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August 14, 2007

Reaching Africa

BY: Xavier Pastor


© OCEANA / Jesús Renedo


We didn’t have a good night. The westerly winds were strong enough to make a few of the new arrivals – especially some of the journalists – feel somewhat “uncomfortable”. Those of us who have been on the Ranger for days have already been through that ritual and slept like logs. In the morning, the seas were still quite rough and the winds did not lose intensity. We crossed the area where the driftnetters fish during the night and have not found anyone working there. So we decide to head towards the African coast, with the intention of reaching Melilla and resting until the weather improves. We contact the port and are informed that there is no berth available for the Ranger. The sailboats participating in the regattas this week have occupied all the slots.

While we are thinking about anchoring outside the port, the latest weather report announces an improvement in the conditions at sea. The Moroccan driftnetters must have heard the same broadcast on the radio because we immediately observe the frenetic movements of vessels in the neighbouring port of Nador, and a procession of driftnetters begins to appear at the entrance: the Bagdad II, the Kalach, the Berkani, the Hiba… and, of course, our old friend the Kamalane that, apparently not very worried about the recent incident with the Spanish patrol, defiantly sets its course for Alboran Island. Along with them, some other unidentified fishing vessels.

It’s two in the afternoon. We decide to follow the fishing vessels and, in reality, what actually happens is that we become surrounded by a dozen of them, separated from each by various miles as we share the four-hour journey with them to the south-eastern part of Alboran Island, as if we were part of the swarm. As soon as they reach the 12-mile limit around the island that delimits both the area of the MAPA fishing reserve and Spanish territorial waters, the Moroccan fishing vessels disperse throughout the area. A couple of them momentarily enter Spanish waters, where they set the first part of their extremely long nets, but then they quickly cross the line and place the vessels within the safety of international waters, leaving part of their fishing tackle to drift inside the Spanish fishing reserve.

We are aware that we have little time to document the operations carried out by the driftnetters, which usually take place at night. But we do have the opportunity to film and photograph them when they begin to set the tackle, at nightfall, or when they are almost done hauling in the tackle, at daybreak. We choose the two vessels closest to the Ranger’s radar for this purpose and we approach the first one: it’s the Bagdad II, which we had already identified in Tangiers. We place ourselves next to them, without interrupting their manoeuvres nor putting in danger the vessels and begin to film and photograph the setting of the driftnet. After a while, we head towards the second objective: it’s the El Hiba. We continue to document the activities until it gets dark. We try for a third vessel, but it’s almost pitch dark. There is a new moon. We decide to lie to, waiting for daybreak, in order to film them hauling in the nets and see what they’ve caught. Four-hour watches are organised, in groups of two. The rest of us go to sleep.