Book Review: The Catch: How fishing companies reinvented slavery and plunder the oceans, by Michael Field

Available in bookstores nationwide. 

Michael Field has spent a great deal of time and effort researching the fishing industrycv_the_catch in the Pacific, even going to sea for extended periods.

Prompted by the discovery of a Taiwanese boat without crew in November 2008, he has studied and written about the activities of utterly ruthless fishing companies, with their irresponsible and often illegal practices. The book is an elaboration of investigative articles originally published in the Sunday Star-Times.

Why is this abuse of foreigners by foreigners important to us? Because these companies are often fishing in our waters, on behalf of New Zealand companies.
Billed as a ‘searing expose of slavery and overfishing on the high seas’, it might be expected that this is not a happy book. And it isn’t. Men from poor countries, desperate to feed themselves and their families, are at sea for long periods on dirty, unsanitary, unsafe boats. Many of the officers treat the crew as expendable, and brutality is common. The litany of horrors that Field has found is astonishing. Some crews work impossibly long shifts, with neither food nor water, for months or years. Accommodation is often worse than most farm animals in NZ – some of the photos reminded me irresistibly of sow crates from PETA videos!

Of course, maybe it is worth it for the money? It might be if crew were reliably paid. Many are not or are paid only a fraction of what they were due.

Now deep sea fishing is by its nature dangerous, and hard, work. It has never been a comfortable workplace. But the abuses that Field catalogues go far beyond anything that I could have imagined.

As well as human abuse, Field describes the environmental damage being done by these boats. Their stripping of the world’s oceans threatens the food supply of all of us. We have a management scheme (“catch quotas”) but enforcing it, even at the current level (which some believe too generous) seems to be a bit hit and miss and courts ecological disaster on a grand scale.

My initial impression when the book arrived was that the sub-title must be an overstatement. Slavery – really? I found that the author provides his own definition of modern slavery, which made me suspect that the sub-title became self-fulfilling. But by some weird coincidence I had just recently read a mock manual for Romans on managing their slaves, and it became clear the slaves in Ancient Rome had more legal rights, and often more hope of enforcing their rights, than crewmen on some of these boats.

Media stories on these ships have led to some positive changes. A bill has passed the Parliament forcing vessels fishing in NZ waters to be reflagged and to follow NZ law. But much remains to be done, and of course these vessels are found all over the world, not just in the south Pacific.

Michael Field is a journalist, and writes in an easy, personal, style. Perhaps the book could be a little shorter, but the questions it raises are important and need to be answered.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

The Catch: How fishing companies reinvented slavery and plunder the oceans
by Michael Field
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249024