Day 1,155: I’ve Got Something To Say About Tuna…

Wed 29.02.12:

It was around 1600 on the 29th that we arrived in the town of Noro on the island of New Georgia in the Western Province of The Solomon Islands. It was about an hour before were able to disembark, and I set off with Fijian Engineer Peni and Solomon Islander Deck Cadet Kent for a stroll around the town.

Noro is famous (if that’s the right word) for being the home of The Solomon Islands’ tuna cannery. Not be confused with a tuna canary, which is (probably) a kind of flying fish. Unfortunately (again, if that’s the right word) the cannery was a bit out of town, a good 35 minute walk, and as the sun was setting we thought better of going for a spot inspection.

You don’t need me to tell you that tuna is one of the most overfished fish is the sea. Some estimates that worldwide stocks are down to less than 3% of its natural abundance and the reason for this is fairly obvious: if you use the kind of nets that trap 100% of the fish in any given shallow (deep water is to most fish what a desert is to most men), there’s going to be no fish left to spawn for next year. Plus whatever happens to be swimming along in that area (and some of these nets can stretch over a square mile) gets dragged up by the fishing net as well. That may well include your friendly neighbourhood dolphins, an endangered species of shark or a lost scuba diver.

There are a couple of ways of getting around this problem. Long line fishing involves one long line with a hook and bait positioned every couple of feet. These lines can run for miles and catch a hell of a lot of fish – and as the bait is carefully selected to entice just one type of fish, not dolphins and the like. However, they also ensnare sea birds eager to eat the fish. Also, they fail to differentiate between adult and juvenile fish.

The best option, and one that is currently being practiced in The Solomon Islands, is head back to square 1: fish with a rod. With a team of 30 or 40 skilled anglers sitting off the prow of a ship, these guys can catch over a 1000 fish an hour. They only catch the correct species, they throw back juveniles, no dolphins or seabirds where harmed in the making of this tuna butty. Nice.

But this practice is very much in the minority. Most of the world’s fishing fleets use nets and very soon we could start seeing a premium slapped on tuna like what Australia experienced last year with their bananas (which trebled in price almost overnight). The sooner we start treating the sea as a farm rather than as a all-you-can-eat buffet the better.

It’s usually not fair to single out one country for criticism, especially considering most decisions are made at the top and pretty much everyone on this planet is guilty of eating food without enquiring where it came from, but I have to say that while the Chinese government desperately needs to change its attitude concerning human rights, the Chinese people in general need to change their medieval attitudes towards the utter gobbledegook they – and only they – consume.

The powdered rhino tusk trade, the shark fin trade and the bear bile trade are all powered by the Chinese: nobody else is particularly interested – and it’s not that these things even taste good, it’s that they are supposed to (but don’t) contain magical healing properties or increase sexual prowess. I would say it’s our job in the West to laugh off such foolish notions, but, because we’re all idiots, we go along with it, hey – it’s part of their culture after all. And, well, we don’t know everything, modern medicine can’t cure cancer…

Have to stop you there. Modern medicine can cure cancer, not all forms of cancer yet, but with cervical cancer vaccination and earlier and earlier detection and treatment of breast, bowel and prostrate cancer, we’re getting there. Powdered rhino task didn’t help anyone get a stiffy in the time of Confucius, and is sure as shit doesn’t help anyone now. Try Viagra my oriental chums. Or a better looking wife. Chinese medicine is utter bullshit, based on the thinking of the dark ages when a solar eclipse was a dragon eating the sun who could be scared away by banging pots and pans. You know what we call alternative medicine that works? That’s right ladies and gents: “MEDICINE”!

I find myself feeling increasingly isolated, at once fending off the idiotic religious, libertarian, big-business loving, conspiracy-theorist, global-warming denialist nutjobs on one side and the new-age, anti-science, mumbo-jumbo believing, snake-oil consuming, Reiki-healing, crystal twirling, anti-vax crackpots on the other. I hate it all and I hate it because I can see it’s a con, I know it’s con and yet everybody else in the crowd seems to be blathering on about what incredible lace-work has gone into the Emperor’s New Clothes. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right… to put to mildly. But that’s a rant for another day.

Back on topic, the Chinese are not only the world leaders at consuming endangered species, they are also the world leaders at the smash-and-grab school of fishing. The small island nation of Tuvalu has over one million cubic kilometres of open ocean to patrol to check for illegal fishing. It has one ship (kindly donated by the Aussies) with which to do this. When I was in Tuvalu last December, the Tuvaluan Police, in collaboration with the US Coast Guard, had found two ships in one day of patrolling jut a small percentage of these waters. One was Chinese, the other Taiwanese. This came as little surprise to anyone. Ships that are caught fishing illegally are more likely to originate in China than any other nation on Earth.

But this isn’t a problem that merely concerns the Pacific Island nations, it is a problem that can have a domino effect on the rest of the world. Last year, piracy in the Indian Ocean cost the shipping industry over 10 billion dollars. Pretty much all of these pirates come from Somalia. We don’t see this as surprising because Somali is a failed state and of course people are going to turn to piracy, right? Well, no. For fifteen years without an effective government, the fishermen off the coast of Puntland in northern Somalia were happy to ply their trade doing what they were best at: fishing. This is because the waters off the coast were abundant in aquatic life.

Around the year 2000, Chinese trawlers began fishing illegally off the coast of Somalia. As Somalia has no navy (it’s barely got a government), there was nothing the Somali’s could do to stop them. The Chinese trawlers would haul in fish by the ton, scraping the ocean floor until it was bereft of life, then freeze their bounty and sail it back to China.

As fish stocks dwindled, the fisherman turned to whatever they could to make ends meet. They had boats, they were accomplished sailors, they had easy access to AK-47s… and so the Somali Pirate Industry, which now gainfully employs over 12,000 people, was born. It’s grown year on year since 2005 and now encompasses pretty much the entire Indian Ocean northwest of Mauritius.

So, yes, I will single out China as a country that really needs to get its obligations to the rest of the world in order – especially when it comes to the fruits of the sea. But that’s not to diminish our own responsibilities. The reason many of the 55 states of Africa are in the dire straits they’re in is not the fault of the Chinese – it’s the fault of Western Europe. The 18,000 drug-related murders in Mexico in 2010 are pretty much entirely the fault of the USA. Australia’s coal industry, the UK’s arms industry, Canada’s tar sands, Russia’s oligarchs, Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, the Japanese fondness for eating whale… like the man said, nobody’s perfect. If only there was some kind of governing body that could bring the governments of the world together, punish them for acting like yahoos and reward them for doing the right thing. If only…

Noro is situated on the eastern side of an almost perfectly icicle-shaped inlet, an ideal place to watch the sun set over the water, the jungle on the opposite bank reaching out to green low-laying hills beyond. The Western Provinces were in line to receive a Unesco World Heritage listing, but insensitive logging in the area put that idea to bed. The Scarlett Lucy would be setting sail for Honiara at 2200.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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