The Truth about Tuna: Hard Life Aboard

Contributor
Lauren Reid boards her first tuna fishing vessel and discovers the atrocities that happen on board
Green Peace: Lauren Reid's Video Blog Part 3

Green Peace shares this segment of Lauren Reids video Blog. Lauren is on a exploration to learn about the practices of commercial fishing for tuna.

Greenpeace

Workers on tuna boats fish for up to 15 hours every day.

Hard Life Aboard is the third installment of The Truth About Tuna, Lauren Reid’s report from the front line of tuna fisheries in the Pacific Ocean that supply the U.S. She is currently sailing on the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior. Here are her first and second updates.

I waited for Greenpeace’s campaigner and translator Yen Ning to connect with our first fishing boat, holding my breath in the thick and silent air, eagerly watching the phone that linked us to the nearby vessel. Static, then words, came through from the other end. After a hurried conversation and an exchange of credentials in Mandarin, Yen Ning turned to us and nodded, “Yes, it's a go, they will let us on.” We glanced at each other, confirming we all heard the same thing. We did.

Approaching the ship, you’d swear it had been out to sea for at least 40 years. Maybe 50. There was rust crawling over every possible area the salt water had touched; it was as if the boat was made of rust, with occasional slaps of white paint on it. But in truth, all the fishing boats we visited were three or four years old, tops. The moment I was pulled aboard, I immediately started sliding across the greasy wooden planks on deck, hoping to stop well before smashing into something particularly pointy or limb-reducing. How the fishermen and crew stay so sturdy and upright is beyond me.

With each vessel we visited, it became increasingly clear that life on these boats is not for the faint of heart. I spent hours watching fishermen cast out thousands of lines, heaving massive frozen tuna into different freezers and hauling in their catch, a process that I’ve read can stretch on for 15 hours or more. There was a burst of yips and yells when an albacore or yellowfin was hooked on the line. Each fish was swiftly pulled onto the deck and cracked on the head before its tails and fins were cut. The floor was forever covered in the greasy oil of fish bodies and the pools of blood that seeped from the swift death awaiting each unfortunate catch. The slick coated everything from the railings to the windows, the steps and eating areas, even the packs of cigarettes strewn about. Much of this work is done in the direct beating of the sun, further intensified by the reflection off the open ocean.

Despite the exhausting nature of the work, I’d be hard pressed to find a kinder and gentler reception than the ones these fishermen gave me. It might (just might…) have helped that Yen Ning and I were the first ladies they’d seen in months. Some were shy, many were curious, and all were the hardest workers you’ve ever seen. They smiled and waved, generously allowing us to get in their way to document their lives. There’s very little privacy on these ships. Sleeping quarters are four or even eight to a room, simple plywood planks with a blanket and pillow. Hardly a space to get true rest, or anything resembling creature comforts. Little tokens of home life are taped to the wall — photos of a smiling wife, drawings and notes from the world they left behind. These are the only areas of respite from the continuous hours of work on deck; better than nothing, but honestly not much more than that.

If this were the extent of the hardscrabble life of high seas fishermen, I might be inclined to think that it’s just a tough, exhausting job I could never do myself. But it isn’t. Not by a long shot.

On one boat, the fishermen confirmed that only officers were allowed to use the bathroom, and the workers must do everything off the side of the boat.

Let me just write that again. These fishermen would be punished for using the only bathroom on the ship, which was reserved for a select few. The stench that permeated the area was overpowering, and also happened to be on the side where the sleeping cabins were. This struck me as a particularly cruel, not to mention acutely unsanitary.

On another ship, a torn and sun-bleached sign stated there was a $20 dock in pay if you drank bottled water without the captain’s approval. That’s generally several days’ worth of pay for most of these fishermen. For drinking water. During a 17-hour shift. Sure, they’re welcome to drink from the dirty and contaminated open plastic jugs on deck — just pray they don’t get sick. Because if they do, and need to rest for a few hours during a shift, that’s another $100 shaved off their pay. If that isn’t exploitation, I don’t know what is.On another ship, a torn and sun-bleached sign stated there was a $20 dock in pay if you drank bottled water without the captain’s approval. That’s generally several days’ worth of pay for most of these fishermen. For drinking water.

So this is where our canned tuna comes from.

Whether we know it or not, when we purchase a can at the store, these are the terms we agree to as consumers. It’s upsetting to know these ships are not the worst offenders — that in fact they were actually the best of the bunch, the norm. Everything about this work exists on the limits; the limits of overfishing, the limits of exhaustion, and the limits of a livelihood that can break a man. I realize physical limits are relative to each of us, to our histories and our character — some can climb mountains, while others worry about crossing streets. Yet as a witness to the life of a high seas fisherman, the same ones who supply the tuna I grew up on, I feel pressed up against the limits of my own spirit. 

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