IT'S 3 A.M. DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR FISH HAS BEEN?
Author PHUL GREENBERG calls fish "the last wild food," asking "Can wildness be understood and managed well enough to keep humanity and the marine world in balance?" That question remains unanswered as we grapple with seafood's many natural and man-made obstacles. One daunting aspect, traceability, from point of sale back to point of origin, continues to pose immense challenges. While it's possible to do due diligence about species, country of origin, and how and when a fish was caught, lethargy and neglect in monitoring the supply chain obscures the question of who caught the fish. That transparency loophole endemic within the fishing industry raises the sinister possibility that the seafood on your plate was reeled in by enslaved laborers.
SHRNNDN SERVICE, for National Public Radio in 2012, first co-reported the story of men from Myanmar and Cambodia captured and forced into slave labor. For the next six years she teamed up with film producers, and cinematographer and co-director Jeffrey Waldron, to make Ghost Fleet [re I ease date: World Oceans Day, June 2019]. "Ghost fleets," or pirated vessels, escape port compliance by purposely falling to register their whereabouts and names of men aboard, generally enslaved laborers.
Ghost Fleet follows Thai activist Patima Tungpuchayakul, Tun Lin, a survivor of enslavement from Myanmar, and local fixer Chutima Sidasathian as they search the islands of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea for Thai men formerly enslaved on fishing vessels. Wanting to help their families, some of these men originally left their villages lured by promising-sounding jobs in fields, factories, or on shorthaul-ships, some paying broker fees to arrange transport. Other men were drugged, kidnapped, and sold. All were duped, imprisoned, and confined on small Thai fishing boats where they endured 20-hour work days effectuated by methamphetamines. Some enslaved men stayed adrift for years without touching land. Many didn't know how to swim, yet desperate to escape, they jumped ship. When Tungpuchayakul finds escaped slaves she attempts to reunite them with their families.
HOW DID YOU FIRST COME ACROSS THIS STORY?
Journalist and humanitarian Becky Palmstrom lived in Myanmar before she and I met at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. She had heard about Myanmar villages emptied of boys and men. Nobody knew where, why, or how the men disappeared, but non-governmental organizations (NGOs) suspected fishing fleets. We reached out to Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia. He told us that enslavement is, in fact, happening on a huge scale, and had been for over a decade.
IN THE PROCESS OF MAKING THIS FILM, WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST?
I assumed that if Patima found the men [formerly enslaved], they'd want to go home. Turns out, many of them felt shocked that people were looking for them. They had not communicated with their families in years. They were extremely poor. They didn't have cell phones, or left before cell phones were available. If, by chance, someone did have a phone, their families in villages in Myanmar or Cambodia might not. Many men tried to contact their embassies, but neither country stepped in to help. They had no passports or money. If men sought out an authority, they might be put in prison as illegal immigrants, or corrupt authorities could sell them to a new boat or palm oil plantation. After reporting from The Guardian, Associated Press, and other news outlets, this started to change. When Patima did locate former enslaved men, they wanted their families to know they were alive and to see them. Yet in some instances, they had started new families and couldn't leave. I hadn't thought of this possibility. The men had been away for so long, they'd given up on going home.
WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN MAKING THE FILM?
Patima was threated. So were some of the former enslaved men she found who had returned to their homes. Many of the escapees were killed before Patima could come back for them. Captains, boat owners, and the owner of a seafood company in Benjina, Indonesia, threatened them. Corrupt police, paid off by those same owners, also made threats. On the open ocean, lawlessness prevails. Captains act with impunity, killing at will. We made sure we had the Indonesian government on our side before going to the islands.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE GHOST FLEET CAN HELP CHANGE?
We'd like to end slavery at sea. This is winnable. We're taking the film to the public, to Congress, the United Nations, the Thai government, boards of corporations, and seafood industries around the world. We are putting it into the hands of NGOs. We want the public to start asking where their fish comes from.
WHAT ROLE DOES OVERFISHING PLAY IN THE FILM?
The Gulf of Thailand is barren, utterly overfished. Now boats go as far as Somalia to fish and stay there for years at a time. The consequences of overfishing include vessel and fuel subsidies funded by national governments, poor catch reporting, and dependence on fishing far from home ports and the watchful eyes of law enforcement. Thai fishermen don't want to be out on the seas for months or years. But instead of changing how they fish, improving conditions, and paying more, they turn to illegal fishing and slavery.
IS ENSLAVEMENT ON FISHING BOATS LIMITED TO THAILAND, OR IS IT MORE PERVASIVE?
The scale is huge in Thailand. It's systemic and pervasive. However, forced labor boats can be found in the United Kingdom, Scotland, Ireland, South Korea, and the United States, among other countries. It's a global race to bottom in terms of labor standards. I witnessed a boat in the Philippines where men made less per day than a cup of coffee costs in Manila. The captain told me, "At least we aren't Thailand." They've set a terrible standard.
HOW CAN CHEFS MAKE SURE THAT THE SEAFOOD THEY ORDER ISN'T PART OF A SUPPLY CHAIN THAT USES SLAVE LABOR?
In an Ideal world, chefs should be able to treat fish like we treat other food. Ask the purveyor about the supply chain. Or better yet, buy local seafood where you know the fishermen and women. Chefs are the tastemakers and educators. When you use local seafood, list it on the menu. Teach customers to expect high standards. People know whether their beef was hand-massaged and fed organic beer grains. But seafood gets a pass.
Maria Finn, author and journalist, lives on a houseboat in Sausalito, California. She used to work in the commercial fishing industry in Alaska, including crewing an ail-female fishing boat.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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