [from shore]. They were chased by the police, but thankfully we got to contact our families. But only then.

Mongabay: What was it like when you were about to arrive in Bitung?

Rusnata: Maybe after entering Indonesian waters, still far from Bitung, there was a police escort. They escorted us all the way until we arrived in Bitung. But we didn’t immediately go home.

Mongabay: By escorted, you mean by marine police with boats?

Rusnata: Marine police. So around the Long Xing boats, there were marine police in small boats. And when we arrived at around 9 in the morning, we didn’t immediately go home, but we stayed overnight there. And then in the morning, we were picked up. First we got tested, I don’t know what it was, maybe like a rapid test. And then that’s when we really saw that there were bodies on the 601. Even though it was from a distance, we did see it, it was different. In Bitung we were moved from the 610 to a cargo ship for the trip home, and that’s when we noticed that the disembarkation process for the 601 was taking a long time. We watched for a while, and it turned out they were moving the bodies.

Mongabay: What exactly did you see? Like a coffin, or what?

Rusnata: Not a coffin, but they were carrying something like that, but different. Well, we saw it from far away, it wasn’t very clear, but we could see that they were carrying something, carrying it together.

Mongabay: You said you communicated with the Indonesian authorities only when you arrived in Bitung?

Rusnata: Only when we arrived. When we first arrived, and that was from far away, using a megaphone. I don’t know what was being said because I was helping the chef when it happened, I was preparing food for the crew, but I could hear from below that there were some talks going on.

Mongabay: How did you feel throughout all this, from the time you were anchored off China, and then getting the news that you’d be picked up by the 610 and the 601, and then during your 10-day trip to Bitung, to when you heard people talking through the megaphone?

Rusnata: It was for me a mix of many things. Confusion, wonderment. It was like, “Oh, so this is the process.” Because from the first boat [I worked on], the Taiwanese one, everything went smoothly: going home by plane, departing by plane. We left for Trinidad, and went home from Trinidad, so the process was pretty much the same. But this time was far different. So I was just astonished. Who could we ask about this, because everyone was experiencing the same thing. So everything was confusing, what was really going on, very confused.

Mongabay: When your friends were getting sick, did you ever worry that you’d get sick as well?

Rusnata: For me, no. Maybe because I already had experience working on a boat, so I just went along with it. For me what’s important is to just work and don’t forget to rest, that’s number one. Number two, fill my stomach so I have energy. That’s it.

Mongabay: When you glimpsed the two bodies, did it ever occur to you that you could actually die doing this job?

Rusnata: It did, of course it did. But then again, I guess it all depends on ourselves. I know now, I’ve experienced it, and now I’ve done it twice. So I now know the bad side, and I’ve thought about whether I’d still do it again or not. Maybe the lesson is to be better at picking the agency, and find out more about the boat before departing.

Mongabay: Speaking of the agency, ever since you returned, how long did it take until you got in touch with your recruitment agency, SPN?

Rusnata: I already [contacted the agent] when I was in Bitung. But he sounded like he wanted to wash his hands of the whole thing, like he didn’t care, because he knew it was problematic, that Dalian was problematic. He acted like he wanted to wash his hands of it all. He kept avoiding talking about it.

Mongabay: Did you meet him in person?

Rusnata: No, we talked by phone. With Sugiyono, the director.

Mongabay: Did Sugiyono call you or did you call him?

Rusnata: I called him. Gosh, just trying to reach him … So I’d saved his number, but it wasn’t active, so I was at a loss. After so many days in Bitung, two days, it still wasn’t active. I kept searching, searching, searching, and finally found him on Facebook, and even then it was like … First, his response was surprise. After that, he was, like, trying to disappear without any trace, like he was trying to wash his hands of the whole thing. I could tell every time I’d ask him about what was due to me, and he’d be all hands off. Like he didn’t care.

Mongabay: You say Sugiyono sounded surprised when you called him. Surprised how?

Rusnata: Surprised like, ‘Oh, you’ve returned home?’ Like that.

Mongabay: So, the impression you got at the time was that he didn’t know you were …

Rusnata: That’s the thing, that’s why I said surprised, because how come you didn’t know that your own recruit was coming home? I thought maybe he was pretending not to know. But that’s how it came across to me, like he was surprised.

He didn’t ask me any questions. Like he didn’t care. It was like, “So you’ve returned, well go home then.” And then I asked him about my salary. When I was in Bitung, he didn’t explain about the salary. So, we demanded it, because the BP2MI [Indonesian migrant worker protection board] told us to ask the agency to pay for the flight ticket to Soekarno-Hatta from Manado [the closest airport to Bitung]. It was already so hard asking just for that, just to buy the tickets.

Rusnata: He was being evasive. He said, “Yes, later.” But I waited for that later and for days there was nothing. Some people were already going home and meeting their family, meanwhile I was still in Manado.

Mongabay: How long did it take until you got to fly home, from the time you arrived?

Rusnata: About five days. So the swab test result took two days, the following day some of the deckhands were already going home. Half of us had already gone home by the time we got to the mess hall. That was five days. And when we arrived, some of the other recruitment agencies, their representatives actually came. Some of the bad agencies didn’t come, like they were abandoning them. And so, while some had gone home, there were 20 of us left, 20 of us who didn’t know what to do. There were even six people who got tickets that weren’t bought by their agencies, but by the BP2MI in Manado, the government in Manado bought the tickets. So, those six people, their agency completely disappeared. Their contact completely disappeared, inactive, the office was also gone. In my case, I had Sugiyono’s active number, even though it was so difficult to contact him.

After five days I went home. Sugiyono ended up paying for the ticket.

Mongabay: So, after asking for the ticket, you must’ve asked for your salary and other things. What was that conversation like?

Rusnata: So I asked for my salary, and he said, his reason [he hadn’t been transferring my salary] was that Dalian hadn’t paid it. That’s what he said. But what had me confused was that one of my friends from the same boat, it was true that Dalian still hasn’t paid it, but for the first few months my friend still had money coming in. In my case, I didn’t get anything from the moment I departed until I got home, there really was no money whatsoever, nothing came in.

Mongabay: You mean nothing was even transferred to your family at home?

Rusnata: Yes, no transfer whatsoever. But my friend got it. What I heard was that maybe Dalian only got into trouble a few months after we started working. So how can there not have been any transfers within those few months? And that’s what I kept asking Sugiyono, and he said there was nothing at all. It got to a point where I told him, “Listen, I’ve just returned from being at sea, I want to go home. I haven’t gone home, I haven’t met my family.” And so I said, “Just advance me a loan for however much, just so I can go home and see my family. As for the rest, that’s for later, but for now I just want to see my family.” But up until now, he hasn’t even given me a single cent. So many promises: “I’ll transfer it later,” he said it’d be on a Monday, but it didn’t happen. “Later tonight,” but no. So, like that, disappearing like that up until now.

Mongabay: So, how much, based on your calculations, was he supposed to pay you?

Rusnata: The salary alone is around 140 [million rupiah, or about $9,100].. That’s just the basic before any bonuses.

Mongabay: So, you’re still not thinking of taking this to court or something like that? Not even reporting it to the police?

Rusnata: Yeah, actually, the SPPI [maritime workers’ union] people already tried to chase after them, but I can’t do much, because one, I have limited financial resources. Like right now, I have to rely on Mr. Ilyas [the head of the SPPI] to pay for food. [I can’t] borrow from relatives or friends because it’s shameful, because I was supposed to have returned from overseas [with money], and now I’m asking to borrow money. I don’t even dare go home. So I’ll have to wait for Dalian [to pay].

Mongabay: Speaking of your family and relatives, you also mentioned that your wife left you. What was that like if you could tell me however much you’re willing to share?

Rusnata: Actually, for my [immediate] family what’s important is that I’ve come home. My parents certainly want to see me. They also told me to not go back to the sea anymore. Like they’ve forbidden it, because it’s turned out like this, plus they heard about the two dead bodies. There are so many cases like this, so they’re really preventing me from going back on a boat again.

Mongabay: So do you still want to go back out to sea?

Rusnata: I don’t know. For now I’m just thinking about what’s due to me, but for the future, let’s wait and see.

Hear reporter Philip Jacobson discuss the shark finning investigation on Mongabay’s podcast, listen here:

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‘It was a shark operation’: Q&A with Indonesian crew abused on Chinese shark-finning boat

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