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Grinding Nemo: floating factory farms

News Section Icon Published 28/02/2013


Food and farming hero Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall will grace UK television screens tonight, fronting the second series of Fish Fight - his ground-breaking campaign to Save Our Seas. One of the issues under discussion is the cost of industrial shrimp farming on marine ecosystems. To coincide with this, we've joined forces with the Ecologist Film Unit to report on the serious social threats that these floating factory farms also pose.

It's easy to think that factory farming is all about land-based animals – cows, pigs, chickens and so on. But some marine animals are also farmed intensively. Take shrimp (prawns), for example. In 2012, the Ecologist Film Unit investigated intensive shrimp farming, or "aquaculture", in Thailand, focusing on the industry’s social costs.

Their video investigation, Grinding Nemo, highlights how so-called "trash fish" (see image below) is caught by Thai trawlers, sometimes illegally in foreign waters, before being ground into fishmeal for use in farmed-shrimp feed.


As fishing stocks are depleted, local fishermen are negatively affected. Furthermore, Thai trawler operators often hire Burmese migrant workers, who sometimes suffer brutal exploitation and abuse while at sea for lengthy periods.

Jim Wickens is a reporter/producer with the Ecologist Film Unit. This is his story.

It is a dark and dingy motel on the Burmese border. We are thousands of miles from the UK high street, but the food we consume in Britain is linked to the voices that we are about to hear. Ushered through the rain, coats over heads and moving through the shadows, the figures enter our room. They are Burmese fishermen, and they are risking their lives to talk to us as part of the film Grinding Nemo (see below).

Thailand's fishing industry, one of the largest in the world, is worth in excess of $4 billion each year. Much of the fish caught at sea is frozen, exported and consumed around the world, whilst some vessels catch so-called "trash fish" that is turned into fish meal used to feed prawns, which are in turn exported to supermarkets in the UK and elsewhere.

Most of the fishermen on board the vessels are Burmese. According to Human Rights Watch, up to 250,000 Burmese migrants may work within the Thai fishing industry, with little or no rights at all. An invisible workforce that, experts claim, is being brutally exploited to toil on board Thai fishing fleets. The picture below highlights the cramped conditions that many fishermen are forced to endure.


Like many before him, Wai Yan fled Burma in search of a better life. At the age of 16, he was recruited onto a Thai fishing boat, beckoned by the promise of high wages. But once on board the vessel, it would be two years before he was to see land again.

"Every time I saw the mother ship come, I would cry because I wanted to go home. But I couldn’t because they wouldn't let me", he told The Ecologist.

Taken to fish hundreds of miles out at sea in the Indian ocean, he was continually trafficked between vessels, his only contact with the outside world a supply boat that would bring food and fuel and carry the fish back to Thai ports.

Malnutrition and killings

"In those years I got to sleep around 4 hours each day. The captain would carry a gun with him all the time so we didn't dare to say no to him. It was a very hard life, I got skinny and weak from malnutrition. I got seasick all the time, I had to work as much as they wanted me to. I often had a suicidal thought during those time. The only reason that I was be able to come back is because the boat start to leak. I didn’t have any mobile phone, no way of communication. All I knew and saw was the sea itself."

"But we didn’t dare to claim our salary," he says. "One of my friend said 'have you seen all of these anonymous dead body floating around near by the port? Those are the people that complain'."

Wai Yan is not alone. Fellow Burmese migrant Nyan described typical working conditions: "When working, we invest our whole life, we are in their hands and there is nothing we can do about it. When given orders we have to follow...we have to eat when they say, sleep when they say. There absolutely no excuse for anything. It's really bad. When I made mistakes sorting the fish, they would hit me with a metal stick. They even tried to shoot me", Nyan says.

Working undercover, The Ecologist managed to gain access to several trawlers fishing offshore. We were shown typical tiny living quarters consisting of crudely slatted boards for sleeping set under waist-high ceilings, bare but for a few items of clothing, rusty knives and the fitted ship horns ready to wake the crew for the round-the-clock toil of sorting the catches.

We were told of captains force-feeding amphetamines to half-starved crew members, the routine killing of crew members who complain and Burmese migrants leaping from the backs of vessels in suicidal bids to escape the torment of life at sea.

One man we spoke to described a killing he witnessed: "The captain took his gun and shot him until he fell off the boat. He fell in the gap between the two boats. He didn't die right away, he tried to come up, but the captain just gave him another shot until he sank away...I've seen this happen twice", he said.

The supermarket link

Thai fishing fleets trawl the rich coastline areas of the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. During this investigation, crew members in some of the largest ports told The Ecologist how the fleets routinely fish illegally in the waters of other countries, most commonly in Burma and Malaysia, but also as far as Bangladesh, Indonesia and even Australia.


Out of sight and out of mind, illegal, unregulated and untraceable fishing fleets often use destructive fishing gear to wreak havoc on marine ecosystems across South East Asia in the lucrative hunt for evermore fish and "trash fish" destined to be used as feedstuffs that are ultimately linked to Western supermarket shelves.

Alongside the concern over illegal fishing, there is an equally challenging task for fish suppliers and governments who want to make the food we eat more sustainable.

"Labour conditions in the fishing industry represents the next big challenge to organisations that want seafood to be sustainable and ethical. There are numerous instances of appalling labour conditions on fishing boats – in both developed and developing countries – and yet none of the current certification schemes address this problem", says Blake Lee Harwood from the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, an organisation that works closely with the retail industry trying to improve the sustainability of fishing practices around the world.

But campaigners claim that efforts by NGOs and retailers have so far only really focused on the processing plants rather than what is happening out at sea. Until this final hurdle is addressed, they claim, the fate of the thousands of Burmese migrants currently at sea continues to hang in the balance.

The names of the Burmese fishermen interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their identity.

Check out Fish Fight

If you live in the UK, you can catch Hugh's Fish Fight on Channel 4 from 9pm–10pm GMT. Sign up to Fish Fight if you want to help Save Our Seas.



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