Aircraft carrier decks are notoriously the most dangerous of all boat decks: Fighter-jet tailhook arresting cables can snap, whip around faster than the speed of sound, and instantly cut a man in two.
The Alaskan crab boats featured in the hit show “Deadliest Catch” are just as dangerous: There may be fewer ways to die on them than on an aircraft carrier, but the crew members are basically coked-up and sleepless for months at a time.
Thai fishing boats are no joke either, however. In the documentary “Ghost Fleet,” we hear of a man who got his hand caught in a pulley—he lost all his fingers. Another man got his neck caught in a rope snaking across the deck—he was immediately decapitated. And also … one shipmate witnessed the captain stab a boy to death in front of him.
Wait, what?!! Yes. Navy sailors and crab boat personnel go to work out of their own free will—“Ghost Fleet” is about slavery. Thai fishermen are trafficked. Who knew?
Thai fisherslaves do endless, backbreaking work on no sleep, for up to 20 years, unless they die or escape. They’re forced to smoke crystal meth to stay awake. They are beaten viciously with dried stingray tails and lead pipes. They are murdered for insubordination. The Alaskan crab boat show should have been titled “The Second-Deadliest Catch.”
If you found out your engagement ring carried a blood diamond, you would probably reject it. Now, you might want to think twice about that luscious piece of seared tuna on your fork in that upscale Manhattan restaurant. It’s highly likely the fish was caught by a Thai fishing slave who hasn’t seen his family in 10 years.
A young Thai man might go for a stroll one evening, maybe meet a pretty girl, get lured to a hotel room, and boom—he’s just been honey-trapped: Goons come out of nowhere, knock him senseless, and now he’s trafficked. He wakes up from his concussion at sea. Water, water, everywhere as far as the eye can see. And then the torture of relentless work begins.
In “Ghost Fleet,” a documentary directed by Shannon Service and Jeffrey Waldron (making their feature debuts), we discover that this current form of slavery involves unlucky young men, predominantly from Thailand, but this form of slavery is now happening all over the world.
How did this come to pass? Supply and demand, naturally—implicating us all, really. As the mainland fishing grounds got fished out, the boats have needed to go farther and farther afield to find fish (and avoid authorities), leading fishing labor to refuse to leave their families for such long periods of time.
What to do? The Thai fishing businesses decided to go the slavery route: own humans illegally, not pay them, discard them when they get injured, and kill them if they rebel.
It’s very difficult to escape. The boats stay far, far out on the ocean and never come back to land. This is made possible by “motherships” that circle around, uploading fish from the various slave vessels and downloading food. You can’t swim to shore from there; you’d very quickly drown or become shark food. It’s a truly fiendish arrangement.
And even if slaves do manage to escape, they’re usually hunted down and slammed into black jails, run, of course, by fishing corporations and ignored by corrupt police forces in the pockets of said corporations.
Thankfully, there’s an organization called the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN) looking out for these lost men, and LPN’s Patima Tungpuchayakul is the star of “Ghost Fleet” in two respects: She’s the proactive protagonist driving the narrative, and she gets the most screen time—as well she should. She tracks leads, follows trails, scouts and sleuths, entering dangerous areas where proverbial angels fear to tread, fueled by great compassion.
The story is told by three activists, actually. In addition to Patima, there are journalist Chutima “Oi” Sidasathian and former slave Tun Lin. All of them have, as their life’s mission, the heart to save these trafficked souls. (According to the website, nearly 3,000 have been repatriated to date.) The film accompanies them as they embark on one of their many missions, sailing from Thailand to the seas in and around the Indonesian archipelago, where they hope to provide hope for lost slaves.
By the way, in 2017 Patima Tungpuchayakul was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
When during the activists’ mini-odyssey, they run across escaped slaves from Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma, eking out existences on islands far from their original homelands, who have started new families, the fisherslaves’ stories all match. Tales of horror abound.
These portraits of the lost fishermen found are the beating heart of the film. These flinty, haunted, stoic men, with chiseled cheekbones like Apaches and Mongolians, some with missing limbs, most fighting chronic PTSD and depression, are given the chance to speak with their families by phone for the first time in decades.
The conversations all start off casually, due to the disbelief that such a miracle could be happening to them; and when they hear the voices of long-lost family, they are immediately gripped by the great, pent-up anguish of years of torture and loneliness. It’s absolutely heart-rending. Patima weeps tears of grief and sympathy along with them.
Film Would Have Benefited From Bigger Teeth
While it’s a visually beautiful film, more rigorous research and whistle-blowing about exactly which Thai fishing companies are engaging in the practice of fish-labor trafficking, and which food companies, globally, are keeping them in business would have been extremely satisfying.
But ultimately, unfortunately, we all need to take this opportunity to look inside ourselves. Who keeps them in business? We do. Some of us like fish more than others. The vegan community will have a field day with this film. As well they should.
Speaking of which, if you see the film, make sure you don’t miss the grief-stricken looks of the fish themselves, writhing in agony and gasping for breath on the bloodied decks.
The film recommends not buying fish from Thailand. Just like you want to check the origin of your engagement ring diamond to make sure it’s “blood” free, check, also, your fish to ensure it’s not been caught by a dehydrated, yellow-eyed, sleep-deprived, desperate, depressed, grief-stricken, traumatized, suicidal, young Indonesian boy or man who has no hope.
Save all sentient beings. It starts with us.
Director: Shannon Service, Jeffrey Waldron
Starring: Patima Tungpuchayakul, Tun Lin, Chutima “Oi” Sidasathian
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Release Date: June 7
Rated 4 stars out of 5