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Oceans – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Oceans – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Globalised industrial fishing is taking a vicious toll on the world’s oceans. We need to collectively rethink our attitudes towards the food we eat, suggests Siddharth Chakravarty.

The currents drive up nutrients from the deep, creating a feeding frenzy and a kaleidoscope of life for the diver during rush hour at Batu Bolong, Komodo. Photo Courtesy: Blue Marlin, Komodo.

2014: The Good

“Suck all the air out from your Buoyancy Control Device and when you jump off the boat swim vertically down till you are in the shadow of the sea mount,” said Maria, our dive guide from the diving outfit Blue Marlin. She was giving us instructions to a negative entry for a dive site that is visible only as a rock at the surface but whose grandeur comes into view once you’ve dived deep enough. With the strong ocean currents, it is imperative that you propel yourselves downwards as quickly as possible to avoid being swept away and missing the dive site completely. This dive site is Batu Bolong in Komodo, home to a prehistoric-looking dragon, which is also its main attraction. Numerous diving vessels operate out of Labuan Bajo, the capital city of the island of Flores, in the archipelagic country of Indonesia. Scattered around the south coast of Flores are some of the world’s finest diving sites.

I began diving in 2012 and it introduced me to a whole new world of underwater life. The ability to stay underwater for up to an hour and dive as deep as 35 m. meant that I could experience the entire spectrum of magic; from the colourful coral at the surface to the splendour of giant schools of fish in the darker depths of the ocean.

This diving trip to Indonesia was only my second visit to the country. It was only then that I realised its amazing diversity. Stretching from Sumatra to the west to Western Papua in the east, 16,000 islands constitute the world’s largest archipelago. Around and under these islands, Indonesia is a place of thriving marine life, often referred to as the incubator of life. From here, life flows east to form the Coral Triangle, the global centre for marine biodiversity… the Amazon of the oceans.

A Napolean wrasse makes a stunning image with its coral-chomping teeth, art-deco face and kajal-lined eyes. Photo Courtesy: Blue Marlin, Komodo.

2015: The Bad

I’m sitting next to Ibu Susi Pudjiastuti, Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF), Indonesia. She’s addressing the press, a year after taking over the Ministry. While she’s most famous for blowing illegal fishing vessels to smithereens, this time she’s making it a point to promote the economic benefits of her strong stance on illegal fishing in Indonesian waters. Remember the thriving marine life I mentioned above? That’s the marine life that attracts legal and illegal fishing vessels into these waters. Also remember the 16,000 islands that I mentioned? The topography of this country has made it hard to control the menace of illegal fishing.

Minister Susi has had a tough job since she came into office. Fisheries are one of Indonesia’s top revenue generators and employers, but its marine resources are in bad shape. Inadequate monitoring for decades meant that unscrupulous operators were engaged in acts of illegal fishing, licence duplication, and paperwork fraud, that was obliterating the health of Indonesia’s waters. Of the 15 million tons of fish that Indonesia aims to sustainably harvest from their waters annually, less than six million tons was being reported, putting the value of the black fish (the term used to describe what is caught and traded unofficially) at a staggering 250 per cent of the official data. Coastal communities and marine ecology bore the brunt of the destructive practices, while foreign owners siphoned the financial profits out of the country.

Taking on the strong lobby of the fishing industry has exposed Minister Susi to a barrage of resistance. The press conference was an important measure for her to reassure her country that the actions guaranteed long-term benefits.

Dead marine life piled up on the deck of the Steve Irwin, a Sea Shepherd vessel, during Operation Driftnet. These were recovered from the nets of a fleet of licensed fishing vessels. Photo: Sea Shepherd Global/Tim Watters.

2016: The Ugly

As part of Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation organisation, I was captaining a vessel aiding the pursuit of a rogue fishing vessel called the Thunder. After a 110-day chase from Antarctica to West Africa, this Interpol-wanted fishing vessel was scuttled, or purposely sunk by its captain, in a bid to destroy evidence. My crew and I rescued the hapless crew and delivered them safely to port. The issue of forced labour and human rights abuse in the fishing industry is a grave one and Indonesians form the largest pool of migrant labour on industrialised, distant-water fishing vessels.

The owners of the Thunder had little regard for the law and engaged in transnational organised crimes to plunder fish, then trade their ill-gotten catch in the international market. They form one end of the spectrum of illegality. The other end comprises legal and licensed vessels that engage in malpractices on board their vessels. These include using the wrong kind of fishing gear, not conforming to fishing regulations, misreporting their catches, discarding waste overboard, targeting endangered and high-value species, finning sharks, laundering money and evading taxes. These non-conforming vessels, additionally, tend to avail of cheap labour to sustain their environmentally-destructive practices. Unnaturally long hours of work for up to 21 hours a day, up to four years at sea, poor living conditions on board, regular mental and physical abuse, torture, even rape and murder have all been reported in the industrial, distant-water fishing industry. The bulk of the seafood you consume today is thus tainted by illegal fishing practices, forced labour, trafficking and human rights abuse.

The Interpol-wanted, illegal fishing vessel Thunder slipping beneath the waves after a heroic 110-day chase across three oceans. Photo: Sea Shepherd Global/Simon Ager.

The Big Picture

The globalisation of the fishing industry has granted individual rights to a common resource as part of industrialised expansion. This disconnected, profit-driven approach, together with abysmally-poor international governance mechanisms means that today the bad outweighs the good and the ugly sustains the bad. This is the reality of a large part of the global industrial fishing effort.

The oceans are alive and throbbing with biodiversity. They can enthral us, excite us, feed us and, more importantly, they keep us and all other life forms on Earth alive. Being mindful of and reconnecting with the food we eat and establishing that direct connection with our planet is probably the most important step we can take to put an end to this brutal institution of industrial fishing. We will then be a step closer to addressing one of the least-recognised ways in which humans are conspiring to unravel nature’s fragile web of life.

Life rafts with the crew of the sunken fishing vessel Thunder being towed to safety. Photo: Sea Shepherd Global/Jeff Wirth.

Follow Sid @OceanBanter on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Author: Siddharth Chakravarty, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 2, February 2017.


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