Michael Field, whose book The Catch helped expose the labour and human rights abuses in New Zealand’s fishing industry, in the interview originally published by WikiTribune, discusses his new investigation into illegal fishing practices in the Pacific.
Field’s recent investigation is “Murder and abuse: the price of your sashimi.” It details another, largely unreported, aspect of the murky high seas — the mysterious disappearance of observers tasked with ensuring maritime law is observed and helping preserve the planet’s fish stock. The piece deals with murder, men missing at sea and a legal system which is not set up to deal with it.
‘In the old days, the cod race of the 19th century, fisherman were lost by being overwhelmed by the sea. These days they are overwhelmed by the greed of their owners’
How did you come across this story?
Michael Field: It’s floated around anecdotally for a long time. I went on a fishing trip into the Southern Ocean some time ago and there was an observer on it. He told me about the bizarre world that many observers find themselves in. It is quite a lonely position on a foreign boat in the middle of the ocean. It can be a Papua New Guinean or a Fijian on a boat where nobody else speaks their language. Some skippers have been known to try and get the observers drunk so they can illegally dump fish over the side while the observer passes out. I heard this sort of thing many times. But as for the business of actually losing observers — that’s when it became a little more ominous. It becomes clearer that to get that sushi onto your plate or that fish fillet onto your burger, it can cost a lot of lives. In the old days, the cod race of the 19th century, fisherman were lost by being overwhelmed by the sea. These days they are overwhelmed by the greed of their owners.
“There were big catches of fish but it was not totally clear who was getting the money. It’s such a complicated issue because the management of fisheries is surrounded by jargon and dressed up science.’
It speaks to the larger story about humanity’s relationship with fish. In the Pacific in seems that this has changed dramatically over a short time.
When I lived in Samoa years ago there were traditional fish traps at the of the edge lagoon where my house was. The locals fished in the traditional way. You would wake up in the morning to the sound of a man walking through the water to check his fishing net. So I’ve always known about the role of fish in the lives of Pacific peoples. It has been their main protein source for thousands of years. They are entirely dependent on it. But in the early 1980s there was a huge growth of the American tuna industry out of Pago Pago, in American Samoa. You started to notice a lot more boats coming into port and this curious relationship began where there were big catches of fish but it was not totally clear who was getting the money.
But it’s such a complicated issue because the management of fisheries is surrounded by jargon and dressed up science. It’s hard to make sense of. Increasingly, people who were seeing this found that there was a property right that was out there that was being plundered and it wasn’t the Pacific people getting the those rights. I wasn’t any more attuned to it that anyone else but when I went into various ports around Pacific over the years you see increasing numbers of boats. The issue came into agendas of heads of governments around the Pacific. Some thought it would be a bonanza and others were concerned with being robbed. As a journalist you realise there is a serious issue here.
‘There seems to have been a conscious policy decision by the Chinese to push boats into the South Pacific.’
Initially it was American ships and the Japanese. But more recently there has been a huge influx of Chinese vessels also.
That has happened in the last decade. There seems to have been a conscious policy decision by the Chinese to push boats into the South Pacific. The race for the resource is increasing. That’s the scary bit. Fishermen use a complicated equation used to figure out the economics of fishing. Inevitably you get to a point where it’s not worthwhile chasing the last of the fish. You leave it. But the Chinese government is putting so much money into it that fishermen don’t have to do that equation any more. They are going after the last fish. That’s a terrifying thought.
Equally terrifying it seems is that there is little oversight to this and those that who are tasked with it, the observers, are under intense pressure.
They stress they are not the police of the high seas. They are in a really difficult situation where what they say can affect the wealth of the people on the boat. On many fishing boats there are very few salaried people. For most people, what they earn is based on what they catch. So to take an extreme example, if they catch sharks and are not cutting the fins off them, that is biting into the salaries of the fishermen. They would presumably prefer that the observer does not notice this. But if they do and they raise it with the authorities, it puts the observers in a very compromising position. Many are very professional and environmentally motivated. The sad thing is that many of the boats are in such appalling conditions that observers won’t stay on them. We don’t send police out in Model T Fords anymore for a reason.
‘The whole observer corps should be internationalized, so a Papua New Guinean earns the same as a New Zealand or an American observer’
What do you think needs to happen then?
The whole observer corps should be internationalized, so a Papua New Guinean earns the same as a New Zealand or an American observer. I personally think that the post and the job of an observer should be recognized as one that’s important for the future of the planet. But what bothers me about the South Pacific is that we have this view that we should leave it to the experts who know what’s going on but it’s our resource out there. And the business that I mentioned in the story is that basically we, the people who own the commons, are represented in most of the cases by these observers who are charged with going out there and watching the rules are followed. The world’s hunger for protein is so heavy that our common wealth is under threat and we have to have these people and vest them with a degree of security to do this job because they are doing it for us.
‘I created a bunch of charts with GFW data and Fiji said I was breaking law by creating them. They said the movement of boats in sovereign Fiji waters is secret information and not allowed to be public.’
It seems what has changed is that we can now see the plunder that is going on thanks to some new digital tools.
That’s the thing you find alarming. Thanks to organizations like Global Fishing Watch, which monitors fishing vessels using satellite technology, you can see that intensification in a way we haven’t seen before. I created a bunch of charts with GFW data and Fiji said I was breaking law by creating them. They said the movement of boats in sovereign Fiji waters is secret information and not allowed to be public. Needless to say I took it as an invitation to publish more. The authorities have had this data for years and now we are seeing it.
Soon the technology will move so we can actually see, not just the name of the vessel or where it’s gone, but how much stock is on board. That will potentially change the game.
What are the consequences if things keep carrying on as they are?
The worst one is the crash of the stock, which we have seen with North Atlantic cod. I personally worry about where the Pacific fisheries are going. The very first time I went to Tokelau almost 80 percent of their fish came from fish they caught in the lagoon, now apparently they take almost none. It’s all processed. And consequently their health is diminishing. There are the disasters you get like the crash of the stock and the slow disasters where you start transforming people away from a diet that sustained them to one that doesn’t.
Is there anything that consumers can do to aid the situation?
In the longer term I think the best way to control who fishes the fish is the consumer who buys it. What’s good about the technology that is starting to come through is that we know where fish comes from and we know how to track it now. Many people ask me what the best fish to eat is. Actually it’s green lipped mussels. They clean the ocean, are apparently inexhaustible and are quite nice.
I’m trying to alert people to problems but until consumers start making informed choices, the problem is not going to go away.