Street protests are not a common occurrence in Galapagos, but a recent decision by the Ecuadorian government to fight over fishing and illegal fishing by giving fishermen tourist permits – over other residents, who’ve been waiting patiently themselves, many for years – sent locals into the streets armed with pots for banging, loudly. Virtually everyone who’s moved to the Galapagos in recent years has come with hopes of participating in – getting rich off? – the booming tourism industry. With permits greatly reduced, the line of hopefuls is long. That the government is trying to buy off fishermen by letting them jump to the front of the line isn’t sitting well.
Near the front of the protest is a solitary gringo, a sixty-something man in a red polo shirt and khaki shorts, carrying a placard and a megaphone. Jack Nelson’s father came to the Galapagos in 1961, by thirty-six-foot sailboat; he opened its first hotel. When the son came a few years later, hoping to avoid the U.S. draft and maybe adapt to island life, he never anticipated staying. He went on to become the Galapagos first tourist guide and is still here, watching the place he loves evolve. The hotel has been sold but he still co-owns a dive shop, so is actively interested in who’s getting new tourist permits … and who is not.
“The human population in the Galapagos is doubling every five years. What is really significant about that number is not just the environmental impact or living standards, but it’s political in that the political majority has been here just five years. There are people who don’t know anything about the place, don’t really understand what the issues are but since they have become the majority the government responds to their demands.”
Does he still love the place? “In some ways. It’s certainly still very beautiful but it’s becoming less enjoyable to live here because of the political problems and conflicts and things like increased noise pollution and contamination.
“One thing that’s killing the place is the introduced species that arrive with all the increase in tourism and business. Here’s a great example. A young lady arrived at Baltra with a rose that her boyfriend gave her wrapped with tissue and foil around the base to keep it damp. At the airport the national park rangers jump her, take it away and burn it with their cigarette lighters because it’s an ‘introduced species.’ Simultaneously at the dock a few miles away a ship is unloading thousands of tons of uninspected cargo – bales, boxes, crates and bags of stuff, much of it carrying invasive species of one kind or another.
“What do we need? Desperately, better public education about the local issues and economics, in a way people on the street can understand. Pretty presentations with university level vocabularies are meaningless. If people can’t understand where the money is coming from … or not… they don’t care about anything else.
“Education about simple things too, like the problem with the introduction of species. Everybody who comes to live here wants to bring a dog. And not just any dog, but a special breed. One wants a German Shepard, another a Great Dane, another a cocker spaniel. It shows that they don’t really understand the impact of that on this place. It’s not just dogs and cats; we have five new species of introduced gecko living here that are competing with and chasing out the endemic gecko. Which changes the balance for the birds, plants and soil and on and on, a cascade of changes.
“We definitely need stricter migration policies and realistic caps on the number of boats and number of beds and how many times they can turn over each week. Now, for example, a lot of the tourist boats are running what I call the nine-day week. They sell a five-day tour and a four-day tour, which means on a couple days each week they’re doubling up, turning over a lot more tourists than the caps should allow, which raises the pressures on everything. Another problem is that local population is promoting more and more mass market, lower quality tourists because they have no access to the first-class tourists. And mass-market tourism brings heavy environmental impacts for low profit and requires even more infrastructure.
“I think we may be coming to a point where a whole lot of the laws, regulations and policies have to be reformed. When you’re in the tourism business the last thing you want is trouble. Like street protests, for example. Even perceived trouble in a tourist town can cause cancellations and wreck business for a long time. So to avoid ‘trouble’ sometimes we just go along with bad things we see happening around us. But it’s too late to ignore now.”
We sailed into Kodiak on a somewhat rarified day for this part of the world, one filled with sunshine rather than rain. The weekend just past had been its annual Crab Fest, an event dampened by typical May weather: horizontal rain and temperatures just above freezing. But on a big, blue, sun-shiny day you’d be hard-pressed to imagine a more beautiful place, the entirety of Kodiak Island and the snowcapped mountains that rim it wrapped beneath an indigo sky.
Ironically, the place it reminded me of most of was Kamchatka, where we’d been a week before. Both are spectacular lands of active volcanoes and hot, spurting geysers. The seas that surround both are the same steel-blue, the volcanic mountain ranges similarly tall and foreboding, with fishing boats moving in and out of the bays. Both regions share physical turmoil as well as beauty, visited frequently by earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami waves. Rain is a constant for both (Kamchatka, 110 inches a year, Kodiak, 68).
A very good halibut day, off Kodiak Island
Though separated by one thousand miles of Bering Sea they started out with similar human roots as well. The very first Russian colony in North America was founded in 1784 at Three Saints Bay on southeastern Kodiak Island and until 1804 it was the center of Russian activity in Alaska. Russians are responsible for the name “Alaska,” derived from the Aleut alaxsxaq, meaning “the mainland” or more literally, “the object towards which the action of the sea is directed.”
In the mid-1800s Russia, worried that the expanding U.S. and Canada would usurp its Alaskan territory without paying, attempted to play one against other in a bidding war, which proved unsuccessful. Ultimately, in 1867, the U.S. bought Alaska from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million (two cents per acre) and would become the 49th state on January 3, 1959.
Today both economies are driven by fishing. Kodiak is consistently one of the U.S.’s top three ports, with 750 fishing boats working off the island profiting from a wealth of Pacific salmon, Pacific halibut and crab. One thousand miles to the west biologists estimate that a sixth to a quarter of all Pacific salmon originate in Kamchatka’s highly productive waters, including all six species of anadromous Pacific salmon (chinook, chum, coho, seema, pink, and sockeye).
But that’s where the comparisons come to a screeching halt. The state of the local economies and the health of the natural environments couldn’t be more different. The air and sea around Kodiak are nearly pristine; in Kamchatka, far from it, impacting the quality of life for all. Per capita income is widely different too (Alaskans, $33,000 a year; Kamchatkans, less than $7,500) and, no matter what you think about Alaskan politicians (Ted Stevens?), those in Kamchatka win the prize for blatant corruption.
How did these two regions, so similarly blessed by nature, turn out so differently? Two words: Soviet Union. During the Soviet era Kamchatka was closed to outsiders for decades, for military reasons; today half of the territory of the Peninsula is still controlled by the Army. The result has been hard on both man and nature.
One of the first things you notice in Kamchatka is that there are very few old people. The harsh climate is partly to blame, but it is human influence, rather than natural forces, that shortens the lifespan of local residents. Despite its unspoiled appearance, the peninsula is filled with toxic pollutants, the most frightening aspect of which is that no one is really sure just how contaminated it is.
Until 1990 Kamchatka was home to the Soviet Pacific Submarine Fleet, several major airbases and is still an important testing ground for ICBMs. This substantial military presence has contaminated the landscape with heavy metals, radiation and other pollutants. The large naval base across from the capital city of Petropavlovsk bobs with poorly maintained nuclear submarines.
The decrepit capital appears to have been forgotten by time. Crumbling, Soviet concrete-slab buildings line the once-lush hills dropping down to the water. The once-bustling port is now mostly idle and crammed with rusting ships and scrap metal. Poaching – mostly illegal caviar, but also whales – are big economies and locals blame the intense poverty. It is estimated that criminal gangs poach at least half the fish sold from Kamchatka; when we were there twenty fishing trawlers were moored out at sea, impounded for poaching.
While I met some beautiful and incredibly gracious individuals in Kamchatka, I couldn’t help but think their situation desperate. The few I met who would talk openly admitted that the corrupt bureaucracy that continues to oversee the plundering of the region’s unique natural resources cannot be – or at least should not be — continued. For their sake I hope big changes come. Soon.
A long line of three-wheeled electric carts steered by oversized circular handlebars, each with an attached four-foot-long wooden bed, whizzes through the narrow aisles of the Tsukiji fish market. Each is steered by a wild-eyed, sometimes smiling, sometimes glaring, Japanese fish monger – one of 60,000+ employees here in the world’s largest fish market – who would just as soon mow you down as avoid you. Balanced precariously on the back of each are a three hundred pound frozen tuna or a tall stack of Styrofoam boxes filled with fish or crushed ice or twenty, three-foot long, just-sawed swordfish steaks.
It’s just after six in the morning and the place has been alive for several hours, though it never really shuts down. The morning’s biggest event – the auction of hundreds of big blue fin tuna – has just finished and its results are being delivered one-by-one to many of the 900 individual stalls in the open-air market. Sunrise pouring through the dust-covered skylights of the 74-year-old market mixes with the flourescents that light up each small shop, crammed side by side and fronted by tables heavily laden with Styrofoam containers filled with just-dead fish of more than four hundred species and tanks and plastic bags filled with those still swimming.
The Tsukiji (skee-gee) fish market – more officially the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market – is Mecca for fish purveyors and sushi lovers alike. (The more general name is appropriate since under the same roof there are big produce and flower auctions as well … though it’s hard to compare the excitement of bidding for bell peppers with that of this year’s biggest tuna to date, 261 pounds.) For several mornings we’ve gotten up before four a.m. and woken a taxi driver slumbering in his own front seat in order to be here the moment the tuna auction allows its first visitors in. Alex and I have a particular curiosity because over the years we’ve filmed big tuna in the wild and in farms that were ultimately headed here. Seeing them lined up on the floor – frozen, detailed and numbered with red food coloring — means we’ve followed them nearly full circle. Our morning sushi-break at 8:30 means we will have truly followed them through the entirely of their lives.
If you care about the health of the world’s ocean and its decreasing abundance of fish, you have to be fascinated by this place for both its size and the economy it creates. Jobs here are highly sought, whether as cart drivers, salesmen, cutters, icemakers, deliverymen, auctioneers or buyers (the emphasis on men is purposeful: of the 60,000-plus workers a tiny handful are women; only a very few work the floor, most are accountants). An American living in Tokyo tells us he is trying desperately to get a job in the market, in part because it pays well and in part because he would be such an oddity. “They will only tell me I’m ‘too tall,’ “ he says, “but what they are really saying is that I’m ‘too white.’ “Each year more than 700,000 metric tons of seafood is sold beneath the market’s roof, roughly $5.5 billion worth.
Walking the narrow aisles among the nine hundred small vendors it’s easy to see how we’ve done such a good job at decimating fish stocks around the world; of course it’s not just the Japanese who are doing so, but they have a per capita consumption of fish far outstripping the rest of the world. Though the market sits on the Tokyo Harbor, virtually all of the fish arrives by truck, some from Japan, most from seas thousands of miles from here.
There are two distinct sections of the market: The “inner market” (jonai shijo) is the licensed wholesale market, where the auctions and most of the processing of the fish take place, and where licensed wholesale dealers operate small stalls. The “outer market” (jogai shijo) is a mixture of wholesale and retail shops selling kitchen tools, restaurant supplies, groceries and seafood, and narrow restaurants, especially sushi restaurants. On our first morning we choose to have breakfast alongside the rubber-booted workers, rather than wait in the long lines of tourists outside the most popular sushi shops, on pork steaks, cabbage and rice.
The market handles more than four hundred different types of seafood from tiny sardines to six hundred pound tuna, from cheap seaweed to the most expensive caviar. On one counter a live squid is gutted in front of us, its ink squirting everywhere; next-door band saws cut through just-thawing tuna; at the end of the aisle the most popular man in the market – the ice man – lugs fifty-pound blocks of ice to a conveyor which carries it to its crushing. Just beyond the market’s door rises a mountain of Styrofoam boxes being picked over by representatives of all the stalls inside; if still intact the boxes are reused, if cracked or broken they are fed by conveyor into a crusher to be recycled into paving bricks.
The history of the market goes back a century. In August 1918, following the so-called “Rice Riots” (Kome Soudou), which broke out in over one hundred cities and towns in protest against food shortages and the speculative practices of wholesalers, the Japanese government was forced to create new institutions for the distribution of foodstuffs, especially in urban areas. A Central Wholesale Market Law was established in March 1923. The Great Kantō earthquake on September 1, 1923, devastated much of central Tokyo, including the Nihonbashi fish market. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the market was relocated to the Tsukiji district, completed in 1935.
At a neat stall on the backside of the market a trio of men labor over six foot long swordfish, cutting them down to steaks. The master cutter – armed with extremely long, extremely sharp knives – operates on a hydraulic table, which he raises and lowers with his foot. Fresh water runs from a hose washing blood into a drain (amazingly, the whole market smells very … clean … no fish smell at all). With rapid, elegant cuts along its spine he splits it in two and then quarters each side. His partner reduces them to steaks, wraps them in paper towels and plastic and stacks them to be distributed.
I ask if they think there will come a day when we take the last fish from the sea. I’m only partially joking, and translating my question is tricky. But they get the point. Everyone I’ve talked with in the market admits the fish they’re selling today are far smaller than ten years ago; we’ve taken all of the biggest fish already.
“It’s not like cows or chickens,” says the man cutting steaks. “You can’t simply grow more. We never know exactly what’s in the sea, do we? But when these species are gone, I believe there will be more to take their place. I think my job is very secure!”
Mohammed Jarrad and his four-man crew left the dock in their slow-chugging dhoni at five this morning. When I meet them unloading the day’s catch just as they sun disappears it means they’ve been at it for fourteen hours, a typical day for a Maldivian fishermen. The haul? About 150 kilos (330 pounds). Not bad, he says, about average. “Though sometimes we have days when we catch 500 kilos … but those are fewer and fewer.”
Photo: Fiona Stewart
As he and his team hand the fish up onto the dock from the back of the flat-decked boat they fill plastic crate after plastic crate with dorado, blue and yellow fin tuna, skipjack and one sizable barracuda. By law, every fish caught in Maldivian waters has to be caught by “pole and line.” No net fishing, no bottom trawling no seining. Which is a good thing for the health of the fishing grounds, which extend 200 miles off the edges of the Maldives 26 atolls. Yet there are still problems.
Sharks, which used to be prolific here, are largely gone due to over fishing (thanks, as in so many parts of the world, to China’s demand for shark fins). Sea cucumber numbers are quickly declining and the government stopped issuing export licenses for fishing for giant clams to prevent serious exhaustion and possible extinction. Tuna and the other popular edibles, while still abundant, have all diminished for a simple reason: Demand. The permanent population of the Maldives has boomed in the past decade, to nearly 400,000. Add to that the 600,000 tourists now coming every year and the pressure mounts.
“Unfortunately we see the pressure on the fish,” says marine biologist Anke Hofmeister, citing the lobster haul as example. “Sometimes the fishermen will bring in female lobsters with the eggs scraped off, hoping we won’t notice (taking female lobsters is illegal), and often they are smaller than the law permits. But the demand is high from the resorts, so too often some buyers are looking the other way.”
As a percentage of the country’s business, fishing has slipped as tourism has boomed. In the 1970s fishing provided thirty percent of the nation’s revenues; in the 1990s, fifteen percent, in 2000, just six percent. By comparison, tourism now provides over forty percent of the country’s GDP.
Watching these tuna fisherman do their job is one of the wildest fishing scenes I’ve ever seen. A commercial fishing boat here is rudimentary in comparison to much of the rest of the world. Twenty to twenty five feet long, wooden, with a long, flat deck interrupted only by a small, three-sided cabin, which is used mostly for shade during the long, hot days at sea. A long rudder, usually manipulated by the captain’s foot, does the steering.
Eight to ten fishermen (always men, never women) bait long poles and cast off the deck simultaneously, and have been known to reel in more than one thousand tuna in an hour. Boats with automated poles can be even more “productive.”
Half the catch in the Maldives is for local use, the other half is frozen or canned and exported to
Southeast Asia, a $50 million a year enterprise. Mohammed J. and his four-person crew go out six days a week, motoring at least two hours from home each morning. His take this day for the 150 kilos will be about $375, split among five men. On average, each man will earn around $350 a week.
As the setting sun turns the sky purple and orange I ask how often they see green turtles – illegal to catch, but once a mainstay of the local diet here – and he says “every day.”
“It is hard to watch them just swim by,” he says of the turtles, which can weight up to four hundred pounds. “But we do.”
I trust that he’s telling me the truth, though he looks away as he is answering. It’s hard in these communities for them to change their habits; certainly his father and grandfather and great-grandfather fed their families off green turtles often.