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Fieldwork and fisheries in the time of COVID-19 in Taiwan

Fieldwork and fisheries in the time of COVID-19 in Taiwan

by Mallory MacDonnell

Work in fishing has received increasing attention as one of the most difficult but also poorly monitored and regulated jobs in the world. It is subject to ambiguous and overlapping jurisdiction. I travelled to Taiwan in October 2020 to start fieldwork for my dissertation. Taiwan has one of the world’s largest distant water fishing fleets, with more than 1100 industrial vessels. My research focuses on the lived experiences of migrant workers as fishermen aboard these vessels, with a main goal of looking carefully at the interaction of work in fishing, species ecologies, associated gear and technologies, and marine spaces.

When COVID-19 cases started arriving on the island, Taiwan’s response was hard, fast, and early. Borders were closed. The only way to enter, was with what is termed ‘special COVID-19 visa’ or as a Taiwanese national. The ‘special COVID-19 visa’ does include foreign nationals and migrant workers coming with a work contract in place, but it does not include tourists or other foreign nationals. I was fortunate to be sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to receive a one-year visa. At the time of travel, Taiwan had recorded 530 cases, with only 32 active cases in quarantine facilities (https://www.cdc.gov.tw). There had been no community spread since April 2020. Guidelines were in place for the use of masks and sanitizer within public spaces and on transportation services.

When I arrived, I quarantined for the mandatory 14-days. The next weeks consisted of me trying to acclimate in a new country, but also catch my footing within my own research. It took me a long time to feel prepared and to be able to step away from the previous 7 months that were filled with graduate student anxieties (related to comprehensive exams, courses, language training, TA-ing, proposal writing, etc.), that were only heightened by lockdowns and the global pandemic.

Fishermen on a longline vessel hauling in lines and catch. Photo/video credit: Allong Crugger.

The current pandemic situation in Taiwan is similar to when I arrived. There are 89 active cases, with a total of 1178 recorded cases (https://www.cdc.gov.tw). There have been a few cases within the community, which are being heavily contact traced, with most resolved. As there is no community spread in Taiwan, in person research is possible. I am adhering to COVID-19 guidelines put in place by the Taiwanese government, therefore I am able to live what feels like a normal, pre-COVID-19 global pandemic lifestyle. Being able to work with and make connections with others in-person is one of the things I am most fortunate for since moving here. Research and fieldwork were slow to start, but once it started – I ran with it. The Taiwanese fishermen workforce is made up of migrant fishermen. The vast majority are from Indonesia and the Philippines, with some migrants coming from Vietnam and Bangladesh. I’ve met a lot of fishermen. Some who are still going to sea to fish, and some who have been in port for months waiting to depart. I try and seek workers on a mixture of vessels, but sometimes, it just comes down to who is available in the port to talk to. The main types of vessels in Taiwan are longliners, purse seines, and squid jiggers. All use very different gear, to catch different fish species, and require different labour exertions. This is the core of my research. I am interested in the labour process of fishermen to catch marine species and how these marine species ecologies, technology and gear operated, and high seas fishing spaces can influence or impact their labour process.

Work depends on the fish’

Squid jigging gear aboard vessel. Lines are automated to drop and lift. The floor of the vessel is covered with squid catch. Photo/video credit: Milco. Suelo.

Thus far, I have mainly worked with fishermen on three different types of vessels. All have proved to be quite different in regard to variables such as travel time, travel spaces, labour needs, fish caught, and gear used. I have observed that within the labour experiences of workers, type of work, working hours and work intensity differs depending on gear and species. For example, on longline vessels that catch albacore tuna in the south Pacific Ocean, the majority of the work to set and retrieve lines is manual. (See YouTube video). One pattern I am seeing on longliners is the crew tasked with retrieving lines will work for at least 16 hours straight, with no breaks, until all lines are retrieved, and all fish are prepared to be frozen. In comparison, I am finding that squid jiggers, which are fishing for 6 months of the year near Falkland Islands in the Indian Ocean, work with automated hooks and lines that both set and retrieve while workers are tasked with observing to make sure everything is working smoothly. On these vessels, workers shifts are through the night (See YouTube video). The main pattern I am finding is that there is a shift working from 5pm to 5am observing automated gear and processing squid, with breaks for meals.

‘How much fish? A lot of fish, longer working hours’

It is important to distinguish between the differences in required exerted labour that we are seeing on different types of vessels. Fisheries management and labour regulations within Taiwan do not take into account the species of fish or the type of gear operated, where these variables have an impact on the labour process aboard individual vessels. These variables especially come to light when the fishermen are migrant workers in a space that has previously been and continues to be viewed as problematic in regard to labour practices. Migrant fishermen within Taiwan’s distant water fisheries are excluded from labour laws under the Ministry of Labour (Labour Standards Act) and are instead regulated by the Fisheries Agency (Act for Distant Water Fisheries). The labour protections under the Fisheries Agency do not meet the basic standards that domestically employed foreign workers have while covered under the Ministry of Labour.

‘No fish, no work’

Photos from Cianjhen port in Kaohsiung of a longline vessel under quarantine. Sign posted on the gates outlines the guidelines and association fines for not following.

No fish, no work’ was a statement from a fisherman working on a squid jigger. This vessel had been at port since December 2020 due to a shortage of fishermen. To put another spin on their statement: ‘No fishermen, no work’. COVID-19 has altered the previously limited mobility of fishermen, into a more restrained regime. In this case, workers have been living aboard this vessel for 6 months, with no indication of when they will depart to start work. While they are able to leave the vessel and the port, the precarity of this situation keeps them close. Other vessels that return to port from sea are also required to complete a 14-day quarantine period. These fishermen are restricted to their vessels that are moored to the dock, unable to depart. These vessels are gated off, with large yellow flags and signs surrounding the gates indicating a quarantine site and what they will be fined if they do depart prior to 14-days period ending (image 3). There are a lot of unknowns for workers during this time – Are workers able to access Wi-Fi? Can workers contact their family at home? Are workers receiving adequate or appropriate food and water? Are workers able to observe Ramadan in these conditions? Additionally, due to government protocols, many fishermen and seafarer support organizations have also had to scale back their services during the pandemic as a precaution to keeping both the fishermen and their staff safe. This means fewer social gatherings, religious ceremonies, and interaction among workers at centres and at ports.

MacDonnell, Mallory – York Centre for Asian Research
Mallory MacDonnell

I plan on staying in Taiwan for a few more months. During this time, I will continue to listen to fishermen’s experiences and learn about how they work aboard specific vessels. I will also think more about fish ecologies, and how work within fisheries depends on fish, where they move, and how they can be captured. We’ve been seeing that depending on what fish the vessel is targeting, vessel patterns and fishing grounds change. I would like to try and discern patterns of fishing vessels, based on either migration patterns or behavioural habits of target species. Additionally, I want to enjoy my time spent in Taiwan, learn as much as I can, and just have fun doing research. Because that is what a graduate student should do, right?

I am Mallory MacDonnell, and a doctoral student in Geography at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. I completed a Bachelor’s degree in Aquatic Resources and Biology (St. Francis Xavier University), and hold a Master of Biology from the University of New Brunswick. My doctoral research is part of the Work at Sea project led by Dr. Peter Vandergeest and Dr. Melissa Marschke (University of Ottawa), where we aim to understand labour issues as experienced by workers within the global fishing industry.

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