Green Echoes #25 - Announcing Oceans Inc, our latest cross-border investigative collaboration

Fishers on the Frontlines involved journalists reporting and collecting stories from local fishers in China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia

Welcome to Green Echoes, a newsletter from the Environmental Reporting Collective that highlights key investigative stories, data sources, funding, reporting and training opportunities and our projects from across Asia.

Announcing Oceans Inc

We’re pleased to announce the publication of the first story in our latest collaborative cross-border investigation, Oceans Inc. The investigation is focused on Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing – known in the industry as “IUU fishing” – which has caused alarming destruction to marine environments, as well as horrific human rights abuses by the companies involved.

The Environmental Reporting Collective spent nearly a year investigating IUU fishing, with journalists from over a dozen newsrooms working together to expose these crimes. Despite the pandemic creating logistical challenges and delaying field reporting trips, our partners newsrooms and journalists were able to connect stories, threads, data, and visuals from around Asia and the Pacific.

For editors and publishers: All Oceans Inc content is available to be translated, adapted, and republished for free under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC 4.0). If you’re interested, respond to this email.

The first piece in the series, Fishers on the Frontlines, involved journalists in five countries in Asia who visited communities and collected stories from local fishers in China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, who have been impacted by IUU fishing and the ongoing maritime territorial disputes.

Here are some excerpts from this story

Looking for resources and opportunities? Scroll down – they’re at the bottom.

Fishing communities connected by the South China Sea are struggling as their countries battle against IUU fishing – and each other, despite their shared heritage.

Every day, thousands of artisanal fishers set off into the contested waterways of Southeast Asia, home to one of the most resource rich fisheries in the world.

Mostly from multi-generational fishing families, these fishers belong to coastal communities long used to depending on the sea. They fish not just for their daily subsistence, but also for their livelihoods, as their catch is sold into regional, national, and even global supply chains.

In recent years, however, the challenges have been unprecedented. In a region where maritime borders are being fiercely contested, these fishers often find themselves at the forefront of geopolitical battles. Countries in the region are competing not just for control of fisheries stock and other maritime resources, but also for sovereignty.

This, in turn, has led to a rise in IUU fishing where vessels often use ecologically destructive fishing methods, and human rights abuses are common. As a result, seafood stocks have dropped alarmingly in the region, by up to 90%, according to estimates.

The governments of Vietnam, China, Indonesia and the Philippines have all encouraged their fishers to mark the countries' territories by fishing in contested waters. That's why fishers like Larry Hugo, from the island of Palawan, have had to relocate to unfamiliar, distant regions. Meanwhile, most fishers, like Rosilawati Ismail in Malaysia, are losing their livelihoods due to competition from IUU fishers.

And yet, older fishers like Zhang Zhi from China remember a time when fishers from across the South China Sea would occasionally cross paths, chat, and exchange food out at sea. This was a time long before geopolitics, technology, nationalism, and invisible lines cutting through the waters became more important than their shared connection to the sea.

Vietnamese fishers have been branded by other countries as ‘fish poachers’, but the reality is far more complex.

Taking a long drag of his cigarette, Captain Duy became silent, his legs hooked on a chair, in the middle of his simple, one-story house. The man, 40 years old, tall and thin, his skin darkened by years out at sea, looked over to the view outside his door. His gaze was fixed at the busy Sa Ky seaport in Quang Ngai, central Vietnam.

“My wrists were tied and forced to be held high up, my face to the wall. I felt like I was about to be executed. Then, the police whipped a stroke on my buttocks. A rattan cane. The pain would cause one to faint,” he said to a journalist working with the Environmental Reporting Collective (ERC). Piece by piece, Duy, who requested anonymity because of the fear of reprisal, was recounting his treatment at a Malaysian prison.

For generations, boats from Quang Ngai have harvested the bounty of the South China Sea in relative peace. But with increasing IUU activity causing an alarming depletion in fish stock, the destiny of fishers like Duy is now largely charted not just by their country's fishing regulations, but also by that of their neighbours in the ever-contested South China Sea.

Duy's story paints a complex picture, one which highlights the true human — and environmental — impact of IUU fishing that is driven by large companies and geopolitical interests.

Read more about Captain Duy and why so many Vietnamese fishers venture into foreign waters

Amid shrinking catch and endless territorial disputes, hope keeps fishers afloat in the West Philippine Sea.

Originally from Roxas in the mainland of Palawan, Hugo was 29 when he moved to the island of Pag-asa. Packing only a few clothes and some fishing gear, he went aboard a chartered ferry that took two days to reach the remote island in the WPS. That was 13 years ago.

After his move, the sea surrounding Pag-asa became his fishing haven. The island itself was prized not only for its vast fisheries, but also for its fossil fuel reserves. But everything started to change in 2014, when China began constructing military facilities on an artificial island on Subi Reef. Hugo was among the first fishers to spot and report the construction to the Philippine military stationed on Pag-asa.

“Barges carrying aggregates and other construction materials arrived one by one. When they finally swarmed the area, we were no longer able to go there,” recalled Hugo. The occupied reef sits 26km southwest of Pag-asa and was once a rich fishing ground frequented by him and other fishers. 

Now, fishers have to go farther from shore and stay at sea longer, desperately chasing fish that vanish into the deep sea, navigating areas that their rickety boats are not designed for. This means spending less time with their families and more money on fuel, resulting in even lower income that is barely enough to sustain their needs.

“Before, a two-hour trip could yield more than three basins containing 50 kilos of fish each. Now, a whole day of staying at sea can’t even match that,” said Hugo, a father to two grade school girls. His biggest worry is not saving up enough money for them to continue their studies. 

Read more about how foreign incursions have made the lives of fishers like Hugo more difficult.

Fishers in Indonesia’s prized Natuna Islands are fending off threats, both domestic and international.

On the losing end are fishers like Endang Firdaus, 32, a native of Natuna who has been fishing in the area since 2010. IUU fishers have not only affected his income, but they have also destroyed key coral reefs across his homeland with their trawling methods.

Having invested in his own boat at the price of IDR130 million (US$9,000), Endang now fishes about 160 miles off the shores of Natuna, and he says he comes across foreign IUU ships,often from Vietnam, starting at the 50-mile mark.

Natuna fishermen are well acquainted with the characteristics of foreign fishing vessels. Apart from frequently running into them, they often see them being brought to shore by authorities after being arrested. These ships are generally taller, made of steel and iron, and use wood of a different shape than Indonesian fishing boats.

Despite coming across them on a regular basis, there's nothing much that fishers like Endang can do, aside from documenting the encounters and submitting reports to Indonesian authorities. And whenever they see a foreign boat in a specific fishing point, they simply stop using that point.

"It's out of fear. Our vessel is small compared to theirs, and they have dozens of people," he said, adding that the foreign vessels often travel in packs.

Read more about how local fishers like Endang are facing threats not only from illegal foreign fishers, but also Indonesian government regulations that make their livelihoods more challenging.

Two fishermen set out during early sunset on a small and modest outrigger boat or "bangka" around El Nido, Palawan in the Philippines, photo / Shutterstock

Help us get the word out about this important investigation. Share the story, or this newsletter, with your friends and colleagues.


Upcoming Oceans Inc Stories

We’re releasing five different investigative pieces over the next month. Here’s what’s coming up.

  • Sep 6 – Krilling for Oil – Conservationists are sounding the alarm over the international race to exploit the Antarctic's krill swarms.

  • Sep 13 – Worked to Death – An investigation into one of China's largest fishing companies.

  • Sep 20 – Observational Hazards – A fishery observer's job is to monitor fishing vessels for illegal activity. But they keep disappearing at sea.

  • Sep 27 – Transshipment – It might seem like a sensible logistics exercise, but in reality, transshipment enables destructive IUU fishing across the world.

Opportunities and Trainings

Reporting Earth, a one-day, online Journalism summit, will be held on 21 September 2021, and they’re looking for young journalist between the ages of 18-32 to get involved. Details here.

Oxpeckers and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime are offering story grants between $1000 - $5000 for journalists to enable and encourage the exposure of environmental crime of any sort (deadline 31 Aug).

The Thomson Foundation Young Journalist Award is back, and accepting applications from journalists under the age of 30 and from a lesser-developed countries, and this year will focus on environmental reporting (deadline 10 Sept).

The Earth Journalism Network has two open opportunities. First, they are offering grants to journalists to report on the impacts of climate change on human health along the Bay of Bengal coast in Bangladesh and India (deadline 29 Aug).

Stay safe and healthy,

Nithin Coca

The Environmental Reporting Collective is a growing network of journalists and newsrooms from over a dozen countries, all dedicated to investigating environmental crimes collaboratively.

To learn more about our work, check out our website, Investigative.Earth, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.