Foodpact 3: ask your fishmonger for slave-free fish
At Fairfood, we love good food. We’d also like the people who produced our food to be able to afford a proper meal. Doesn’t sound like a very big deal, right? Yet it seems to be. In this new blog series, we’re investigating why and, more importantly: how we can solve this. This time: slave-free fish.
Curry with pangasius. Grilled garlic prawns. These both belong in a Thai holiday. A bamboo terrace on the water. A cold drink and a tasty snack served on a palm leaf. The fish comes fresh from the sea, the waiter points to the surf as if the fish had washed ashore and landed on your plate.
Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth. For that one precious fish fillet, men and boys dragged nets for nights on end and hoisted them into ships. Some are missing a little finger, or sometimes even a whole hand or part of an arm. The net is as strong as six horses and will drag you along if you are not paying attention from, say, lack of sleep. If you were to fall overboard, then there’s nothing left but a sailor’s grave. We are not yet near eating slave-free fish.
I learned all this from the film Ghost Fleet, which had its Dutch premiere during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival,
at De Balie. This is, in short, the story: the sea off Thailand has been overfished so badly that fishing boats need to go further and further into the water. Traditional fishermen don’t want to be away from home for months on end, so men and boys are recruited to do the job. Sometimes they are even tempted, with a mysterious woman waiting for them in a sultry hotel room. When they awake the next morning, the woman is gone and their bed is on the boat. They are at sea for years on end. These men lose five or ten years of their lives, sometimes even more.
When I was in my twenties, I had cancer. Since then I have wanted to use my life in a meaningful way, and I am no longer afraid of anything.
Not afraid of anything
The film follows Patima Tungpuchayakul, from the Thai organization Labor Rights Promotion Network. She is the mother of a young boy, but goes out at night on the road to track down and liberate trapped fishermen. She knows how to circumvent corruption and threats as if she is wearing a Harry Potter cloak. She herself says: “When I was in my twenties, I had cancer. Since then I have wanted to use my life in a meaningful way, and I am no longer afraid of anything.”
The tireless Patima sometimes seems to want to revive the lives of the men she finds and frees. They are bodies without a life of their own, she tells us. She sees how the grown-up men get life back in their eyes when they call their parents, who have thought their sons dead for many years.
Which fish are caught in this way, and which supermarkets that sell these fish are left out of the film. That is a conscious choice. Said director Shannon Service during the premiere at De Balie. “If I mention a name from one or two supermarket chains, others can say, ‘oh, that does not concern us’, while it is the responsibility of all of us.”
Shannon and her team are traveling with the film to the UN, the US Congress and the Thai government. They argue for more inspections in parts and on the boats themselves, reinforcement of maritime law, support for trade unions and NGOs that help the fishermen on site, but also for more transparency throughout the supply chain. I can only fully agree with that on behalf of Fairfood.
If I mention a name from one or two supermarket chains, others can say, ‘oh, that does not concern us’, while it is the responsibility of all of us.
Ask your fishmonger
Question from the audience: what can people do if the film leaves you with an uneasy feeling? “Ask where your fish comes from, just as you ask for the origin of organic apples or a juicy steak”, Shannon offers. “The more people who ask for slave-free fish, the greater chance there is that it will come.”
Shannon hopes that her film will lead a traveling life. And that employees from Dutch supermarkets and fish companies will also see the film. “People in Europe or the US simply do not know what is going on at the beginning of their chains. Change begins with knowledge. I have seen people cry at the end of the film.”
You can see Ghost Fleet at the Movies that Matter Festival in March in The Hague. Activist Patima Tungpuchayakul and director Shannon Service are guests there.