Fiji Or Bust: A Shark Finning Tale

FijiOrBustPART ONE: Fiji Or Bust

It’s Friday night and the Bramble family have invited their neighbours, the Whites, for dinner.  Their guests marvel at the scrumptious display of raw fish. Mr. White is especially taken with the salmon tartare, his favourite, and comments:

“Imported salmon! Your teeth sharpening business must be doing very well Charlene. I’ve never seen a salmon that big in these waters.”

Charlene smiles uncomfortably and is just about to talk when her husband slips over for a kiss. “The salmon isn’t the only good catch in this shipwreck you know.” Charlene blushes and leads her hubby to the kitchen to help with the crab cakes while their kids entertain the Whites with fish impressions.

Once in the kitchen, Charlene speaks her mind. “They have a right to know what they are eating, Skip.”

“Net, Charlene, we don’t even know what we’re eating.”  

Charlene scowls at him.

He continues. “What? You want me to tell them that we’ve been paying Ching Lee protection money? That we’re so stuck that all we can afford now is some Poseidon knows what human engineered salmon from a high security testing facility in Peru? And In front of the kids to fin!”

Skip starts stacking the crab legs on a coral platter while Charlene responds.

“Well no, angelfish. But if he finds out…He’s a lawyer you know.”

Charlene starts filling an Acropora platter but the weight of the crab chips the coral. She swears under her gills: “Spawning human induced CO2!”

Skip hands her a Galaxea platter and frowns disapprovingly at her cussing .

“Regardless, we have a family to feed and protect.”

Charlene swims in close and whispers: “We could move to Fiji. I’ve seen pictures. It’s so beautiful. Coral teaming with life. And food everywhere! It’s a Reef of Eden. It’s the water of the free, Skip. We can have a new life. Cleaner. Peaceful. For us and the kids.”

She leans into him and curl her tail around his, dreamy eyed.

Skip is skeptical. They have had this conversation before and he is still circling the issue.

“Sounds too goo to be true, minnow.  If it’s one thing these shark teeth have taught me, Charlene, is that the reason  humans taste so bad is because they’re rotten from the inside out. I don’t trust them one bite.”

“But what if—“

“—That’s what we pay Ching Lee for.” He adds. “And besides, not everyone in the refugee nets make it their alive. We’d be a fin fest out there in the open sea.”

Charlene recalls the gruesome images in the New Ocean Times of finless sharks spiralling to their death and left to be pecked at by crabs and shudders at the realization of what she is serving tonight.

“You’re right, but the whole situation just bites!”

Skip hands the heaping platter to a sullen Charlene, then rubs her dorsal fin and nuzzles in. Charlene sighs. Laughter flowing from the dining room perks up her spirits and the couple join their little clown fish at the table.

“Your kids really should start a comedy channel on chew-tube. My brother up the coast can set them up.”

Charlene and Skip look over at their pups and beam. Their little ones mean the ocean to them.

While Charlotte serves a slice of dogfish pate to the Whites, she spies her son Joey trying to eat a crab leg by sliding it across the table towards his mouth and scolds him, mortified:

“Joey Bramble! Where are your manners? We use BOTH fins at the table, young shark. Sit up straight and put your right fin above the table this instant!“ Joey just sits there frozen. His little sister Katie sticks her head under the table and squeals.

“Mommy, mommy his fin!”

Charlene’s eyes grow wide, Skip drops his crab leg on the deck, and the Whites look on in horror as Joey slowly sits up straight revealing a half severed fin.

Charlene rushes to her son with tears in her eyes: “Who did this to you?”

Joey tries to speak but he is too afraid. “I can’t. They’ll hurt Katie.”

Charlene continues “And what about when they take the next fin, and the next? Joey, please! You have to speak up! Who was it?”

Joey twitches his tail sheepishly under the table and slouches again. “Tang Lee.”

Skip falls off his chair. Charlene gasps. Her eyes go blank: “Ching Lee’s son?”

Mr. White listens intently as Joey continues. “He called you a guppy, mom. So I said his dad had teeth envy. That he was just a thug with small teeth. Then he and his buddies pushed me up to the surface and held me there while“ Joey starts sobbing and holding his mangled fin.

Charlene is furious. She swims circles around the bow of the wreck until their dinner gets swept into her slip stream.  

Mr. White seizes the opportunity: “We can press charges. Even Ching Lee isn’t above the law. Triads have no place in the deep.”

Charlene calms down, stops right in front of her guests and announces. “No. We pack tonight. We’re going to Fiji.”

Mrs. White’s fin reaches for Mr. White’s. “My brother’s not just a talent scout. Meet me tomorrow at high tide. But don’t be late. They don’t wait for stragglers.”

PART TWO: Fiji Bound

Mr. and Mrs. White are laying side by side in their bedcave discussing the shocking turn of events  at the Brambles this evening. Due to the urgency of the Brambles’ situation, Monique’s brother was able to pull some fishing lines and find a captain who had room for a few more stowaways.

Passage on these underwater operations have become much more difficult to secure in recent months due a surge in local triad activity causing a near state of panic amongst the sharks. There are just not enough boats to service the refugees.  Some families have even spent their life’s savings only to board a vessel that was a front for the Taiwanese finning industry. They never made it out of the bay. The community still has not recovered from the gruesome images splashed all over the sonar displays the next day. That’s why the pickup locations have moved to south side of Nantucket Island, in the hope that proximity to the wildlife refuge would keep would-be poachers away.

Joey will never get his fin back and the bullying will only intensify. Mr. White knows that Charlene and Skip’s decision to move to Fiji is a sound one, but he still worries about their safety during the 7,000 nautical mile journey in mostly open seas. The law can’t protect them out there. And even if it could, it could only punish the perpetrators not prevent the crime. Punitive damages do not bring back loved ones.  Mr. White sees this time and time again in court.

Their little Lisa is still too young to make the journey, otherwise he and Monique would pack tonight and join their puphood friends. They just need to stay off the radar for 6 more months and then they’ll risk the transfer. In the meantime, Mr. White will continue to push for legislation to take back their native rights as first ocean nations.

Monique rolls over to her husband and tries to still his racing mind with a nibble on his snout. “Get some sleep, Alan. The Brambles are resourceful. They’ll make it to the island safely.” Mr. White takes a voluminous draw and relaxes.

The diving gannet announces the break of dawn.

The Brambles haven’t slept all night. They’ve been inside and out of every nook in their shipwreck looking for Katie’s seagrass allergy medication and now they are swimming behind schedule. Because of Joey’s mangled fin they will have to take the shorter but more treacherous route due south in open waters to Nantucket Island where the escape tank is moored. It would take too long to follow the coastline and approach from the bay.

Mr. and Mrs. Bramble tie the final loop in their travel net and wave to their pups to jump in. They swim back and forth along the side of the hull a few times to test the drag, make a few quick adjustments, and they’re good to go.

Charlene takes one last look at their Cape Cod home which has been in their family for 5 generations and suffers a moment of indecision. Her grandmother’s grandmother took her first swims on that very deck. Now she must abandon all that history and her own fond memories of first Joey then Katie flopping around clumsily as they developed their sea fins.

Skip senses his partner’s anguish, slips over, and puts a fin to her heart. “The memories are in here, Minnow, and they’re coming to Fiji with us.”

Charlene dances around her lover and best friend, the father of her two beautiful pups, and the most honourable shark of the eastern coastal waters, and rubs her underbelly against his. “That’s why you’re my Angelfish.” And they kiss. Joey and Katie groan in unison.

The Brambles pick up the travel net with their mouths and turn their front halves towards their pups. “Ready for a ride?”


“Hold tight. Here we go!”

Within 10 minutes, they have cleared the peninsula and are heading to freedom.

PART THREE: Onwards To Fiji

“Are we there yet?” Katie yells from inside the travel net to her parents pulling it ahead.

Mr. Bramble raises a fin at her as if to say keep quiet. They are still swimming in unsafe waters and certainly do not want to alert any of the Lee family wisesharks scouting the ocean floor for fugitives.

Yes. Fugitives from the lawless is what they have become. Dragonfin Lee is not likely impressed at Charlene Bramble’s failure to remit the weekly protection dues this morning. They must swim on quietly at least until they reach the southern tip of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

After sneaking past the 50 miles of coastline, Charlene takes a quick look around them and declares: “Phew! We made it through without picking up any thugs.” She releases the tow rope, swims up to the surface for a time check, then rejoins the family. “We can still make the boat if we hurry, Skip.”

They pick up speed as they bridge the gap to Nantucket Island, snapping up some cod along the way for fuel.

Skip flips a few cod to Katie and Joey resting in their makeshift pup carrier. Mrs. Bramble curls her torso to watch as the little ones play pass the fish and smiles. Then suddenly, Skip and Charlene whip backwards and slam into the their pups as their pups shoot forward.

Horror! The Brambles are caught in a long line!

Skip doesn’t skip a beat. He starts chewing the carrier at the hook point, while Charlene attempts to untangle little Katie from the carrier. And Joey, determined not to let the fear spiral him, sits on the line with his tail fin to stop it from signalling a catch to the vessel above.

Time is against them now. If they can’t free Katie, they will miss the pickup at Nantucket Island. Charlene is starting to panic. She gnaws violently at the netting in sheer desperation. Just then Joey spots a sharp piece of metal on the ocean floor and yells “Dad! Look!” Skip is on it. He races to the debris, picks it up with his teeth, and starts sawing away at the line.

At last their pup is free! But the carrier is tangled. They must leave their belongings.

Charlene salvages a shark tooth necklace, the remains of her ancestors, where she will add her own tooth one day and pass it on to Katie and instructs the pups to hop on, bite down hard, never let go.  The couple race to their destination with their little ones attached to their dorsal fins.

Once at the island they cautiously approach the large shipping vessel moored off shore. A large net comes down on them and hoists them up into a large bin on wheels filed with salt water. Skip trashes about in a display of parental assertion as the captain orders the trolly to the secret tank in the ballast.

Their cell is filled with others just like them, looking for their chance at a better life. Charlene whispers to Skip, her voice quivering: “And to think we almost didn’t make it.” Skip looks over at Katie and Joey already making new friends and finally relax.

A human form appears over a glass window, notices Joey’s mangled fin and puts her hand to her mouth in sadness. She waves at him and smiles.

A joyful Great White shark approaches the Bramble family and gives them some fin.

“I was getting worried. We were just about to leave without you,” Monique White’s brother Pierre explains. “Rest assured you are in good hands. I’ve made this trip dozens of times. Captain Steward would rather eject the ballast in the high seas than let the finners get us. She is a Woman Not Waiting for us to go extinct that’s for sure.”

The anchor lifts and Captain Steward orders the trap window sealed.

They will travel the rest of the journey in darkness.

PART FOUR: Fiji Ahoy

Captain Steward stands on the weather deck with Chief Officer Cousteau reviewing the secret passenger manifest. There are no names, titles, or identification documents, in this little black book. There is simply a list of different pencil strokes representing counts for the various species of sharks they are transporting. No other crew member has any knowledge of the life swimming circles inside the ballast, not even the Second Officer. It is best for the safety of the crew, the passengers, and the success of the mission itself, just in case.

The pair have been working together even before the documentary SharkWater brought global awareness to the abhorrent shark fining practises plaguing the oceans and threatening to render extinct the top predator fish of the marine ecosystem. Their cover is ingenious. The “Sweet Shepherd” transports flour and meals of oil seeds from the U.S. and returns with molasses from Fiji as her “official” cargo. When they dock in Fiji, the crew is so busy unloading the “official” cargo that the routine action of flushing the ballast draws no attention.

However, the journey for Captain Steward is anything but routine. Although she and Chief Officer Cousteau keep a strict vow of silence on the real nature of their exports and communicate only via the encoded scribbles in the little black book, she also has hidden cameras and motion sensors directly connected to her smart phone in case any of the crew members decide to explore the lower decks of the ship.

Second Officer Reynolds radios the Captain to the navigation bridge and Chief Officer Cousteau takes over the watch.

“Weather’s not looking good, Captain. We’ll need to stick closer to the coast until the storm dissipates. If not, then we angle down around Florida into the Gulf of Mexico then into the Caribbean from there. The direct line to the Dominican then straight to Panama is too risky.”

Captain Steward presses for details. The detour will take longer and more importantly will place the Sweet Shepherd into waters she would rather avoid. “What kind of storm are we talking about here?”

Reynolds pulls up the satellite feed and circles the forming hurricane with his fingers. Captain Steward swears under her breath. “OK. Change course and radio Fiji.” She returns to the weather deck and updates Chief Officer Cousteau, who immediately disappears to the cargo hold.

12 days go by and the satellite feed consistently shows storm fronts moving into the western front of the Atlantic.

The Sweet Shepherd is now in the Caribbean Sea on her new course to the Panama canal. Something approaches in the distance.

Captain Steward is sitting on the weather deck staring out and welcomes First Officer Cousteau…at first.  The bearer of the bad news gets the brunt of her self-criticism. “Crap, Jacqueline! Why didn’t you speak up?” But she catches herself and realizes that it was herself who let down the guard. “I apologize. I should have double-checked the satellite feed.” She takes a moment to regroup. “Make the call.” Jacqueline nods and calmly adjusts her uniform as she nonchalantly joins Second Officer Reynolds in the navigation bridge, muttering “What are they doing out so far?”

Movement in the ballast is erratic.

Katie nuzzles up to Mr. Bramble. “Dad, why are we stopping?”

There are rumbles through the wall inconsistent with the engine cycles.

“Shhh. I think captain Steward is being boarded,” Mr. Bramble replies. He turns to Charlene and whispers: “We must be nearing Panama by now…that means…” Skip and Charlene stop swimming for what feels like an eternity and coral the pups between them.

“That means what mom?” Katie pipes in.

Joey rubs his mangled fin and escapes to a corner of the tank, whimpering. Skip swims over and tries to comfort him. Charlene nuzzles up to Katie: “It just means that we have to be extra quiet.” She slides her nose over to Katie’s and adds: “Can you do that for mommy, Katie?” Katie nods very very quietly.  “Good girl. Let’s listen.”

“Buenos días inspector.” Captain Steward greets the Costa Rican coast guard.

“Papeles por favor, señora.” He gives the Captain’s manifest a cursory glance then orders: “¡Pedro!” A heavily armed official approaches and frisks Captain Steward vigorously while the commanding officer smirks.

“¿Hay problema?” Captain Steward attempts to buy some time.

The commanding officer brings the manifest over and points to the word “flour” and mocks: “¿Harina?“ He walks up to the Captain’s face and claims: “Tenemos informaciones de que Ud está cargando no harina sino cocaína.”

Captain Steward is not quite sure she understood what he said, but she certainly understood that he is accusing her of smuggling cocaine. Something feels wrong here, she manages a peak at their deck and sees a bloody shark fin sticking out from under a tarp. She retorts: “And your ‘papeles’ inspector.”

Pedro shoves her to the ground and shouts in broken English: “Shut up woman! We don’t need papers, we have guns.”

Just then, a welcome English voice booms from a megaphone.

“You are out of your jurisdiction. Leave the ship immediately or we pump up the cannons.”

Captain Steward shouts. “They’re poachers!”

“¡Silencio! ¡Te mato!” The false coast guard inspector points a semiautomatic rifle to Captain Steward’s head. Pedro draws his attention to the name on the charging vessel. It’s the Dundee!

The invaders redirect their focus to the oncoming boat. Her captain, Paulina Watson, is worth more to their client than any amount of shark fins they could harvest from the Sweet Shepherd. But the water canons are primed and the criminals are thrown back into their ship and chased into Panamanian waters where they are promptly arrested by the real coast guard.

The Dundee does an abrupt turn back into international waters and is free to come to the rescue another day.

Meanwhile, tension in the ballast dissolves and the Sweet Shepherd weaves her way through the Panama canal.

The next stop brings a questioning Katie back to her parents who reply: “Yes! We’re there Katie.”

A section of the secret ballast chamber opens up exposing it as a thick glass portal into a larger room.

Captain Steward stands eye to eye with Skip, a 6 inch glass barrier between them.  She looks over at Joey playing with his sister Katie and smiles. Fully aware that the Brambles do not understand human language (muahahaha little does she know) but believing in the mute energy transfer of intention between life forms, she holds up a picture of their new Fiji Paradise against the glass. Charlene awakes from her cautious scrutiny in the background and swims towards the Captain. She stares at her for a few moments then offers up her fin. Captain Steward places her hand against the glass and the two share a moment only the soul can understand.

“Welcome to your new home, Charlene.”

The bottom of the tank opens up and the Brambles swim to freedom.


— The End … but a new beginning for the Brambles :-)

(originally posted as a blog series at by Kaz Lefave)

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