ECOLOGY: The human cost of fishing in South East Asia

Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: June 28, 2019

Ghost Fleet

Sharon Service & Jeffrey Waldron

Shannon Service & Jon Bowermaster


The word «slavery» is so far removed from the everyday reality of many that it is almost just a concept, an ethical matter that has no real emotional dimension or urgency. Yet, millions of people worldwide are enslaved as I type this, inhabiting a sort of hidden parallel world we never see. Ghost Fleet – Shanon Service’s first feature film – addresses this contemporary problem, showcasing its emotionally striking reality. The film won the Activist Documentary Award at the Movies That Matter Festival this spring, and it is a powerful documentary of tragedy and courage, telling the stories of enslaved fishermen in South East Asia, and of Thai activist Patima, a courageous and devoted woman who dares to fight for them.

Decades of overfishing

Thailand has a fishing industry worth millions, and because of decades of overfishing, ships have to go deeper and deeper into the sea, sometimes spending months on the water. Thai fishermen are no longer interested in doing this work because of the low wages and the months spent offshore. This made the fishing industry develop a dark side, literally buying crewmembers from a mafia that tricks or kidnaps young men, both from Thailand and neighboring countries, like Burma and Vietnam. Once on these boats, these enslaved men work relentless hours, doing dangerous work for no pay and no possibility to leave. They are disposable and their captains don’t care if they die or live.

The ships sail deep into the sea, reaching Indonesian waters. Surrounded by water, the only chance to leave or escape is when Malaysian authorities capture the ships. When that happens, the crew is jailed and the captain sent home, the thought behind this approach being that the companies will want to retrieve their men. But that never happens. So they end up scattered around the many Malaysian islands, some hiding, and some starting families, working for low wages and never coming home.

what she finds are faces of psychological trauma

That is unless Patima finds them. She runs a Bangkok-based organization that maps the locations of these men and tries to bring them home. The camera follows her on such a trip, and what she finds are faces of psychological trauma, men that bury deep pain and struggle to survive. «Do you want to go home?» is a question she asks all of them, and their reaction at the weight of a question they never thought anyone would ask is devastating.

The strength to persevere

The strength and courage such work requires is humbling for any outsider to see. Patima goes through all of it with the devotion of a person on a mission, and that is inspiring and also enviable. She is the face of the idea of «meaningful work», despite the hurt, risks, and death threats she receives. After all, courage is not the absence of fear, but the strength to persevere despite of it.

Causes and mechanisms

Ghost Fleet is more than its human stories, reaching to the causes and mechanisms that enslave these men and keep them captive. Through re-enactments, interviews, and by accompanying Patima in her courageous trips, and shots that are as suggestive as they are poetic, the film is a wake-up call for the entire world. The heartbreaking radiography of these men’s shattered lives and hearts, is eventually only the invisible damage at the end of a large supply chain that reaches also the Western world and our plates, and invites questioning where is the fish we eat comes from and who holds the invisible hands that take them out of the sea.

ghost fleet-documentary-1
Ghost Fleet, a film by Shannon Service & Jeffrey Waldron

Ghost Fleet’s narrative is both cinematic and emotionally raw, inflicting precisely the needed sense of depth and urgency that calls for humanity to get involved and act. It also leaves its audience with a series of unanswered questions. Why aren’t Thai authorities stricter? How can we stop this whole enslaving for good? What can we do?

The core of what is left is the realization of what a difference one human being can make. The strength of Patima’s courage and devotion stays with you. And if you can forget these men’s faces, you certainly won’t forget how witnessing their pains made you feel. In a sense, watching Ghost Fleet will connect you to these men forever, because once you see them, you understand, and by the end of the film you have become a witness to their life and everything they lived and saw.

Modern Times Review