One boat had a set of rules, sun bleached and haphazardly tacked to the wall stating a $50 dock in pay if you drank bottled water without the captain’s approval.
The moment we heard we were boarding our first fishing boat, I was so overwhelmed with excitement and nervousness that I nearly jumped straight off the Rainbow Warrior and into the sea – almost missing the inflatable altogether. I still have a welt on my hip to prove it. We zipped off, holding tight to the straps, white knuckled and quietly praying none of us would fall off before making it to our target, a rusty fishing boat puffing dark plumes of smoke. Our inflatable rocked high and low, riding the sea swell to the waiting group of fisherman. We were two ships in a distant ocean. We could have just disappeared, with nobody the wiser, but when the crew pulled us aboard with generous smiles and handshakes, I stopped worrying. On the ship’s deck, there was much to take in. The fisherman hadn’t seen people in months, so they were as intrigued by us as we were by them. They were clearly unsure of why we were there, but were generous of spirit and allowed us to tour their vessel without any real hesitation.
During my time in the fishing grounds, I visited more than a half-dozen fishing boats and each time the routine was the same. While our Inspection Team Leader Lagi Toribau went over the ship’s documents with the captain, the rest of us explored. I was cautious at first, but became bolder, peering curiously into the galley (boat kitchen) and sleeping quarters. Usually there were only a handful of ingredients in the galley: bags of flour, rice, eggs, onions and tin containers filled with cooking oil. I couldn’t help myself, I was so curious about what they ate. Some boats were bare bones, but others looked to be cooking Szechuan feasts - the captains were all Chinese. Considering Szechuan is one of my favorite cuisines, it took a lot for me to resist the urge to join them at their meal— I still regret not doing so.
The ships were relatively new, just four or five years old, but they looked as if they had been beaten to hell by the hardscrabble life of fishing on the high seas. Damp, cold and rusted—they were by no means uninhabitable, but by all means lacking in even a modest amount of comfort. Beds were a plywood base, covered with a thin blanket and pillow. Only a few had thin mattresses. Little trinkets of the fisherman’s other lives were taped to the wall— family photos or religious ornaments— with only a flimsy curtain to provide a tiny amount of privacy during rest or a break.
What distressed me most was the lack of hygiene, something that must eventually affect the fisherman’s long-term health. It’s hard enough to work near 20-hour days, but take away proper sanitation and it’s inevitable people become sick. On one vessel, fishermen were punished for using the bathroom. The ship’s one toilet was reserved for the captain, and workers were required to relieve themselves off the side of the boat— next to the sleeping cabins. The stench was severe. I don’t know how the fishermen adjusted to it, but I imagine when you’re out at sea for so long, there is no choice but to adapt. Even from the relative comfort of the Rainbow Warrior, I was painfully aware that out on the high seas, there was simply nowhere to get off.
One boat had a set of rules, sun bleached and haphazardly tacked to the wall, stating a $50 dock in pay if you drank bottled water without the captain’s approval. These guys regularly do 20-hour+ shifts, and they can be fined more than a day’s pay for drinking clean water. Clean water was for the officers, so the workers drank from the dirty and contaminated open jugs on deck. If the poor sanitation or polluted water made the fisherman sick and they needed to rest or sleep it off, the sign made it clear they’d get another $100 shaved off their pay. For many of the workers, much of their pay goes to agents’ fees in the first year of their contact, and $100 can be as much as two weeks of work. It’s an absurd system in the truest sense, which is only more heartbreaking when you’re lucky enough to meet the kind of men that do this work on a daily basis.
I must say again how generous and open the fishermen were. They seemed pleased to see us, if for no other reason but to break up their endless work cycles. They treated us well. But I feel we’re not returning that same generosity of treatment—because the majority of our American tuna brands fund and exploit these horrendous labour practices. While there are reputable brands we can buy, most of us still choose tuna from companies that treat the ocean poorly, and their workers worse. When we buy their goods we are in effect saying we’re OK with people being paid garbage, not having toilets, clean drinking water, or adequate rest.
Since I’ve been back in the New Orleans, I’ve read stories linking slavery and human trafficking to companies connected to some of the biggest tuna brands in America. After being out on the high seas and meeting many of those who catch our tuna, I’ve seen how they were treated. I’ve seen shark fins on board, seen other dead species they shouldn’t be targeting, and I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t, in good conscience, support these companies until they clean up their act. If I ever buy a can of tuna again, I need to know that the people catching it were treated respectfully and fairly (like the fellow human beings they are), and I must know I’m not contributing to ocean devastation and species decline.
When Greenpeace invited me to come on its tour of the Pacific, I’d heard about the tuna shopping guide and it seemed like a good list to consider. Now I recognise it’s more than that, as my time at sea has shown me, it’s an effective tool to help us vote with our dollars, and ultimately push the industry into behaving in a way we can feel right in supporting.
When I left the Rainbow Warrior, our Lead Campaigner Karli Thomas handed me a black t-shirt with ‘Change Tuna’ emblazoned across the front.
I get it now.
It’s to remind me that it only takes two bucks at the grocery store to help make the world a more equitable place.
- Lauren Reid