We've gotten used to hearing warnings about the catastrophic declines of fish in the world's oceans. Several years ago scientists began predicting that the world's seafood supply would collapse completely by the year 2050 if current rates of overfishing don't change. But for most of us, even this dire warning conjures up nothing more serious than a lack of choice at the supermarket or the sushi place. In "Countdown to Extinction," VICE correspondent Isobel Yeung traveled to several communities on the Indian Ocean where the consequences of overfishing are urgent and visible, changing not just the array of what's on ice in the supermarket case but actually reshaping the way people live.
Yeung visited and fished with the Vezo people, a group of nomadic fishermen who move around the coastal areas of Mozambique, following the catch. For generations, the Vezo have caught sharks—a single shark can feed several families. But now, the sharks have disappeared from their waters. They've been overfished to satisfy the demand for shark fin, which is considered a delicacy in China, where a bowl of shark fin soup can cost over $100 [€92]. With the sharks gone, the Vezo spend more time fishing and catching less, subsisting on the scant fish or octopus they can catch.
There's a similar scarcity off the coast of Tanzania, where fish populations are so depleted that some local fishermen have taken to "fishing" with dynamite, tossing makeshift bombs into coral reefs so that whatever fish that aren't blown to bits float to the top and can be easily collected.
A year after the making of "Countdown to Extinction," we caught up with Yeung to talk about what it was like to do this reporting, how the experience of seeing the supply end of a business can change the way we act as consumers, and what progress has been made in the past year.
VICE: How did you first get interested in this issue of overfishing?
Isobel Yeung: I was living in Hong Kong last year, and I was always seeing shark fin, and was interested in the demand for it. Hong Kong is a very seafood-centric city, and my dad owned a seafood restaurant, so it had always been an area of interest for me. My dad is Chinese—after this project I'm sort of ashamed to say this—but we used to eat shark fin when I was little, and it doesn't taste of anything and there's no proven medical benefits.
Do people eat shark fin because they believe that there are medical benefits?
It comes from a kind of legendary belief in China, this idea that the things that are the most exotic and the hardest to obtain—things like tigers' paws and shark fin—are the most elite thing that you can eat. So the more endangered things become, quite often in China the more sought after they become. I think some people do believe that shark fin has some medical benefit that has to do with bones, but it's definitely not been proven medically.
What was it like spending time with the Vezo?
The Vezo are only on that little island because of the lack of fish on Madagascar itself. So to catch anything at all, they have had to travel further and further away from everything that they know. They are a nomadic tribe, so they are used to traveling a lot, but they are there on this tiny tiny strip of sand, very far from anything. And their whole families are there. It's not just the men, the wives and the children are also there. So they are missing out on health care and schooling, and everything that you would expect to be missing out on if you're living on a tiny sandbank in the Indian Ocean. A few days before we got there the island was completely immersed, so they had to sleep in their boats and they didn't have enough fresh water supply.
In the episode you really see the whole spectrum of fishing, from that subsistence level all the way up to these giant industrial ships.
Seeing that difference in scale was fascinating. It was completely different, to see family fishing versus huge industrial-scale fishing. We spent 50 hours with the Coast Guard hunting down those big industrial fishermen, because they move around a lot, and I think they knew that we wanted to check up on them. It was basically a game of cat and mouse. Then when we did get onto the ship, it is such a huge operation. These guys are out there for months and months on end and—their lifestyle is a whole other mess—but they get paid a decent amount, certainly compared to the Vezo people. The scale of everything is just so different. The Vezo are lucky if they catch enough octopus and fish to sustain themselves. These guys are working for big companies, the people we met were working for very big, industrial-scale Japanese and Korean fish suppliers, so the scale of it was very, very different.
In terms of the atmosphere, for me it was pretty amazing to be on this kind of paradise island and then getting onto this industrial fishing boat that just stunk of fish blood. I got so seasick—it was 24 hours of just throwing my guts up. We were onboard for something like 50 hours, and we had already killed the live chickens on our boat by that point and then we were just eating chocolate and making ourselves more and more sick.
It was pretty horrific, people were working round the clock pulling up fish, it stunk, and to get down into the freezer, which was massive, you would have to go down this huge tuna fish slide. And then we opened the door to one room in the freezer, and it's just a whole room full of [dead] sharks.
Aren't there rules against fishing for sharks?
The way it works is, in certain areas like around the Madagascar coast, you're not around to catch sharks, but then in Mozambique you are. Which is what makes it so difficult to monitor, because the fishermen can just say it came from somewhere else.
One of the scientists you talk to called sharks "a canary in a coal mine." Why are they so important ecologically?
I knew they were important, but I had never really realized how important. As apex predators they literally rule the ocean, so when you take them out it affects the entire ecosystem. We went to South Africa and swum with sharks. It was amazing—and terrifying—but you can really see the difference they make. When I jumped in with these sharks, and suddenly realize how much more colorful and more diverse this area of the ocean is, it makes you really see what is lacking in other places. We also saw areas in Tanzania and Madagascar where there weren't any sharks anymore, and you don't have that diversity. It's really scary.
The footage of the exploded reefs off of Tanzania were so barren.
Yeah, it was. It was pretty hair-raising. We were quite lucky cause we got some of those guys to show us how they did dynamite fishing, so we were at pretty close range to it, which was pretty scary at the time. One of the people was missing their finger, from an explosion. They get reports every couple of months that someone has died from loading too much dynamite.
It's also scary because those dynamite fishermen are very hostile toward journalists. We found these particular dynamite fishermen, and agreed to hide their features, and they were willing to talk with us because they felt like they had something to say. They were really angry with the industrial fishermen and felt they had something to say to the international community.
But at some point we went out and tried to film some other dynamite fishermen and tried to film them from afar, and we were filming them blasting these reefs to pieces. And they saw us filming them and got really pissed and started chasing after us with these bombs in their hands. We legged it pretty hard. The person whose boat we were in was really terrified. He said there have been cases of dynamite fishermen blowing up boats if they see cameras on them.
I guess it shows how threatened they must feel.
It's tough because on the one hand I really feel for them—their livelihoods are being taken and they feel they have nowhere to go, apart from blow[ing] up these reefs. On the other hand, of all people they should be taking responsibility for what's there, because it immediately impacts them and their children. It's tough because they're pointing the finger at these big European and Asian fishing boats that come in and take everything—they say they steal their fish—but at the same time they're acting so irresponsibly themselves.
You did meet with some fishermen in the US who were working with a sustainable method of fishing that was allowing some fish stocks to bounce back.
We spoke with some fishermen in Texas who have done some catch reduction and restoration. One of them, his name was Buddy, was extremely happy with these changes because he had to work less. There was less of scramble because there were more fish to go around. So there are definitely ways to do it—the problem is implementing it in countries where regulations are harder to implement. But I do think there's hope, which was a surprising turn.
For people who are going to see this film and are on the demand side of this equation, what do you hope they will take from this?
I hope that it will just encourage people to think about whether their seafood is from a sustainable source. It's very easy to forget about this, and I'm guilty of doing that as well—I love my seafood. But with some things, especially like with the shark fin trade, there's just no future for it. So I just think it's important for people to eat seafood—like most things—in moderation.
Do you have any updates about how things have been going in the year since the filming ended?
I think that documentaries like this, and some other ones, various activists have been able to use them to apply pressure to companies that are transporting shark fin or are involved in the shark fin trade. Various companies have expressed their disdain for the shark fin trade, and I think in general the demand is going down. At the same time, shark fin is only one element of this. We also saw the decimation of sea cucumbers as well—it's really disturbing, because people are taking the apex predators, and then also taking the bottom feeders who are responsible for cleaning and filtering those ecosystems.
I know that Blue Ventures, a group that helped us get a lot of access, have been able to establish a protected sustainable area in Madagascar, where they have put limits on fishing and have put absolute bans on some things.
The main takeaway is that it's so important to understand that your food is sustainable and that it comes from a sustainable source. Certain foods can be sustainably caught and harvested, and certain foods can't be—things like sea cucumbers and sharks—and that's an important distinction.
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