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Don’t Eat the Fish

The Catch: How fishing companies reinvented slavery and plunder the oceans
by Michael Field (Awa Press, $40)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch

The_Catch [1]You know those lists! The ubiquitous click-bait “listicles” like “5 Foods To Help You Live Longer”, or “10 Things You Should Eat Every Week”. Well, here’s another one: “2 Items All Food Listicles Must Have”:
1. How many slaves were involved in producing that food? (If the answer is anything above “0”, don’t eat it.)
2. How many threatened species were driven that much closer to extinction in the harvesting or production of that food? (If the answer is anything above “0”, don’t eat it.) I could go on: 3. How much did the getting that food to your mouth contribute to climate change? 4. How much pollution did it cause?

True, there won’t be all that much left to eat using this kind of decision tree, but as Michael Field makes clear in his disturbing new book, The Catch: How Fishing Companies Reinvented Slavery and Plunder the Oceans, we the great mass of consumers very much need to be asking these questions. We need to ask them privately, of ourselves, and publicly of policy makers and legislators and food companies and stores and our fellow humans. Then, we need to act on them.

I’d already started feeling queasy about fish, especially the pre-coated, pre-every-thinged packaged kind in the freezer section at the supermarket. That queasiness gathered speed a couple of years ago when I went to a Hands Across the Sand event at Mt. Maunganui beach to protest offshore oil drilling. (It was uppermost in our minds since this was less than a year after the Rena had gone down just off the Tauranga coast, spilling junk and heavy fuel oil everywhere.) The local Green Party candidate was there, doing some campaigning on behalf of fish. He assigned each of us a species and handed out details about how many of us there were left, and why we shouldn’t be caught and eaten. In summary: almost none of the frozen supermarket fish was on the ecologically edible list. (If you’re interested, Forest and Bird’s Best Fish Guide comes with a downloadable version that you can carry in your wallet. [2] )

What the ecologically edible lists don’t appear to take into account – and they should – is slavery. Using our “power” as “consumers” seems such a pitiful ask (or excuse for broader inaction) given the extent of the horrors detailed in Field’s book. This is no criticism of Field or his book, by the way. It’s just the result of that all-too-common feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming harm and injustice. Field himself has done much more than reconsider his shopping options, and as a result he can (and does) claim credit for helping bring about important change. As the book makes clear, he’s been writing about the fishing industry for a long time, and his reporting was key in arousing the public, hence politicians, to act over the “slave ships” plying New Zealand’s fisheries.

It’s not an easy read, but it’s definitely near the top of my listicle of “5 Political Books You Must Read This Year”. Field’s initial, indeed primary focus, is on the people – the “slaves” who work in inhumane conditions for virtually no money for companies that send them out in re-named, re-flagged rust-buckets to, as the subtitle puts it, “plunder the oceans”. That focus is important, particularly to New Zealand which, it turns out, has been a major enabler of slavery at sea by allowing foreign vessels that don’t have to comply with our labour and safety laws to fish domestic quota.

One of the ugly truths that has emerged in the reporting by Field and others is the extent to which Māori quota holders have indulged this heinous practice. Here’s Field: “As I write, the current New Zealand government is deciding whether to require foreign charter vessels operating in the country’s water to bear the New Zealand flag, meaning they would be answerable to New Zealand law. The parliamentary bill that would bring this about underwent some mysterious rewriting before emerging from a parliamentary select committee. The Ngāpuhi tribe had scored a sweetheart deal to allow it to continue using slave boats. The chair of its organisation Te Rūnanga-Ā-Iwi-O-Ngāpuhi, Sonny Tau, told me almost gleefully. Without the slave boats, he claimed, New Zealand would lose $300 million.”

Field puts whining about financial loss in perspective, noting that the argument of some iwi that the law would hurt them economically is rather chillingly like the arguments made against slavery in the 1800s, in Britain and the U.S. “A little known aspect of Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1834 was that the government paid 46,000 people, including some of the country’s wealthiest and largest companies and banks, £20 million (£16 billion in today’s money) to compensate them for the loss of their ‘property’”. The slaves, naturally, got nothing. (I asked Field, through his publisher, Awa Press, what had happened with the legislation since the book came out and he replied that the bill had an “interesting” week in the last week of parliament. “I reported here [3] that the bill had failed, in part because of the iwi exception to it. But my piece in the Sunday Star-Times [4] and a petition seemed to shock the government into making one last desperate effort to get the bill passed. There is now no iwi exception, but I have heard some iwi are now contemplating going to the Waitangi Tribunal to get compensation for the loss of foreign crews.”)

Some of the tales of how fishing crews are treated are appalling beyond words: long hours, no facilities, the risk of permanent injury and death, no escape because agent fees for getting you the job have to be paid off, undrinkable water and virtually inedible “food”.

Throughout the book, Field is generous in crediting others who have also been doing the hard yards of investigating this issue, in particular Dr Glenn Simmons and Dr Christina Stringer of the University of Auckland Business School. They, like Field, have faced threats and intimidation tactics for the work they’ve done uncovering the unsavoury side of the fishing industry. He also gives credit to a fellow journalist, Ben Skinner, of U.S.-based Bloomberg Business Week, whose reporting is available for download at the magazine’s website [5]. And, yes, New Zealand features there prominently.

As for the environmental side of this story, that’s also pretty distressing. Nearly a third of all fish stocks are overexploited, Field writes, and “every fish stock that can be economically caught is sliding toward disaster”. Field also has a chapter titled “Wars” in which he argues conflict over fish is inevitable. “With the world’s population slated to double by 2050, control of protein will become increasingly important. … In 2011 Fiji and Tonga send gunboats at each other, inconclusively, over who controlled the Minerva Reefs on the maritime border. … in 2013 new tensions, based in part around fishing, were brewing in the South China Sea.”

The Catch might not make headlines as big or as frequent as Dirty Politics (which is also atop my ‘Must Read’ listicle), but it more than deserves to both for the grave stories it tells, and as an example of powerful journalism.

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