The Ocean Home
“I have helped them kill my homeland”
Many mixed emotions raged within me as I witnessed the devastation caused by the massive trawlers off the coast of Nanumanga Island. Once a pristine reef beach under a vast, infinite sky shining brightly, but on this day, a gloomy grey scene littered with stranded and dead marine life. The trawling boats, with nets sometimes as wide as football fields, sift the ocean bottoms for seafood. The space on the boats, however, is limited, meaning it is only for the priciest fish. The less valuable fish along with any other form of life that cannot be sold on land go back over the side as ‘by-catch’, most of the time injured or already dead. I work on one such trawler fleet operating in the Pacific Islands, that supplies the fishing industries in eastern Australia and New Zealand. Our trawling fleet works in the west-central Pacific reaches, where the Coral Sea juts out into the Polynesian waters.
We leave the shores of Tuvalu in the early hours of the morning as the rest of the world sleeps — firing up the engine, switching on the navigation lights and letting the ropes from the quay before slipping into the dark night for the day’s work. On land, the early bird catches the worm; out in the sea, the early boat gets the best catch. On this day, we are specifically looking for Dories, which are active in the dawn half-light looking for prey. Putting our nets before the break of dawn was vital for a good catch. We had to travel for a good two hours to a place where Dories are in good numbers due to a strong current which favours their hunting. Around 5 am, we check the cod ends are tied properly as we stream the fishing gear away and then shoot our trawl doors to commence the trawl of the day. The gulls and petrels in the sky are excited by the shooting of our nets. These opportunistic birds have probably followed us a long way. We would trawl for about four hours, with one man keeping a watch in turns, while the rest caught up on sleep. Hauling in the catch is always exciting. Seeing what the net brings in is often a validation of our hunting instincts, which decides if the catch is good. The cries of the gulls often tell us if the catch is good, even before we haul it on board. Once the catch is on board, we sort and gut the target fish, while throwing away the by-catch that the gulls are waiting for. The processed fish are immediately kept in iceboxes, to ensure the ‘fresh from sea’ look in the markets. Boats bigger than us can repeat the casting of the trawls a few more times, but smaller boats like ours make their way onto the land after a single catch. From the land, the fishing companies transport them to the bigger markets. Very little, if any, goes to the local markets.
This particular day has been bad. It was stormy out in the sea and the currents were all far off from the predictions. The weather has been increasingly erratic in the past few years which is bad news for fishing boats since they cannot keep up a steady supply to the market, which in turn prevents us from getting the right prices for our catch. The inclement conditions also meant we had to come back ashore as soon as possible, fearing the safety of the boat and the crew. While the volume of fish we have caught is still sizable, the number of Dories we have caught in the nets is abysmally low. This meant a vast majority of the catch, without any market value, would just be left to die on the shores. It would be a feast for the shorebirds, while we are left to wonder how much longer we could go on like this.
For a native from Tuvalu, it is almost impossible to fathom that our seas are empty. A decade back one would have had trouble swimming through schools of fish and in keeping a respectful distance from sharks and other top predators. Today, one would need some incredible luck to spot either, telling signs of an ecosystem on the verge of collapse. About 15 years ago, fishing industries from Australia and New Zealand discovered the potential for fisheries in the islands of the Pacific. This led to the swift development of an industrial ecosystem around the fishing industry — fishing vessels, landing sites, refrigeration houses and processing units. Up till this point, the island dwellers were mostly subsistence farmers and fishermen. Fisheries opened up a whole new avenue of employment and promises of higher incomes, towards which the youth of the island, including me, naturally gravitated. The lure of jobs and higher incomes, and a chance to ensure a better future for our next generation was too much to turn down. As beautiful as our islands were, going out into the more ‘developed’ world had always been a far-fetched dream. And thus, our small canoes were replaced by mechanical trawlers. A few kilograms of fish catch intended for the family increased to a few tonnes unloaded on every landing dock.
‘Remember we are in September, the month when the great fish come’ ~ The Old Man and The Sea, Ernest Hemingway
My name is Aleki Homasi. I was born on Vaitupu island, one of the nine separate islands in Tuvalu, into the Nui community. Tuvalu isn’t more than a speck in the Pacific Ocean, falling in the Polynesian region. Before the advent of the internet era, Tuvalu, or any of the Pacific islands for that matter, were islands both geographically and culturally, hardly connected to the rest of the world. With a population of barely ten thousand, Tuvalu is one of the least populated places on the planet.
My father, a fisherman, regaled my sister and me with tales of the mystery and magic of the underwater world. Our childhood was spent on the azure beaches of our seaside hamlet, fascinated by the ocean around us. The waters stretched to the horizon in every direction. Kids in this part of the world learn how to swim before they learn to walk. The ocean was like a familiar friend’s house. No matter how many times I went diving or swimming, the diversity of life under the waters never ceased to amaze me. Exploring the hustle and bustle of life on the coral reefs was the most exciting part of my day.
I had a particularly soft corner for fishes. The Nui consider fishes as sentient beings and not merely creatures to be caught or consumed. The elders in the village could tell apart individual fishes of the same species. While I never quite reached that level of awareness, I spent enough time underwater to acknowledge that every individual was different. I would like to believe that fish, just like humans, have different personalities and dispositions, a sum of their life’s experiences. They experience emotions like joy and stress. On a cold day, they swim closer to the surface where it is warm, just like we are thankful for the warmth of the sun after a cold, rainy day. I have seen them be inquisitive, empathetic, playful and deceptive at different times. They are not just instinctive, but intelligent as well. It probably escapes the attention of humans since fishes are not as expressive as other animals on land, such as primates.
As beautiful as fish are on their own, there are few sights more mesmerizing than a large school of fish moving as if they were one organism. The shapes they took could be any one of spherical, cylindrical, ellipsoid or even triangles. As the school suddenly changes direction, one can’t help but wonder how they manage such synchronisation in their movements. Who decides where to go and when? How do they stay that close? Do they have a leader that they follow? Schools are a swirling, glittering mass of fish that seem to dance as a single entity until they are torn apart by potential predators — whales, sharks, dolphins or seabirds. On one hand, it seems stupid to stick together to combat a predator. If I were a lone fish in the vast, open ocean, I would assume every tiny ripple to be a shark. But this is open water, and there are barely any hiding spots. On the other hand, I’m amazed by their resilience to not run helter-skelter in the turmoil of an attack. The ‘strength in numbers’ concept is rather ironic here since the aggregations into a school are formed because the fish are trying to hide behind one another and in the process, pushing their school-mates into direct danger. Not quite the image of co-existence as a group, isn’t it? There is something else about this I find even more ironic — If there are more fish to choose from, each individual is less likely to get eaten. That is saying the more food a predator has on offer, the less are the chances of actually securing food. Larger groups, however, are more effective in watching out for predators, simply because there are more eyes on the lookout. Factoring in all these pros and cons of life in the ocean, fishes have somehow found a happy optimum in sticking together as schools. As the elders would say, it’s better to just appreciate the myriad strange ways in which things in nature work, rather than trying to understand them.
Understanding the animals underwater, was, however, critical to our survival. Every household in our village depended on fishing for subsistence. My father and his father before him were all skilled in the art of bare hand shark fishing. In Polynesia, sharks and human communities have a very strong cultural bond. While fish, in general, is a big part of our culture, sharks occupy an especially prominent status. Some communities do not hunt for sharks at all. Others, like mine, pursue sharks with centuries-old rituals and techniques. Sharks are captured in large numbers before a feast, as a substitute for pigs. A man must have abstained from sexual activities for at least one month before embarking on a shark fishing expedition. The head of the expedition performs a magic ritual that is intended to summon the shark to their canoe. Agora and Wula leaves are tied in a bundle for the ritual. A coconut shell rattle is shaken underwater to attract the shark. On seeing the shark, a dead fish is fastened to a bamboo rod to entice it onto a noose attached to a curved stick. When the shark approaches, the noose is pulled tightly and the shark is clubbed till death. The head of the shark is chopped off and thrown into the ocean. The Nui believe it would keep its spirit alive and ensure it is reborn as a shark in our waters in its next life.
The tribes on Tanga, however, do not hunt sharks. They see sharks as scavengers, who dispose of the bodies of the dead. They have a culture of the ‘shark familiar’, a shark whose spirit is shared by a human on the island. During tribal wars, rituals are performed to send one’s spirit shark to topple canoes of enemies out in the sea and drink the enemy’s blood. Such shark sorcerers were revered figures in the tribe and were believed to be connected to a long line of sorcerers in the past. The tutelary sharks are also invoked in prayers when someone is caught in storms out in the sea. Some of them are considered reincarnations of men.
Fishing by the indigenous communities has almost come to an end. With the advent of commercial trawlers, there is barely any fish left in our oceans for the lone fisherman. The amount of fish that can be caught on a canoe is not worth the effort going in. Without gainful employment, the youth of islands like Tanga, where shark fishing is sacrilege have also been drawn into the trawling operations. Our traditional knowledge, passed on orally from one generation to another is slowly dying out. Seawater has intruded into our agricultural lands. Overfishing and warming oceans have emptied the fish from our seas. Tuvalu of today would be beyond recognition to our forefathers. There are barely any sharks in the water. There are barely any shark whisperers on the land. What has become of our ocean home?
“We are sinking”
This is all I could gather from the conversations at the dinner table. Most of the Polynesian islands are volcanic, protruding only a few metres above sea level. As sea levels rise, our island nations are the ones at immediate risk.
With depleting fish stocks, many trawlers were decommissioned and the local workers found themselves without a job. A few of us found temporary jobs on a research vessel studying the impacts of climate change in our part of the world. Teams of researchers from universities around the world, trying to find solutions to our problems. Some of us were handpicked to assist with their daily operations and help them navigate the waters and the differences in language.
They count, quantify, measure and collect in the hope to understand the disease of climate change before it is too late. It isn’t very different from my time working on the fishing trawlers. We still head out early, always at first light, greeting the day through the sea spray and bleary eyes. We work the best on clear, sunny days with no wind. The sea is angry on some days — cold, windy and unforgiving. Such days are bitter, dark and long.
The scientists are looking for bits of information about where the winds are blowing, what animal lives where, how many animals are there, and what a healthy coastal community should look like. They fear it is all changing too fast and needs to be recorded for posterity. We are, thus, in a race against time to catalogue a piece of our history. But what good is a record of what something does look like if there isn’t much to tell what it should look like?
By the turn of the century, our islands might be submerged under ocean waters. The oceanfront keeps inching closer to our settlements. The weather is changing very quickly, day to day, hour to hour. Our island nations have long been raising their voices to be heard in the larger world. I am from a small country. All I want is for the bigger countries to respect us, and think of our lives, and our rightful place in the world.
Why does man search for a place? What is it in our soul that pushes us outside — to the hills, to the jungles, to the ocean? Are we driven by a sense of wonder or a search for oneness? The ocean has always been a place of solace for me. These rocky shorelines are my home. In between the caves and crevices exist organisms, including us humans trying to find their place in the world. Competition abounds, niches are established, day replaced by night and the mad rush to eat and not be eaten continues.
Fishermen, the last of the hunter-gatherers, braving the rough seas to catch our meals, are often thought about nostalgically. The health of our oceans has been changing dangerously, so it's about time the questions about fishing change as well. Developed countries that have the luxury to choose which proteins to eat cannot dictate the laws for communities where subsistence fishing feeds hungry mouths. To care for our oceans in danger, we must be guided by science, but also our hearts.
The characters are fictional. This article was shortlisted in the M Krishnan Memorial Writing Award, 2022.