Buying fish in Europe can contribute to other people starving, drowning or ending up in prison.
The connections and lines of cause and effect established by globalisation can be either fortunate or unfortunate. We do not often enough ask ourselves: what are the connections between western consumer lifestyles and environmental exploitation, economic failure and hunger (in countries which we like to assume are just screwing up because they happen to be African), economic migration; intolerance; and imprisonment and human rights abuse?
Stumbling into a press photo exhibition in London ten days ago, while writing about the plundering of the seas, has helped me join some dots in one area; fishing and African-European migration.
According to the WWF, fish supplies a huge portion of food for West African countries, up to 75% in the case of Senegal:
By depleting marine resources, EU and other foreign fleets are already threatening food security in the region. Guinea, for example, already has a problem feeding its people. The country has a specific objective to improve food security by increasing the fish consumption of the population. But the main obstacle preventing this is IUU fishing, primarily shrimp trawling for European markets.
In Guinea-Bissau, the government requested that instead of throwing away locally consumed species caught as bycatch, EU fleets instead land the fish for local consumption. The EU rejected the request as to do so would take too much time.
In Senegal, depleted fish stocks caused by foreign fleets and foreign demand have had a serious impact on local food supplies. According to one Senegalese NGO, it now takes local fishermen a month to catch the same amount of fish that could once be caught in just four days.
So what happens to the people whose livelihoods are – directly or indirectly –affected this way? Well, it appears that at least some of them become economic migrants. They want to go somewhere where they can be sure to eat themselves, and from where they can, hopefully, send money back to those they have left behind. They get into small boats, and head out to sea. Many are lost there, dying in unknown numbers. Some find land, though, hitting the Canary Islands, a Spanish possession in the Atlantic, a few hundred kilometres west of the coast of Morocco and Western Sahara.
For a snapshot on this vast human tragedy, have a look at this gallery of pictures, by Arturo Rodrigues, part of the World Press Photo exhibition, which I saw last Friday at the South Bank Centre in London. Showing migrants on the brink of death landing on a beach amidst tourists, they are extraordinary photographs: shocking for the state of the refugees, striking for the contrasts between the refugees and the tourists (many of whom have probably eaten the fish that might once have been eaten by the refugees); heartening for the clear display of compassion by those on the beach caring for the desperate people who have just washed up; fascinating for embodying the injustice and complexity of the collision between global haves and have-nots.
So how many people are landing up in the Canaries? Tens of thousands. I can’t find up-to-date figures, but for 2006, by September, 23,000 migrants from Africa had landed there, according to a Deutsche Presse-Agentur report.
The DPA report, however, makes no mention of the forces driving the migrants to undertake such desperate and dangerous journeys. Spain has accommodated many of them, but is now beginning forced repatriations. The Europeans have stepped up patrols, stopping many of the refugees en route, and bringing down the flow of refugees by 60%. One shudders to imagine what scenes may be unfolding at sea, far from the eyes of the world.
Not content with turning back the refugees, Spain has put pressure on Senegal to stop the flow of refugees at source. Senegal has now adopted a policy of charging and imprisoning refugees.
How might one summarise this situation? “We’re taking your food because we can and raping the oceans into a state of plundered devastation in the process, but don’t expect us to provide jobs or accommodation when you turn up starving on our doorsteps. Go away, or expect to be thrown into jail for being poor and desperate.”
The Europeans, of course, like to distinguish between “bona fide, political” migrants “fleeing persecution”, and “economic migrants”.
“When you’re being politically persecuted by your own countrymen, we’ll let you in, because it makes us feel virtuous, but when we’re persecuting you economically, just stay away: we owe you nothing. We really, really don’t like being reminded that we’re stealing your fish.”
You can do something! Buy fish differently. Only buy fish which is marked with the symbol of the globally recognised Marine Stewardship Council, used across Europe and in South Africa. When you buy in restaurants or outlets, ask whether what you’re being served is sustainably fished. If you’re South African, text/sms 0794998795 with a query in the format “tuna?” or “red roman?” to find out the status of particular fish.