Something rotten in the fish pie
Monday, 01 August 2011 10:00

Most of us eat fish, don’t we? Those concerned with our health tell us we should be eating more of it, and cut out the red meats. And often we complain about the price of our fishy favourites, as older folk are apt to reminisce about when fish was “the food of the poor”.

In many industrialised countries, fish has indeed become a high-priced, high-value commodity, justifying spectacular investment in sophisticated vessels to catch the stuff. Of necessity, given the need to conserve both national and oceanic fish stocks, fishing has become tightly regulated, closely supervised and subject to intense surveillance from the various authorities.

But it is worth remembering that fishing is still the world’s most dangerous occupation, and despite the high value of the catch, some of the worst working conditions in the world are to be found aboard fishing craft operating in deep-sea trades – even large vessels. Some of the most appalling abuses are routinely uncovered aboard far eastern fishing boats, with what amounts to captive labour working in dreadful conditions for months on end. Beatings and murder are not uncommon as senior officers abuse cowed crews. It is hard to believe sometimes that this is the twenty-first century. While danger might be accepted as part of the job in smallish craft in rough waters, this sort of behaviour ought surely to be unacceptable.

Some of the worst abuses have been uncovered aboard Taiwanese squid boats, mostly fishing in the Southern Ocean, with crews effectively held captive with the craft close to land to prevent them deserting, after instances where they have leaped over the side and perished trying to swim ashore. In one recent case, four Vietnamese men were rescued close to death after jumping into the freezing sea off Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands from their Taiwanese squid jigger. In hospital, they showed evidence of being badly beaten and mistreated, yet they were returned to their vessel when they were deemed to have recovered sufficiently by the authorities. Their ultimate fate was not determined.

Putting things right

The International Labour Organisation’s new Work in Fishing Convention No.188 and its associated Recommendation No.199 provide for a global labour standard that would hopefully prevent such abuses and encourage a general improvement in the working conditions of those who make their living in the fishing industry. It was passed four years ago but has yet to come into effect, despite an overwhelming vote in its favour. Unsurprisingly those who voted against the convention or abstained in the final vote were from those countries where the ships are based aboard which the worst abuses occur. The Convention will be legally binding, but only on member states that choose to ratify it.

The same sort of pedestrian progress is to be found in the area of fishing vessel safety, which comes under the International Maritime Organisation’s remit, and the 1993 Protocol of the 1977 Torremolinos International Convention for the Safety of Fishing Vessels. Delays to these various instruments coming into force have been blamed on “technical and legal obstacles”, which is diplomatic speak for stiff resistance by the worst reactionaries and industrial vested interests, along with a general bloody-mindedness to be found wherever regulators run up against fisherfolk. And as all this mostly happens “over the horizon” and far from the beautifully dressed fish counters in the upmarket shopping malls, nobody knows enough about this stuff to even begin to care about it.

The IMO is planning another push to get the 1993 Protocol underway again, with an international diplomatic conference to be held in South Africa next year. As with all these treaties, international implementation is the key to their success. People who run decent fishing operations and closely follow the law of their lands shouldn’t have to compete with ruffians who operate in dangerous craft with brutally exploited labour. There is no excuse for permitting the sort of behaviour that some of these dreadful people get away with on the high seas, with the approval of their profit-driven employers. Maybe next year’s conference might attract some much-needed and worthwhile attention to the death and injury rates in the fish-catching sector, and inspire a little reflection in people as they bite into their chargrilled mullet. It’s a hope, anyway.

Changing priorities

It’s a funny old world, where well-meaning people are prepared to become activists in favour of the marine environment, to lobby and shout and even march in favour of marine conservation, but remain both oblivious to and unmoved by the fatality and injury rates aboard fishing craft, and the disgusting working conditions suffered by so many of those who catch their delicious fish, sourced so conveniently from around the world. Fishing is a big, capital intensive and well-resourced industry that badly needs to be sorted out. It is plainly incapable of reforming itself.

Should this matter to the mainstream marine industry, which is far ahead of the bottom-feeders in international fishing? It should, because we all share the same sea, and the safety and conduct of fishing boats under their fishing signals is every bit as important in the shipping lanes as that of merchant ships. Marine safety is a universal concept, and there are too many tales of near misses and angry encounters between merchant vessels and fishing craft, accompanied by demands for a general raising of competence levels. But maybe that is something best left to another time!

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