The long line
My first up-close view of the massive commercial tuna ships that moor in the lagoon of Majuro Atoll was from the deck of Old Jim’s sailing yacht. Jim was a retired periodontist from San Francisco who was sailing, solo, straight across the Pacific Ocean. He had come to the Republic of the Marshall Islands to restock on supplies and settled easily into the small, transient community of ex-pat yachties that calls Majuro home for a few months out of the year.
Once a week the yachties hold a sailing race on the calm waters of the lagoon, and Jim had asked me to help crew his yacht. This essentially entailed scurrying from one rail to the other to gush over the scenery as we turned around each marker while other people did more important work.
The scenery, though, is about as impressive as it gets. Thick walls of coconut fronds seem to rise straight up out of turquoise waters and into clear blue sky. But, after a few weeks on the atoll, it was the rusted, slimy hulls of the tuna ships that caught my attention. The stench of the ships wafted across the water, heavy even as we breezed by, and the dripping hues of decay and salt damage made the clean white of Jim’s sailboat seem sterile and artificial. Steely men watched us from the decks, and a gnawing curiosity planted itself in my mind.
We won the race—or, leathery Old Jim did—and back on land the tuna ships again became just another fixture on the horizon.
A week or so later, I sat at a bar in town nursing an iced tea, trying to escape the midday heat. A loud Kiwi with a bottle of Victoria Bitter in his hand laughingly announced to the room that he was looking for an American wife, just for visa purposes.
“You!” he said, pointing to me, “Any chance you’re crazy enough to do it?” Not even close. But I did know the local woman he was drinking with, and by the end of the afternoon our tables had been pushed together, our empty glasses piled up, and I had an offer to go on a helicopter ride. Steve the Kiwi pilots one of the helicopters that sits perched on the bow of each fishing boat; his job is to fly ahead of the ship and scout for schools of tuna.
The next morning I met Steve and his friend Grant at a commercial dock in town. After a five-minute boat ride into the lagoon, I hoisted myself up onto a ladder, and climbed up the hull of the Pacific Paradise. The Chinese-run fishing vessel has a crew of roughly 40 men who spend anywhere from five to 40 days at a time out at sea.
The crew stopped what they were doing, grinning a little too wide at the sight of a woman on deck. One of them, watching over a pot of steamed dumplings, swept his arms out like a circus ringmaster. “Welcome! Welcome!” he announced, in his best American accent. He looked like he couldn’t have been older than 16, and the tattered clothes hanging from his tiny frame were so worn and thin they looked like they had never been new.
“These guys work harder than anything I’ve ever seen in my life,” Steve said. “And they only make 200 bucks a month. Seems like slave labor to me.” Though Steve was living and working on the same ship, his job was decidedly less labor intensive, and the money he saved during his stint would amount to a pretty hefty sum, even at home in New Zealand.
The deck was bustling and, while most of the crew had gone ashore to stretch their legs, it still felt dangerously cramped with moving bodies and machinery. I stepped carefully around a wide hole in the deck and jumped when I saw a face looking up at me through the steam rising up out of the frozen chamber below.
A voice called out and a crane lifted a huge net of frozen fish up out of the hole. The fish were being transferred onto a carrier ship, where they’d be carted off to processing plants, far from the Marshalls, to be turned into the cans of tuna that sit in your pantry.
“It’s weird, but a lot of that fish ends up right back here, and the Marshallese buy it back canned instead of eating it straight out of the ocean,” said Steve. Indeed, like most Marshallese, my diet over the past few weeks in the Marshall Islands had consisted largely of white rice, canned tuna, and a few fried reef fish if I was lucky.
“When the nets first come up, we get everything in there,” added Grant. “Marlin, turtles, sharks; but we just throw them right back in.” As I looked up at the net overhead, swollen with fish, I thought of the children I had met on the isolated and impoverished outer atolls of the Marshalls, who ate flour “soup” for lunch. A couple of weeks ago, I had attended a church celebration on Arno Atoll, where a pot of bony chicken stew served 30 elated kids as their parents watched happily.
Though most of the ships that fish in the waters of the Marshall Islands’ exclusive economic zone utilize purse-seine techniques that minimize bycatch to less than 2 percent, at the scale of an industrial tuna ship with a carrying capacity of 3,000 tons, that can still equal as much as 60 tons of wasted fish and potential food.
Distracted, I stumbled to get out of the way of another crane lifting huge panels off the floor to open up another freezer chamber. The hinges buckled, and the doors slammed violently into the cavern below, sending workers leaping out of the way. I desperately tried to occupy as little space as possible.
Catching my alarm, Steve said, “This company has lost four crew members in the last six months. It’s a dangerous place to be.” A man laughed as I cringed at the doors now passing over my head, and Steve introduced me to the deck boss, chuckling under his straw hat.
“This is my friend,” Steve yelled above the hum of machinery. The deck boss looked me up and down, grinned a brown, toothy smile, and handed me a flask of vodka, motioning for me to drink. Looking up at the hooks lurking a few feet away from our heads, I smiled, and waved it away.
Two of the company’s deaths happened on the Pacific Paradise. One was a murder; during a drunken brawl, a Taiwanese crewmember stabbed a Chinese crewmate with an industrial-sized hook. The other—Steve told me after I asked if any of the crew ever jumps off the deck for a swim every now and then—had been a man overboard.
“Most of these guys don’t know how to swim,” he told me. “On one of my first nights, a man went overboard. I went flying to try to find him, but the ship just kept going.” I imagined how desperate one must be to sign up for a job so dangerous, so dirty and so hard for a paltry 200 bucks a month.
We continued into the galley, and inside the ship the roaring of the machinery was deafening, even with the engine off. The cook was stir-frying some greens and plating some canned fish for the crew. To my surprise, the living quarters were air conditioned, and the rooms were clean, though the din of the ship was still painfully loud. A few young men poked their heads out of their bunks as we passed, but most kept reading, set on enjoying their downtime.
Then we passed through the bridge; shining new in contrast to the hull of the ship. We met the fishmaster—the big man on board—who Steve had heard could pocket as much as $20,000 dollars on a single run. He was seated around a low table stacked with plates of food and bottles of rice wine, drinking and laughing with visiting fishmasters from the ships moored nearby. They greeted us warmly as we entered, raising their glasses and taking another shot before quickly forgetting about us. There was a reckless giddiness in their laughter and their lips smacked, loud and oily, as they ate. They didn’t notice as we left the room and closed the door behind us.
Finally, we made it up to the helipad. On the bow of the boat, the air was clearer, the smell of fish, grease and machinery swept away by the tradewinds. Standing there I saw how high we were, how tall the ship stood above the water, and remembered how still and lifeless the ship had looked from ashore.
From across the water the men from Grant’s ship, a vessel from Papua New Guinea, whooped and hooted at us. I watched them holler and laugh with each other as Grant and Steve readied the helicopter. The men from PNG were different from the Chinese crew: dark brown, colored by the sun, rowdier, with bigger smiles. I wondered how different the world on board that ship must be from the one on which I stood.
They’re like that, those ships—little floating worlds detached from life on land. But, in more ways than one, life on the tuna ships mirrors our world, reflecting just how dirty and grimy it is, but on a smaller, smellier scale. The cruelty of our economy, so violently divided between rich and poor—between crewman and fishmaster—and always willing to leave behind the man overboard, is no worse aboard those ships than it is on land; it’s just harder to bear witness to. Our extractive relationship with the planet seems more real there, too, with the depletion of fish stocks so obvious in the massive quantities of tuna being lifted from the bowels of those vessels each day.
What remained abstract though, is how the ships also reflect a larger system of injustice and exploitation in the Pacific. The Republic of the Marshall Islands, like many other Pacific island nations, leases out its fishing rights to wealthier nations with the capacity to process the catches and operate large, capital-intensive fishing fleets. Not only does this drain potential economic benefit from the local economy, but development aid is often linked to access agreements, locking these nations into exploitative arrangements.
What had once been the commons, shared by the Marshallese, are now privatized and ravaged by the global markets. On the ships, prize catches and good eats like marlin are simply tossed back into the sea, while fishery profits are quickly funneled out of the country. Back on land, locals are drawn into a cash economy, and forced to use their meager wages to buy tinned incarnations of the fish taken from their oceans.
I climbed aboard the helicopter and put on my helmet. Next to me, Steve began pressing buttons and pulling levers. His voice came in through my headset: “Buckle up!” he said with a grin. The blades began to meat and we lifted off the deck. The ship quickly shrank below me, and the atolls shone like jewels set in an inky blue.
As we rose, I couldn’t help but feel the divide grow between me and the young crewman watching that pot of dumplings. He was slaving away on a two-year contract to bring money home. I had saved enough money in six months to travel for more than a year. My privileged circumstances brought us together on the ship, but couldn’t bridge the distance between us. My first view of this world had been from a yacht, and my last, from a helicopter.
Steve pointed the nose of the chopper down towards the water, and we swooped down low as we passed the shallow reefs, our shadow shifting as it moved between coral heads and the sandy seabed. We approached a tiny island and some children splashing on the bright white shoreline waved at us with excitement.
There are few things in this world as beautiful as the sight of those atolls from the sky.