endangered species

A sea captain who combatted illegal fishing explains why he gave up seafood

The high demand for seafood is pushing communities to the edge, prompting trafficking of men, and destroying the marine ecosystem.

I write this from a small lane in a Mumbai suburb from a house that has recently been built adjoining an old fishing village. The original inhabitants of this city are the Koli fisherfolk, artisanal and subsistence fishermen, who for centuries have, and continue to, rely on the ocean for their sustenance. Almost every day I walk down the street and pass Koli women selling fish which Koli fishermen have caught that morning. My eye scans their wares and invariably, in addition to the usual catch of smaller inshore fish, I find juvenile tuna and sharks. And, as I slow down to observe closely, the Koli women flash a wide smile and say to me, “Arre, ghey ki." Come on, buy some. I sheepishly smile back, nod my head and walk on.

Instantly my mind shifts to the deck of the conservation vessel, M/Y Steve Irwin, of which I was the captain. On a recent campaign in south Indian Ocean, my crew pulled in critically endangered tuna and sharks from the illegal nets of a fleet of six illegal Chinese vessels. The scale of marine wildlife caught in the nets horrified me then, but somehow I don’t feel horrified when I walk past the Koli women selling tuna and sharks in Mumbai.

The lane the writer walks down every single day in suburban Mumbai. Credit: Sid Chakravarty
The lane the writer walks down every single day in suburban Mumbai. Credit: Sid Chakravarty

A few years ago, I began to study the large-scale trafficking of men onto the distant-water, industrialised fishing vessels. I have continued to delve into the economics of this industry and have begun to comprehend how the globalisation of fisheries supply chains has seen some parts of these supply chains systematically squeezed – typically at the production end – with profits concentrated near the end consumer.

Most deep sea fishing vessels employ a production-led commodity cost-driven low-road business model. The model inevitably leads to poor labour practices, coupled with environmental abuses, including Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing. This model ensures that the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations are exploited, trafficked and made to work in horrific conditions, so that the fishing industry can maintain effort. And the maintenance of this effort means that more fishing vessels, operating on government subsidies, enter the oceans in search of fish.

Dead animals recovered from the illegal driftnets, piled on the deck of the vessel. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters
Dead animals recovered from the illegal driftnets, piled on the deck of the vessel. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters

Consumers now rarely eat fish that comes from their coasts. The fishing industry is trans-national in nature with vessels, crews, fishing grounds, ports and markets being spread across the globe. And when oceans cover 71% of this planet, a large section of which are outside national jurisdiction, the complexities of ocean governance become evident.

Consider this: the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which forms the basis for international fisheries management, was adopted in 1982. We are a mere 34 years from when the first step to collectively govern the oceans was taken. Just two weeks ago, the Port State Measures Agreement, a convention to inspect fishing vessels in port, came into force. While it was a step in the right direction, it was adopted by only 30 countries. Most of the world’s biggest fishing nations like China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Japan and India have not signed the agreement. Given that fisheries capture is largely international in nature, it is entirely governed under the UN Frameworks. National implementation of these frameworks take time and, in this sense, we’re at the very beginning of building ocean governance measures.

The writer with some of the species found in illegal driftnets. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters
The writer with some of the species found in illegal driftnets. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters

In spite of reports from several agencies – including the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations – suggesting that fish stocks are being depleted faster than they can naturally replenish, the high demand for seafood ensures that fishing effort is not reduced. Our oceans are in peril. We’re a long way from a unified and uniform ocean governance regime. We’ve got a world with hungry people who need to be fed. We’ve got a demand for seafood that is pushing communities to the edge, allowing the trafficking of men and the destruction of the marine ecosystem.

The closest land-based analogy to industrial, distant-water fishing would be a mining operation where migrant workers are forced to work in appalling conditions for a few cents an hour. They are often away from their families for years, are physically and emotionally abused, and are condemned to the dark reality for the rest of their lives with little recourse to justice and equality – a mine where the onus of labour and environmental regulatory mechanisms is left entirely to the owners of the mine; a mine where toxic runoffs and waste are regularly allowed to enter the surrounding ecosystem, leaving them degraded.

Dead sharks lie on the stern deck. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters
Dead sharks lie on the stern deck. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters

Last week, the Fisheries Commissioner for Maharashtra opened the state’s waters for Purse Seiners, a fishing method used to catch schooling fish, including tuna. I met the head of the state’s fishermen’s union, the Maharashtra Macchimar Kruti Samiti, who expressed concerns on the impact of industrial fishing on the traditional Koli fishing communities. The fishermen have already been displaced to the very fringe of existence in the city owing to the rise in industrialised fishing.

As fish stocks in the high sea and the Exclusive Economic Zone decrease, the effects are felt closer to shore by the Koli fishermen. Now they venture out to fish for long hours, travel perilous distances out to sea in their small boats and get back with catch that barely covers their cost of fishing. It’s a special kind of fortitude to sit at the roadside to sell fish every day and yet manage to smile as I pass by.

One of the 11 species, the critically endangered Southern Bluefin Tuna, in the illegal nets. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters
One of the 11 species, the critically endangered Southern Bluefin Tuna, in the illegal nets. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 800 million people worldwide are malnourished. Almost all of them are in developing countries, including India. Here in Mumbai, a city that is driven by an imminent sense of urgency at all times of day and night, hunger is everywhere. Hunger is in the eyes of the man squatting under a tree, in the matted hair of a child at a traffic signal, in the weak legs of the new mother with an infant at her breast. And yet, in 33 years of my life, I have never been hungry. I have never been hungry in the sense that I had to think of where my next meal would come from. My folks worked long hours and at hard jobs and ensured I had access to food to nourish my body. My hunger has always been one of choices.

Critically endangered Southern Bluefin Tuna on the deck of the M/Y Steve Irwin. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters
Critically endangered Southern Bluefin Tuna on the deck of the M/Y Steve Irwin. Credit: Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters

When I pass the Koli woman on the street, I see her fortitude. I think of her community struggling to exist as they have for thousands of years. I understand that my ability to make dietary choices does not automatically allow me the right to pass a judgement on those who can’t do the same.

A Koli woman selling her daily catch of fish near the author's home in Mumbai. Credit: Sid Chakravarty
A Koli woman selling her daily catch of fish near the author's home in Mumbai. Credit: Sid Chakravarty

Once I understood the impact of my choices, I chose to give up seafood. I gave up seafood because it matters. It matters because the child with the matted hair needs it more. It matters because the Koli community needs to survive. It matters because the blue marble we call home needs some respite. It matters because the world needs time to figure things out. If you have the time, the ability and the good fortune of having a hunger that affords choices, then make the right choice because it matters.

Siddharth Chakravarty spent the last five years with the direct action group Sea Shepherd Global. His current work involves studying the economic model of the fishing industry and investigating labour supply chains to bring to light the ethics of seafood consumption and the effect of industrial fishing on the world’s oceans.

This article first appeared on the blog Blue Planet Society.

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