by B.J. Stolbov
When I was young, my father took me on a father-son bonding/camping/fishing trip to some unpronounceable lake in upstate New York. I learned to squeamishly poke a hook through a wiggling worm. I learned to awkwardly cast a fishing line out into the lake. And when I did catch a fish, with the point of the hook sticking out through its eye, I immediately learned, while screaming and crying, that I was no fisherman. No fisherman either, my father and I gratefully agreed to bond by never going fishing again.
I am, by nature, a terrestrial person. I like my two feet firmly on dry ground and I don’t like to be in water. I am a terrible swimmer, having drowned once (obviously, I was resuscitated). I am a horrible snorkeler, flopping about like an inept turtle. Underwater scuba diving is an appalling notion to me.
I rarely travel by water, especially if it is out of sight of land. I will travel from one side of a river to the other, but whitewater river rafting is not for me. A rowboat or canoe on a small lake is pleasant. At the ocean, I enjoy watching waves, from the shore. The ocean, itself, from the surface, I find both overwhelming and boring. A good storm is interesting and I do enjoy a good typhoon or a hurricane. Once, I was caught in a storm in a small boat with waves higher than the boat, and I prayed longer and louder than I ever have in my life (obviously, I survived).
Being on the ocean on a cruise ship is relaxing for me, but truth is, it is almost not being on water. It is more of a large floating hotel with 24-hour restaurants and bars and casinos and nightclubs and my own room with a balcony and a soft bed and a warm shower or a hot bath and daily room service. Ocean cruising can be a pleasant experience, but it is traveling a long way and far away from the ocean.
As for being on a fishing boat and fishing, I have never tried my hands at it. But, standing on the shore and watching fishing nets being hauled in, I began to think about the fish I eat and where they come from.
Most fish are caught by industrial-sized fishing trawlers (think of that cruise ship, without the casinos and nightclubs). The largest and most technologically advanced fishing trawler in the world is the Atlantic Dawn, 144 meters (472 feet) in length, weighing more than 14,000 tons, with enough fuel to stay out at sea for weeks. It is equipped with highly effective low-frequency, long-range fish-locating sonar, and with decks full of on-board filleting, freezing, and refrigeration facilities. When operating at full capacity, the crew of the Atlantic Dawn can catch, process, and freeze 400 tons of fish every day, and can store up to 7,000 tons of frozen fish.
The largest fish factory ship in the world is the Lafayette, 288 meter (945 feet) in length, 32 meters (105 feet) in width, weighing more than 49,000 tons, (think of a small aircraft carrier). It works as a floating fish factory, serving as a mother ship for a fleet of super-trawlers (like the Atlantic Dawn). The crew of the Lafayette takes the vast catches of these vessels, sorts them, processes up to 1500 tons of fish a day, freezes them, and then transfers them to transporter ships where the fish are ultimately taken to market. Fishing vessels like these, which drag miles of hooked fishing lines and hundreds of meters wide nets that scoop up everything in their wake (whether the fishing industry actually wants them or not), leave behind a watery desert devoid of life. Industrial fishing is impersonal, a science, and indifferent to life and the future.
Indigenous fishing is personal, an art, and for the local fisher folks, their lives. Most fisher folk catch fish with small nets from the shore or from a small boat. (Here in the Philippines, a hand-made, flat-bottom, keel-less, not very stable boat, with a single-stroke engine or a single sail is called a bangka.) As fisher folk have for thousands of years and for hundreds of generations, they go out early in the morning, often before dawn. They cast their net upon the water, watch it sink, and then wait.
Fisher folk never know for sure what, if anything, will be in their net when they pull it up. Fishing is an uncertain business. For most fisher folk, who own a small boat and a net, fishing is their only livelihood. If successful, they will see and feel living beings in their hands, and will touch and feel a unique living being die in their hands. With sweat, strength, and perseverance, catching 100 pounds of fish can be a good day. But if they catch nothing, there will be nothing to sell, and, more drastically, there will be nothing to eat.
Catching fish is a very different living than producing land-based cows or chickens. At any time, cows or chickens can be counted and their numbers counted upon. Fisheries are a moveable feast and a moveable famine. When a fishery is gone, it is not possible, Adam-and-Eve-like, to start up a fishery with two fish. Fish (which is both a singular and plural noun) are social animals. When a community of fish is wiped out, it is gone forever.
For years, we have been witnesses to long arguments and counter-arguments about the existence of or the lack of existence of, and the human contribution to or the lack of human contribution to, climate change and global warming. While the rising global air temperatures are possibly open to dispute, there are two indisputable facts:
the ocean temperatures are rising, and
the fish aren’t causing it.
These rising ocean temperatures are having a devastating effect on our fisheries and our fisher folk. Fish are moving to cooler waters, north in the Northern Hemisphere and south in the Southern Hemisphere. For fisher folk from the shore or on a small boat, the usual fish are becoming scarcer and farther away. The fish are moving from near the shore, where the water is warmer, out into the deeper water, and then, if necessary, farther out from these waters into the waters beyond the edge of the Continental Shelf. Fish such as tuna, cod, pollack, mackerel, marlin, and swordfish, and mollusks such as clams, snails, shrimps, oysters, lobsters, and. squids are endangered.
For our terrestrial governmental officials and politicians, these arguments about global warming are most often about election cycles and fund-raising. For our industrial and corporate titans, these arguments about climate change are most often about quarterly earnings and profits. For our fisher folk, these are not disputable or contentious arguments. The extinction of our fisheries is a threat to their way of living, their livelihoods, and their lives.
As I learn more about fishing and the lives of fish, I am, by no means, advocating not eating fish. As much as possible, I try to know where that fish is coming from. Frozen fish sticks, nuggets, and those fish fillet sandwiches come from industrial fishing. A fish at a market or, better yet, at a fish market is probably a local fish caught by local fisher folk. I try to buy a fish that looks like a fish, cook it gently, eat it with awareness, respect, and gratitude, and to support my local fisher folk. I depend on them for food and they depend on me for their livelihood. We need each other.
B.J. Stolbov lives and works in the Philippines, and travels and explores whenever and wherever. He is a writer, poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, travel writer, technical writer/editor, and an improving photographer. B.J. served in the U.S. Peace Corps, and taught English and writing in high schools and universities in Northern Luzon in the Philippines. He teaches English and writing, and is available for writing and teaching positions. Please feel free to contact him at BJStolbov@gmail.com.