Keith Anthony S.Fabro, Jamal A. Nashr, Yogi Eka Sahputra, Aseanty Pahlevi, Krisna Adhi Pradipta, Vo Kieu Bao Uyen, Aliza Shah, and Lai Fu
Fishers on the Frontlines
Fishing communities connected by the South China Sea are struggling as their countries battle against IUU fishing – and each other, despite their shared heritage.
Published on Aug 23, 2021
Reported by Keith Anthony S.Fabro, Jamal A. Nashr, Yogi Eka Sahputra, Aseanty Pahlevi, Krisna Adhi Pradipta, Vo Kieu Bao Uyen, Aliza Shah, and Lai Fu
Lulu Ning Hui, 23 Aug 2021
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 what is known in the industry as IUU fishing (illegal, unregulated, and unreported 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.
As part of a cross-border investigation by the Environmental Reporting Collective, local journalists spoke with fishers from across the region, some of whom have literally been on the frontlines not just in the battle against IUU fishing, but also in the struggle for political control over the South China Sea itself.
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.
Amid shrinking catch and endless territorial disputes, hope keeps fishers afloat in the West Philippine Sea.
In 2008, when Larry Hugo first ventured into the cerulean seas around Pag-asa island — 932 km southwest of the Philippine capital of Manila and known internationally as Thitu — he was stunned. Only a few hundred meters away from the shore, he found his outrigger boat already brimming with a wide array of fish. It was a haul enough to feed his small island community for a day. He sold it for P80 (US$1.60) per kilogram, primarily to military personnel stationed on the island.
After a year as a construction worker (and while fishing on the side), Hugo quit to become a full-time fisher. Back then, the pristine seas gave him a daily income of P500 to P1,000 (US$10 to US$21), three to four times higher than his construction salary.
The abundant harvest continued in the following years. During the fishing season that ran from March to May, whenever he and his 45 or so fellow fishers returned home, they would unload basins filled with tanigue (mackerel), talakitok (trevally), maya-maya (snapper), lapu-lapu (grouper), molmol (parrot fish), danggit (rabbitfish), and labahita (surgeonfish).
Life was easier back then for Hugo and the nearly 200 other settlers from across mainland Palawan. Food wasn’t a problem and almost all of the island’s basic needs — like potable water, power, housing and monthly rice supply — were provided by the government.
Why do the residents of Pag-asa receive such incentives? These inhabitants play a vital role in supporting the Philippines’ assertion of sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). It’s a region that China has been claiming as part of its nine-dash line, which encompasses much of the South China Sea and encroaches into the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of not only the Philippines, but also Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and even faraway Indonesia.
Signs of destruction
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.
What pushed him to leave his former home? “I don’t think there’s a bright future there for artisanal fishers like me,” Hugo told a Rappler journalist working with the ERC. Fish stocks were declining on the mainland as more and more fishing players started operating in the coastal waters to feed the province’s booming population.
After his move, the sea surrounding Pag-asa became his fishing haven. The West Philippine Sea 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.
Experts have long cautioned about the potential collapse of WPS’s marine ecosystems due to China’s illegal reclamation and fishing — environmentally destructive activities that President Rodrigo Duterte’s government did little to deter for several years. In 2019, the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute estimated that the country is losing at least P33.1 billion ($681.4 million) annually due to reef ecosystem damage in the WPS.
With an annual fish yield of 300,000 metric tons — which represents 7% of the country’s total fish production — the Philippine fisheries bureau said the sea needs utmost protection as it is crucial for the country’s food security. Studies show its coral reefs are vital for the long-term sustainability of the Philippines’ marine resources as it replenishes the coastal fish stocks in the major fishing grounds of Palawan, northwest Luzon, and Sulu and Celebes Seas.
In March 2021, tensions flared in the area again after hundreds of Chinese militia-like fishing vessels entered the seascape. Experts called it an aggressive assertion of control over the geopolitical hotspot, and that the vessels, which were anchored there for weeks, were a tactic to push out boats from other claimant countries like the Philippines.
On the heels of these hostile incursions, Filipino marine scientists renewed the warning that the impact of China’s activities could deal a hard blow to 1.8 million people, mostly from the small-scale fishing sector that depends on WPS marine fisheries to survive. These residents belong to one of the country’s top three poorest sectors, government data showed.
While overall poverty incidence among small-scale fishers slid from 41.2% in 2006 to 26.2% in 2018, Pag-asa fishers said that the economic improvement was hardly felt on the island. Their yield began to shrink in 2015 and they suspect that it was an effect of China’s presence in Subi Reef. The blast and cyanide fishing activities of Vietnamese-owned fishing vessels may also have aggravated the deteriorating health of their coastal waters.
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.
“My dream for [my daughters] is to finish their studies so they won’t end up like us. I don’t want them to suffer the same hardships that we’ve been going through,” said the fisher, who, like his 32-year-old wife Jiera, did not graduate college.
To earn extra income, Hugo now wakes up as early as 4am to go fishing before he reports for work at the municipal hall at 7am. The day he spoke to Rappler, he said he was “blessed” to bring home 7kg of fish. His wife Jiera cleans and dries the unsold catch to preserve it, since there is no cold storage on the island. She sells it for P30 to P150 (US$0.30 to US$3.15) per kilo to soldiers before the C130 plane flies them back to the mainland.
Another fisher, 59-year-old Romeo Malaguit, lamented that he had spent P480 (about US$10) for six liters of gasoline, only to return without any catch after two consecutive days. Back in 2018, he had a daily haul of up to 30kg. Today, he’s lucky if he can catch 1 to 3kg (US$1.7 to US$5) a day.
“If we’re luckier, sometimes we could catch 4 to 10kg of mackerel and yellowfin tuna. We can really feel the depletion as it’s getting more and more difficult to bring home fish,” said Malaguit.
Harassment at Sea
Various nautical charts warn seafarers to exercise prudence when traversing around the poorly mapped Kalayaan island group. But it doesn’t prevent foreign fishing fleets from operating within the Philippines’ 200-mile EEZ.
Data obtained by Rappler from Oceana Philippines showed that the WPS has been under constant threat from large-scale, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. The organization said illegal commercial fishing vessels in the WPS numbered 102,737 in 2018, and increased to 109,885 in 2019. When the pandemic hit in 2020, the incursions drastically dropped to 70,465, but were still considered high.
"If our government does nothing about it, soon there will be nothing to catch here,” said Hugo. “This is possible because the foreign nationals with their ships are amassing tons and tons of fish."
In January to April 2021 alone, Oceana detected 25,451 commercial fishing vessels in the WPS through the use of VIIRS, a satellite sensor that can detect fishing boats that employ lights to attract fish at night.
For Pag-asa fishers, this makes WPS a perilous place. Their fear of getting harassed by China’s maritime forces has been compounded by a recently-passed controversial law that allows the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) to forcefully evict foreign vessels entering these fiercely-contested waters.
On January 25, 2021, Hugo tried to go to Cay 2, an immaculate white sandbar emerging from a reef teeming with marine life. On his way, he said he was blocked by not just one, but four CCG vessels that had been lurking nearby. “I have many enemies at sea. Look, those are Chinese ships just in front of me,” he said in a video he filmed as he propelled back to safety.
The incident made headlines, but Hugo’s claim was denied by both the Philippine military, who claimed that the incident was “improbable”, and the Chinese embassy in Manila, which dismissed it as “fabricated” news. Progressive lawmakers and fishers’ groups, however, stood by Hugo’s assertion, and accused the Philippine military of colluding with China in denying the public incidents of harassment of fishers in the WPS. Chinese vessels have been accused not only of engaging in illegal fishing activities, but also for ramming and sinking other countries’ vessels.
“That could happen to us, and it’d be easy for them to say ‘it’s unintentional’, so our response is to leave that area once we see them approaching,” explained Hugo.
Other Pag-asa fisherfolk share similar experiences. The fishers say that they had asked the authorities many times to do more to prevent intrusions. Their appeals didn't lead to any change, until recently, when the Philippine government finally lodged a diplomatic protest, demanding China’s withdrawal of assets around Pag-asa. Still, despite public criticism, Duterte has repeatedly insisted that asserting Philippine sovereignty could provoke war with his “good friend” China — something that the Philippines, with its inferior military capabilities (according to the President), can’t afford.
With no one to turn to, Pag-asa fishers say that all they can do is express their rage in silence. The only thing that appeases and makes them feel safe is a promise from island authorities to keep an eye out for the fishers, especially when they’re out at sea. “At the end of the day,” Hugo stressed, “we can’t turn the tide because we have no power to fight for our rights.”
But despite the risks of living there, the fishers’ optimism isn't ebbing away. After all, it’s Pag-asa — a Filipino word for “hope” — that they cling to in order to stay afloat while drifting through the sea of island life’s uncertainties. They hope that when the Philippine government finally takes action, it won’t be too late.
“I haven’t grown tired of believing that there is still hope here,” Hugo said.
P1 = $47.82
(Editor's Note: All quotes have been translated into English.)
Fishers in Indonesia’s prized Natuna Islands are fending off threats, both domestic and international.
Smack in the middle of one of the world's busiest shipping and fishing routes, the Natuna Regency — an archipelago of 272 islands in the South China Sea — is hot property.
Despite being closer to Malaysia and Singapore, the Natuna islands are actually part of Indonesia, and have become one of the country's biggest hotspots for illegal fishing.
In 2016, as many as 280 foreign vessels were discovered fishing illegally in just one area, (fishing Zone 711, just north of Natuna), according to a study of Radar Sat footage by the Infrastructure Development of Space and Oceanography project.
With illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing having depleted seafood stock in the South China Sea by up to 90% since the 1950s, fishers from across the region are being forced further from the shore to find catch, and closer to conflict with each other.
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.
Hendri, chairperson of the Natuna Fishermen Alliance, said the fishers report dozens of illegal fishing boats in Natuna every day. "It is as if they are not afraid to fish in Natuna anymore,” he said.
“When night falls, they are like a parade with their bright lights,” he said, adding that foreign boats drag their trawls in the daytime and gather in one location during the night. “We often find them 50 miles off of the outer regions of Natuna."
According to Hendri, local authorities only tend to patrol and arrest illegal fishers whenever photos by the fishers go viral on social media.
To counter this rise in IUU fishing by foreign boats, the Indonesian government devised a plan in early 2020 to exert its sovereignty in the area. It would take a group of fishers from the Java Sea, and relocate them, over 1,000km away, to the northern Natuna seas.
The idea was that if the sea was full of Indonesian fishers, illegal boats wouldn't encroach the area.
And so on March 4, 2020, 30 fishing boats equipped with cantrang — a form of Danish seine net — departed a fishing port in Tegal city, Central Java, destined for the Natuna Regency. They were even escorted by the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency.
It was a trip that was meant to last two months, with the boats fishing in areas where native Natuna fishers normally wouldn't.
But after just one month, all the boats returned to Tegal, according to Riswanto, chairperson of the All Indonesian Fishermen Association (HSNI). A boat owned by Riswanto was on the trip.
“The catches never covered our operational costs. We were (making) a loss,” he recalled. Moreover, the Natuna sea's characteristics were too foreign to the fishers, making them a challenge to navigate.
Based on Riswanto’s calculations, a fishing boat heading to Natuna would need a minimum of Rp500 million (US$34,700), mainly to cover fuel costs. The journey to Natuna alone would take a week.
Additionally, the strong ocean currents made it challenging for them to spread their fishing nets, while inaccurate weather forecasts added to their challenges.
He also believes that the availability of fish in the region is seasonal. On one day, he recalls being able to catch only 15 kilograms of fish after an entire day's work.
The illegal fishers, on the other hand, are able to exploit the Natuna area as they are often equipped with better technology, said Riswanto. They tend to have stronger boats, are involved in transshipment, and have sophisticated navigational technology.
On the other hand, some of the other Indonesian fishers who tried their luck in Natuna came in traditional wooden boats. That was the case with Junaidi Arifin from West Kalimantan, one of the closest ports to Natuna from the main Indonesian archipelago.
“If [the government] cannot help us by supplying equipment, they need to change regulations to support local fishermen,” said Junaidi.
Riswanto said each fishing boat from Tegal lost an average of Rp 300 million (US$20,700), and they still had to pay crew members their wages.
“The mission is to defend the country, but the 25 fishers are still the economic backbone for their family at home,” he said.
On top of that, fishers from the Natuna Regency were themselves not happy with the arrival of these other Indonesian boats.
The Natuna Fishermen Alliance were particularly concerned as the boats used cantrang, a fishing method where massive nets are dragged along the seabed, often destroying coral reefs that are crucial to the marine ecosystem.
Natuna fishers like Endang can usually see coral reefs marked through radar, but trawling boats like those that use cantrang often leave the seabed so damaged that the reefs could disappear in a day.
“It's too damaged, there's no longer a spot on our radar, so we have to look for another one," said Endang, particularly about areas where foreign IUU vessels have fished.
In fact, cantrang fishing was once banned in Indonesia for this reason. Enacted by then-Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti, the ban was eventually lifted by her successor, Edhy Prabowo.
Hendri believes that cantrang fishing has led to the decimation of marine life around the coastal areas of Natuna, where fishers could previously make a living by using conventional fishing rods in small boats.
“[The fishers] now have to go at least a minimum of four miles from the shore. There is more sand than coral reefs at the seaside,” he said.
Endang added that Edhy's tenure saw the return of many foreign ships. "In Pak Edi's era, it was extraordinary, [foreign ships] came in convoys!" he said.
Endang said he did not understand the cause, but he said Natuna was immediately "attacked" by foreign ships after the change in ministers. But the Natuna fishers’ complaints went unheeded.
In fact, there was to be even more bad news for them. In November 2020, a new regulation was passed (Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Regulation No.59/2020), allowing cantrang boats to fish 12 miles from the shore, while Natuna fishers in smaller boats would have to fish zero to four miles from the coastline.
It was a move that, Hendri said, would "annihilate small fishers".
Thankfully, the new regulation was short-lived. In December 2020, Wahyu Trenggono replaced Edhy as Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, and by May 2021, he had revised the regulation to prohibit a number of environmentally-destructive fishing methods, including Danish seines, pair seines, and cantrang.
However, Hendri assessed that this new regulation still does not favor Natuna fishermen. He added that it does not support efforts to protect marine ecosystems, nor guarantee the sustainability of traditional fishermen's livelihoods.
"New fishing gear have emerged (to replace the banned trawling methods), namely bagged fishing nets, which have the same operational methods, construction and specifications [as the cantrang nets]," he said, when contacted in June 2021 about the ruling.
"So we Natuna fishermen will continue to fight against cantrang and trawling or any other substitute fishing gear [that is similar in nature]."
As for the boats from Tegal, they never returned to Natuna, though the Indonesian government is still looking for ways to populate the Natuna seas with its fishers.
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 the use of a pseudonym because of the fear of reprisal) was recounting his treatment at a Malaysian prison.
With over a dozen investigative journalists from across the world, the ERC's Oceans Inc team looked into the impact of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. In the South China Sea, where IUU is particularly rampant, our journalists were repeatedly told by fishers in neighbouring countries that Vietnamese fishers were the main perpetrators.
Duy's story, however, paints a much more complex picture, one which highlights the true human — and environmental — impact of IUU fishing that is driven by large companies and geopolitical interests.
In September 2019, Duy and his crew of 12 were arrested by the Malaysian coast guard for trespassing into the waters of Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. They were also charged with having a fake fishing permit.
“Goddammit, I was cheated. All lost,” said Duy. “I poured a bucket of cash into a permit that I thought was authentic, but turned out to be fake.”
The trial was conducted soon after the arrest. The judge announced a two-month jail sentence, a VND70 million (US$3,000) fine and a stroke of the cane for him. It was the same for each crew member, except they had a lower fine of VND20 million (US$870).
“There was a Vietnamese translator for us at the trial, but she spoke very short sentences,” remembered Duy. “The Malaysians asked us a few questions: full name, and from whom and where we bought the permit. They said a lot, but we understood little.”
Duy is convinced that the Malaysian coast guard and judges knew he had been cheated. During his 14-day detention, he heard them repeatedly say “tipu”, one of the few Malay words he knows, meaning "lie" or “cheat”.
Being captured by coast guards from other countries is no longer uncommon for fishers in Duy's hometown, the Binh Chau commune in Quang Ngai. Fishing is a tradition in this coastal village, a livelihood that has been passed down for generations, making it the second largest deep-sea fishing village in Vietnam.
While getting in trouble with China's coast guard is often viewed positively by locals — as fishers have been encouraged to defend Vietnam's sovereignty in the disputed waters between the two countries — being arrested by other neighbouring countries is still taboo. It is a violation of Vietnam's maritime code.
And yet, fishing boats from Quang Ngai often enter into the waters of Malaysia, Indonesia, or Thailand. Sometimes, they even venture as far as the Pacific Ocean.
These encroachments, also by boats from many other coastal towns, became so commonplace that Vietnam was issued a “yellow card” by the European Commission (EC), which means the country's seafood exports into the European Union are currently restricted.
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.
The fishers dilemma
In September 2019, Captain Duy and his crew left Sa Ky port. The cerulean-painted boat, with its fluttering Vietnamese flag, headed east into the South China Sea, hoping to return laden with premium parrotfish, grouper, and sea cucumber.
Two years earlier, Duy and his wife had managed to build the VND4 billion (US$170,000) wooden boat. They had used every last bit of their savings, selling their house, asking Duy’s younger brother and other relatives for help, taking out a loan from the state bank, and borrowing from a wealthy local at a high interest rate. After 24 years of working for others in their boats, Duy finally had his own.
It took Duy's crew seven days to arrive at the spot where they could dive and cast their nets. Near-shore fishing is no longer an option for Duy’s generation, with the fish stock around Vietnam's coast largely decimated. Neither is heading to the contested Spratly and Paracel Islands, as their fathers and grandfathers did, due to the increasing tension between Vietnam and China.
“The Chinese coast guard often hounds us, and if we're caught, they would destroy our boats, arrest the crew, and sometimes even try to shoot us,” said Duy. “Not to mention how crowded it is with Chinese fishing boats and vessels in the East Sea (the Vietnamese name for South China Sea). They've trawled off all the fish stock in both the Parcels and the Spratlys.”
Covering 3.5 million square kilometers, the South China Sea is home to the most diverse marine ecosystem on the planet, with approximately 3,365 species of marine fish. More than half the fishing boats in the world operate here, contributing to 12% of global fishing catches. This abundance of fish provides jobs to 3.7 million people from surrounding countries and territories.
Yet, fish stocks are being depleted due to the widespread use of trawling nets. A study by Dr. Rashid Sumaila and Dr. William Cheung at the University of British Columbia found that destructive fishing practices, as well as illegal and unregulated fishing activities, have emptied out as much as 90% of the East Sea’s marine fish resources since the 1950s.
Despite all the challenges and risks, Duy and other Quang Ngai fishermen keep on sailing.
Finding a way out
On the sixth day of the September trip, the boat reached an empty area by the edge of Vietnam’s maritime border. The captain ordered an anchoring.
As with previous trips, the crew started work — not with fishing nets, but with spray paint. The cabin’s colour was quickly changed to orange. The numbers on the hull were covered with new letters and numbers from Malaysia, whose national flag was also hoisted in place of the Vietnamese flag they had set sail with.
With the ship’s identity now matching the permit he held, Duy was confident of crossing the border into Malaysian waters.
It was through a local ship owner that Duy had connected, in mid-2019, with a group of people who claimed to provide fishing permits for Malaysian waters.
“Two Vietnamese and one Malaysian man met me at a luxurious hotel in Saigon centre. At the first meet-up, I gave him a deposit of US$5,000,” recounted Duy. “The second time, I gave him another US$5,000, and in exchange, he gave me the photocopied version of the fishing permit. He kept the original.
"Only if the permit was approved by Labuan port officers (in Malaysia) and my boat was allowed to enter would I give him the remaining US$7,000. When in Vietnam, the boat was registered as mine, but once in Malaysia, it is his,” said Duy.
Each month, whether his boat ventured to the sea or not, Duy still had to pay the Malaysian another US$1,500.
“If I do not pay, he will cross my name in his bailout list and report us to the police, who will deny our request to enter. He is rich and powerful — I know for sure there are many other fishing boats in Quang Ngai in this network.”
For Duy, Malaysia was inviting. The marine resources are still abundant, the water is shallow, and the currents are mild, all of which makes the diving smoother and safer than in the Paracels and the Spratlys.
Each fishing trip lasts around two months. In the middle of each trip, his boat would enter Labuan seaport to exchange several hundred kilograms of catch for cooking oil and food. The rest of the catch would then be carried back to Sa Ky port where it would be sold to wholesale seafood stores.
A wholesale store owner who regularly buys Duy’s catches explained the supply chain: “From here, the fish will be transported everywhere. Some will be consumed in the domestic market, while those with higher quality will be selected for international export. Sea cucumbers, particularly, will be sold to the Chinese market."
Subtracting all costs, each crew member receives VND30 million (US$1,300) per trip, and the shipowner gains VND150-200 million (US$6,000-8,000), sometimes more if their net traps a mega-school of fish.
“The profit after such a trip is ten times higher than fishing near-shore; three to four times higher than fishing in the Paracels and the Spratlys, so everybody wants to do it. For me, with two years of fishing like that, I could pay off all my debts,” said Duy.
But everything fell apart on that trip in September, when Duy and his crew were arrested. It was his fifth trip while using the Malaysian “permit”.
“I didn’t know it was a fake permit until I was arrested. I used to poach in other foreign waters, but this time was definitely not poaching. I was cheated,” said Duy, who swore under the sacred moonlight over his coastal hometown, a custom among the villagers when asserting their truth.
Duy added that he asked our journalist for anonymity out of the fear that if his story gets out, he will be fined another VND1 billion (US$43,800) by Vietnamese authorities for illegal fishing in foreign waters.
“Nobody protects fishermen”
In March 2021, when most of the world was under lockdown, 22 women in Kien Giang, Southwestern Vietnam, wrote a letter asking Vietnamese leaders to help their husbands, fathers and sons, all fishers who had been arrested by Indonesian coast guards in May 2020. They had been stuck almost the entire time in a holding cell at a prison in Tanjung Pinang, the capital of the Riau Islands.
They had finished their prison terms and paid their fines, but could not return home due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
“I had to mortgage our only motorbike. My mom mortgaged her house to help me collect the VND130 million (US$5,700) to meet bail. Yet, our family hasn’t been able to reunite,'' said Dinh Thi Hang, who also signed the letter to the Vietnamese authorities.
She had tried asking Kien Giang authorities for help many times, all in vain.
At the Tanjung Pinang prison, Nguyen Quoc Huy, Hang’s husband, was with his fishing crew, rationing their last instant noodle packs while waiting for a flight back home.
“We’re often hungry because the meals in this prison aren't enough for us. Our families had to send money over to buy us extra food. Now everyone back home has fed us with their last penny, no one is able to continue supporting us,” said Huy, speaking to an ERC journalist on a phone call from prison.
This is not the first time that Huy, 36, has been arrested while trying to make ends meet in the East Sea. Five years ago, when his boat’s engine died and free-floated into Indonesian waters, he and his crew were caught and detained, but were fortunately released right after the trial.
“The boat owner we worked for came all the way to where we were held in Indonesia, hiring a lawyer and an interpreter so we won the trial," he said. “But this time, no one helped justify that we’re not guilty. We definitely didn’t enter their waters.
“Nobody asked us a thing during the trial. They destroyed the evidence of the boat location, and I signed a paper in Batam, a paper written in their language which I don’t know, but I do know it says I was in their water. But if I hadn’t signed, I’d have been beaten.”
Huy is among thousands of Vietnamese fishermen arrested abroad each year, according to statistics from the Vietnam Coast Guard. Southwestern Vietnam is also a major fishery, as well as a red zone due to the increasing number of boats that encroach foreign waters, with Kien Giang having the highest number in all of Vietnam.
Huy conceded that a few years ago, when he was “too engrossed following a school of fish”, he had steered his pair-trawlers (the typical fishing method in Southwestern Vietnam) into Malaysian or Indonesian waters a few times.
In recent years, as Vietnamese authorities tightened their fishing boat management practices and increased fines in order to address EU concerns about IUU fishing (which led to the country being yellow-carded), fishers are more careful not to take risks.
“We didn’t dare to go beyond Vietnam waters, but we’re still arrested. Vietnam claims that water is Vietnam’s, but so does Indonesia. What should us fishermen do?” asked Huy. It’s been two decades since Huy first stepped on a fishing boat, and he said he never imagined it could ever become this arduous.
In May 2021, a year after they were first arrested, Huy and his crew were finally allowed to return to Vietnam, where Huy now is waiting for an opportunity to go back to sea. He’ll find a new boat owner and ask to be hired as a pair-trawler skipper. “There’s no way else. We have no land, no property, just debt over debt after being arrested [each time],” he said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of other Vietnamese fishers remain under detention in Indonesia, unable to find enough money to pay their fines or to buy tickets to come back home.
A thousand kilometers from Huy’s hometown, Captain Duy once again makes his way back to the East Sea, even after all that has happened. He continues as a skipper but this time, on someone else’s boat, often floating somewhere in the North, around the Paracels.
“I dropped out of school at 14 and have clung to the ocean for half my life. If I don't fish, what else can I do?” asked Duy. “But I do hope that Vietnam will work with the other countries so that I can continue fishing in the sea without being arrested again.”
Depleting fish stock on the Malaysian coast is forcing small-time fishers further into the sea.
It wasn't too long ago when fisher Rosilawati Ismail and her husband used to be able to earn a decent living from the sea, around 18 kilometers away from the shores of Pantai Kempadang, Malaysia along the South China Sea.
But due to illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, in a span of just five years, her daily catch is now half of what it used to be.
“Back then, we could get about 200 kilograms of fish in one trip. Now we are struggling to get even 100 kilograms,” said the 44-year-old fisher.
R.AGE journalists in Malaysia, working on the Environmental Reporting Collective's (ERC) Oceans Inc. collaborative investigation, found story after story of long-time fishers whose livelihoods have suffered due to IUU fishing.
Malaysian authorities have reported a loss of billions of dollars in recent years because of IUU fishing. Caught using unsustainable and even exploitative practices, the fish is then sold to foreign markets without any supply chain transparency.
Speaking to ERC journalists, Rosilawati, who has been fishing for 14 years, said her only hope of finding any catch at all is to travel about 40 kilometers away from the shore.
Even then, many of her fellow fishers still return empty-handed. The financial struggle — especially amidst the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic that hit Malaysia particularly hard in 2021 — has been immense.
“My husband and I spend RM125 (US$30) on every fishing trip, but we sometimes come back with catches worth about RM45 (US$10). We can't even cover our cost,” explained Rosilawati. “In the past, it was very rare that we couldn’t cover our costs. Now I’d say it happens more than 10 times a month."
While the economic impact on her community is clearly a concern, Rosilawati is equally alarmed by the longer-term environmental impact of IUU fishing in the South China Sea.
She believes the rapid depletion of fish stocks is due to IUU fishers — especially foreign vessels that enter Malaysian waters. They destroy coral reefs using illegal trawler nets, which the locals call pukat gading.
"They use two vessels, and a huge net is tied to a vessel on each side,” she explained. “As they move, they will catch everything, even the smallest fish, and destroy anything in their way, including corals.
"Without corals, the seabed becomes bare. It's like a desert – who or what would want to live in a desert?"
While some Malaysian fishers shared stories of simpler times when they would occasionally meet fishers from neighbouring countries out at sea and exchange pleasantries, it seems the mood is becoming increasingly confrontational. This reflects the geopolitical tensions between the countries, fueled by disputes over maritime territories.
Rosilawati, for example, recalled the time her nets were once rammed by a large IUU trawler, costing her RM2,000 (US$480) in losses.
Deep sea problems
While Rosilawati and her village largely practice near-coast fishing, deep-sea fishers across Malaysia are largely reporting the same struggles with IUU fishing.
When we first met 35-year-old Bahiyuddin Awang Harun, he and his crew were at the Malaysian Fisheries Development Authority jetty in Dungun, Terengganu, about 150 kilometers away from Rosilawati's village. They were restocking their ship for a long-range fishing trip
Bahiyuddin and his crew had returned from sea just three days ago with an unexpected windfall. A 100-kilogram grouper had fallen into their bubu, an underwater fishing trap made of natural materials mixed with iron mesh.
The giant fish earned them just over RM2,000 (US$480). According to Bahiyuddin, it could have even been worth up to RM5,000 (US$1,200) if Covid-19 hadn't affected fish prices.
Nevertheless, Bahiyuddin, who captains a diesel-powered wooden ship, is still grateful for nature's bounty. Deep-sea fishing is tough work and can be dangerous, but the potential for profit is high. Just by selling the giant grouper, Bahiyuddin's crew hit its regular profit margin for the trip.
"Fishers that use bubu will get about 1,200 to 1,500 kilograms of fish per trip, or around RM13,000 (US$3,100). After deducting the operating cost of about RM2,000 (US$480), the rest of the profit will be split among the crew," said the father of two.
At the moment, there are about 60 bubu belonging to Bahiyuddin lying on the seabed of the South China Sea, scattered in areas about 40 nautical miles from the shore. The bubu has a "natural scent" that Bahiyuddin says can attract kerisi, grouper and other highly-prized commercial fish.
The Malaysian Department of Fisheries has divided its fishing zones into four areas to ensure equitable allocation of resources, and to reduce conflict between commercial fishers. The areas are Zone A (0-5 nautical miles), Zone B (5-12 nautical miles), Zone C (12-30 nautical miles) and Zone C2 (30 nautical miles up to the border of Malaysia's Exclusive Economic Zone).
Fishing vessels of 40 gross registered tons (GRT2) and below, operating traditional fishing gear, are allowed to fish in any fishing zone; while vessels operating commercial fishing gear like Bahiyuddin’s are allowed to fish in Zone B and onwards.
Bahiyuddin said to cover the cost of the long-range trips, most bubu fishers will spend at least four days at sea on each trip.
“The catch that we get on the first two days can only cover our operating cost. What we get on the rest of the days will be our income,” he said.
Like most deep-sea fishers, Bahiyuddin’s vessel is equipped with a GPS navigation device to ensure that it doesn't stray into restricted areas.
“Even fishers need to follow modernization and make use of technological advancements, so we have the GPS device that shows us our borders, so we don’t encroach into neighbouring waters,” he said.
The problem, however, is that the exact borders between these waters aren't always clear. Countries around the South China Sea have been deadlocked over maritime territorial disputes for years, with China using its military might to lay claim to large swathes of the area near Southeast Asia.
This, in turn, has allowed IUU fishing to flourish.
“Four or five years ago, there were about 10 Malaysian boats detained by Indonesian authorities," recalled Bahiyuddin. “Indonesia said the areas around 10 nautical miles from the border are theirs, while our enforcement agency said it is still ours.
"It's very confusing for us, so we decided not to go into those areas for the sake of our safety and the safety of our equipment."
However, not being able to fish in these disputed areas has resulted in a huge loss for fishers.
“Imagine how huge the areas are! It took about an hour and a half for us to go as far as 10 nautical miles, so imagine how many fish and other resources that we're losing out on,” said Bahiyuddin.
The issue of overlapping borders, however, is not specific to the South China Sea. In the southern Malaysian state of Johor, fishers in the Strait of Malacca told ERC that they were arrested by Indonesian authorities while still in Malaysian waters.
“The border between Malaysia and Indonesia is narrower here in Pontian, so fishers following fish trails would sometimes stray into Indonesian waters,” shared Jamaluddin Mohamad Bualik, a 52-year-old fisher. "But this time, I was sure I was still inside our waters when the Indonesian authorities arrested me. I was pulled further into their border and interrogated. Luckily I was then released unharmed." Officers from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency confirmed such incidents to the ERC.
Bahiyuddin stresses that there is no need for Malaysian fishers to encroach into foreign waters, given that we have an abundance of fish stocks in Malaysia’s part of the South China Sea.
“What we have now in our part of the sea is enough. It is sufficient for us to sustain ourselves provided that our resources are not being disturbed by the foreign fishermen,” he added.
But while deep-sea fishers have huge areas to scout for fish, coastal fishers like Rosilawati, who use small boats, are restricted to smaller areas. These areas are already suffering from depleted fish stocks.
Deep-sea areas are not immune either. Bahiyuddin said he often comes across IUU fishers in Malaysian waters, noting that they would sometimes disguise themselves as local vessels, by painting their boats red, for example — a colour adopted by local Kelantanese fishers.
“We don't communicate much, but sometimes we would tell them where our bubu are, hoping that they won't ram into it. Some would listen and avoid the areas, others would just ignore it,” said Bahiyuddin.
He also expressed his disappointment over possible leaks of information that allow illegal fishers to escape arrest whenever Malaysian authorities conduct operations.
"Whenever they do any operations, the Vietnamese boats will quickly get out of our waters even though our maritime boats are still far. It's as if they already knew they were coming," he said.
Despite the bleak outlook for fishing communities in Malaysia, Rosilawati said their livelihoods are still intact — for now.
"Those days, we would get RM12 per kilogram of mackerel, but now we can get RM16 to RM18. So even though we are getting less fish now, our earnings haven't been affected that much," she said.
Nevertheless, Rosilawati hopes those involved in IUU fishing will refrain from entering where small-boat fishers like her operate, as she fears her community could soon be left with nothing.
From defending national sovereignty, to living tourist attractions.
The port city of Tanmen, China may be a small fishing town that’s home to just over 30,000 people, but it’s also a hugely strategic site in the battle for sovereignty over the South China Sea. This is a battle that affects hundreds of millions across the region.
Located in the Qionghai district on Hainan island, the southernmost province of China, Tanmen is crucial to the country’s claim to a huge swathe of the resource-rich South China Sea. These are claims that China’s maritime neighbours — like Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia — have contested for years.
Caught in the middle of this international geopolitical conflict — one which the United States has also weighed in on — are traditional fishers like Li Qin (not his real name). Many like him across the South China Sea have become key figures in their countries’ sovereignty claims, often facing off against each other on the frontlines.
In January 2021, Li and his crew had just returned from fishing at Xisha Islands (the Chinese name for the Paracel Islands) when a journalist from Initium Media, working with the Environmental Reporting Collective (ERC), caught up with him.
It’s always a spectacle when a large fishing boat like Li’s returns to Tanmen port, which is located in the centre of the city. Tourists and locals alike gather around as the crew pulls the fresh catch from the boats into waiting pickup trucks, and some tourists even jump aboard the boat decks to take a closer look.
This has been a ritual for Li for 40 years. At 15, he first joined his father and brother as they went fishing in Xisha, Zhongsha Islands and Nansha Islands (the Spratly Islands). For years, Tanmen fishers were encouraged by the government to fish there, to reinforce China’s claim that they had done so since ancient times.
But these days, despite the relatively good catch, things are getting complicated. Fishing in Nansha is becoming increasingly difficult due to new regulations, which Li says are aimed at reducing the number of boats and “changing the method of production”.
Wooden boats like Li’s, despite being relatively large by Tanmen standards (at 100 tons), are now no longer accredited by the government. Larger steel boats are now preferred, and traditional fishing communities like Tanmen’s are being encouraged to focus on more tourist-friendly activities like catering and bay fishing.
The main purpose of this change in “method of production”, according to Tanmen fishers interviewed by Initium, is what they called the “special project” — defending their country’s claims over the South China Sea.
From fishers to maritime militias
In 2018, a Tanmen fisher named Wang Shumao was given an extraordinary honour. He was named one of China’s “Reform Pioneers”, alongside Yuan Longping, a Chinese agronomist known for developing the first hybrid rice varieties; and Tu Youyou, the first Chinese Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine.
In June 2021, Wang was honoured once again, this time with a medal awarded in conjunction with the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary.
His contribution to the country? Defending its territorial claims on the South China Sea, as the Deputy Commander of the Tanmen Military Militia.
The Tanmen Military Militia consists of fishers who are reportedly trained by the navy, and its main role, according to a public statement by a Tanmen official, is to “safeguard rights at sea”.
For example, in 2012, when the standoff between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal (known in China as Huangyan Island) first began, Wang and a fleet of boats from Tanmen joined the effort to block Filipino fishers from entering the area. The conflict first escalated in April 2012, when a Philippine warship arrested 11 Chinese fishermen — all from Tanmen — in the area, with a Filipino official issuing a statement that Scarborough Shoal “is an inseparable part of the Philippines”.
And in 2014, when the Vietnamese government sent boats to deter the China National Offshore Oil Corporation from drilling in Xisha, the Chinese government responded by creating a “cordon” of boats around the oil rig, with Wang leading 10 fishing boats. The Chinese embassy in Vietnam reported over a thousand collisions between boats from the two countries during this standoff.
To illustrate just how important the Chinese government deems the Tanmen Military Militia to be, President Xi Jinping made an unprecedented visit to Tanmen to meet with the fishers-turned-militiamen. During his visit, he urged them to "build big boats, blaze the far sea, catch big fish". This slogan is now plastered on a billboard at the town's main intersection.
Our journalist from Initium Media attempted to speak with Wang at the Tanmen branch of the Chinese Communist Party, but was told he had gone for a meeting in the province as a delegate of the National People’s Congress. We were also asked to submit a request with the Propaganda Department, as unannounced interviews were not permitted.
In 2016, a journalist from Al Jazeera had inadvertently spoken to Wang while doing a report in Tanmen, not realising who he was. According to the Al Jazeera report, Wang had denied the existence of a “maritime militia”, even though the journalist had just seen a group of 40 or so men in camouflage uniforms, undergoing training outdoors.
Most of the other fishers we spoke to around the docks also seemed to avoid using the term “maritime militia”. When asked about the trips to Nansha Islands to defend China’s territorial claims, they simply referred to it as a “special project”.
In China, a militia is legally defined as "an armed organization of the population that is not separated from production". It is a civilian force organized by local governments or enterprises, made up of ordinary citizens who would become soldiers in times of war.
Militias do not have professional status, but are mobilized during emergencies, like the 1998 Changjiang River flood or the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan. In these cases, militias participated in rescue operations, along with the People’s Liberation Army and the police.
According to an official statement, the Tanmen Maritime Militia is formed on the basis of the "Fisheries Militia sub-branch". In addition to fishing operations in the South China Sea and sovereignty maintenance, its most important role is to rescue fishermen during typhoons.
Walking along the docks in Tanmen, our journalist saw around 20 steel fishing boats docked in the water, all bearing China’s five-star red flag on their bows.
A local man who works in boat maintenance said the boats are no longer for fishing, and are now mainly engaged in “rights protection”, relying on special government subsidies to make money. They normally travel to Nansha for around six months at a time, with a crew of five to six people, earning up to 5,000 RMB (US$770) a day in subsidies.
The last time Li Qin, the local fisher, went to Nansha was in May 2020, when China's annual three-month fishing moratorium began. He set off from Tanmen in his fishing boat with a crew of 20, joining a fleet of more than 600 “special project” boats, which included ships from the neighbouring Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.
“Every day was mainly about eating and drinking on board,” said one of Li’s crew members.
"The subsidy is 1,500 RMB (US$230) a day, and the amount of subsidy is related to the length of the ship, not the engine power," said Li, adding that they were given a three-month subsidy of 135,000 RMB (US$20,800). He and the crew would also catch fish while anchored in Nansha. "If we didn’t fish, we would lose money."
There is no publicly available government document stating how the "Nansha special project subsidy" is calculated. According to the Guangzhou-based news magazine, Southern Weekend, a one-time subsidy of 35,000 RMB (US$5,400) was given to fishing boats that visited Nansha or Huangyan Islands in 2011, and on top of that, a trip allowance of 82 RMB/kW (US$12/kW) was given based on the boat’s engine power.
In Hainan, it is not unusual for fishers to go to Nansha. Zhang Zhi, who fishes off the coast of Lingshui County in Hainan, said that many of his friends in his hometown of Lingao County sign up for patrolling. "State officials will arrange a few people on a big boat; some of them drive slowly, some anchor at Xisha or Nansha. There’s a one-time paycheck."
Zhang Zhi added, however, that he does not feel strongly about safeguarding the border, saying that he occasionally encounters Vietnamese fishing boats who ask him for food, or to exchange catch.
Zheng Shixi, a former party branch secretary and militia battalion commander in the Yugang community of Sanya City, in the south of Hainan, told Initium Media about his trips to Sansha.
On July 12, 2012, as deputy commander-in-chief, he led 30 fishing boats from the Sanya Nanhai community to the Nansha Yongshun Reef, Zhubi Reef and Meiji Reef. While they were known as a Nansha fishing fleet, Zheng said they were there for the “protection of rights”.
Shi Lei, another fisher from Sanya who participated in the “rights protection” activities in 2012, told Initium Media that the journey to Meiji Reef took four days and four nights, while the entire trip lasted 18 days. In return, he got a government subsidy of 200,000 RMB (US$30,800). He said Sanya fishing boats normally do not go to Nansha for fishing, and he did not catch fish during his trip either.
From fishing to tourism
The South China Sea Museum in Tanmen, which has been open for three years, includes a copy of the "Changing Sailing Route Book'', donated by Huang Jiali, a fisherman from Caotang village in Tanmen.
It is one of many route guides passed down from generation to generation in Hainan. According to Huang, who was born in 1930, this sailing guide contains a route to Nansha. It was handed down from his grandfather to his father, and then to him. Research concerning these books began in the 1970s, and now they are considered by China to be evidence that the Nansha Islands have always belonged to it.
A retired fisher in Tanmen named Wu Hai told Initium Media that his father’s generation had been sailing in Nansha since the 1930s, armed simply with a 20-ton boat and a compass.
“We used to pick up sea snails, coral, sea cucumbers, [and then we] drove the boat to Malaysia or Singapore to sell the goods in exchange for some fabric. There were some people who didn't come back, and it was very common to sail to the South Seas," said Wu Hai.
In March 1985, China's State Council issued directives to “accelerate the development of the aquaculture industry”, particularly through distant water fishing, leading to an increased number of Chinese fishing boats in the South China Sea. Wu started fishing in Xisha and Nansha around this time, in boats weighing around 60 tons. He recalls that most of the islets were still occupied by Vietnam at the time, which meant Wu and his peers had to pay the Vietnamese to anchor and fish.
But winds of change are blowing again. In 2017, the Communist Party of China's Central Document No. 1 proposed the promotion of structural reform on the supply side of agriculture, calling for the industry to "reasonably control offshore fishing", "establish a management system for the total amount of marine fishery resources”, and “support fishers to reduce their vessels and switch to other production".
In 2019, the government of Qionghai district released a report on "strategies for Tanmen fishermen to change production and industry", focusing on production efficiency, South China Sea rights, the construction of a Hainan free trade zone, and the necessity of "Tanmen fishermen to change production and industry". The report also states that it is necessary to "guide the old fishing boats to switch to other productions”.
These policies are already creating the desired effect. Out of the 112 large and medium-sized fishing boats in Tanmen that went regularly to Zhongsha, Xisha and Nansha in 2019, 81 had “special fishing permits”, which are seen as being primarily for defending China’s territorial claims.
With subsidies increasingly focused on larger steel ships that have these special fishing permits, traditional fishers like Li will have to consider switching to other industries. Having once encouraged them to fish in Nansha to maintain sovereignty, the government is now asking them to stop fishing for the same reason.
More tourist-friendly industries have been encouraged, such as catering and bay fishing, to generate more economic growth for the region. In Sanya city, this shift is already happening, with the city’s fishing boats all relocated to a port in Yazhou.
The South China Sea Museum was a big part of the economic transition plans, with Hainan’s tourism authority announcing that the museum had been approved as a “national 4A tourist attraction”.
This transition, however, is not without complications. Shi, who is now retired in Sanya, said, "Our children have no way to go to sea, so they work for tourism companies and earn 3,000 RMB (US$460) a month, and these companies do not hire people in their 40s and 50s.”
Li is one of the few captains in Tanmen who still does distant-water fishing, and he insists on going with his wooden boat. The government has put pressure on him several times since 2019, asking him to cooperate with the "full demolition of the old".
"In the past, these 100-ton wooden boats could run to Nansha and Malaysia, but now they say that wooden boats are not compliant and do not meet safety standards, and they need iron boats of 500 tons or more to do it," he said indignantly. "It's all fake!"
Whether catering or tourism, Li is not confident that he can do better than fishing. "At the coast, what can you do if you don't catch fish?"