To Report or Not To Report

Last Friday, when my dad and his brothers put away their accounting books and plastic bag samples started getting out their hooks and lines and tidal apps, I blurted out, “Can I come with?”

My dad and his brothers go fishing every Friday, come rain or shine (though it’s mostly shine in the summer). It’s something they look forward to. As soon as the weekend disappears around the corner and the work week starts, they gather in their office space and try to discuss work, but the conversation will always inevitably drift towards recreational fishing: how their wrists hurt from tackling the sweetlips from last week, how the idea of using heavy nails as weights instead of the less environmentally friendly lead sinkers popped into their head one night at 2am, when they expect their new shipment of gear to arrive. They started fishing sometime in March. My dad used to ask if I’d wanted to come along, but I never went because I either had quarantine, or because I had to write my thesis, or because I was busy with work. Then me not going became a given, and my dad stopped asking.

But then I had been reading Annet’s thesis and was learning the importance of “coming along” – to truly engage in and keep up with the way of life of sea-based interlocutors, one had to come along their journeys as a way to truly understand their relationship(s) with the sea and the decisions that they sometimes make. Nothing would come out of me just sitting around in an office rambling and theorising about decolonial marine science scholarship! If I truly wanted to understand Hong Kong waters and the people who interacted with it on a regular basis and how the ocean made their world, I had to get out there! My dad and his brothers didn’t depend on the ocean, but they had a certain relationship with it that I found interesting; even if they weren’t fishing every day, they certainly were thinking about it 24/7. In other words, a marine-based activity occupied their minds and stood at the centre of their universe for a prolonged period of time. I wanted to go along and see what they were on about. 

“It’ll be hot and sunny,” my dad warned. “You’re going to get a sunburn. And you won’t be able to sleep until 3am.”

I put on my baseball cap and showed him my sunscreen. “It’s not like I haven’t pulled all-nighters before,” I said, pitching my voice lower to sound tough.

My dad sighed. “Okay. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Recreational fishing with a pole and line is allowed during the fishing moratorium in Hong Kong

It was hot. The rocky beach we were at faced west, so the sun glowered down at us for a good three hours. My dad got out two fishing poles, tied on some bait, and used a cart to prop them up. We waited. I watched some cargo ships go by and looked up their countries of origin through the Marine Department website. Then I mapped out the shipping routes in my notebook. Some fish ate my dad’s bait without him noticing, so he went to get some more. Pole and line fishing was really mostly just getting your bait stolen from you until you catch the thief in its act. And even then, sometimes the “thief” is a wet towel discarded by someone ages ago. My dad and his brothers didn’t talk that much. It was just a lot of waiting. In all honesty, I got a bit bored.

Around 6pm, a school of grey fish started jumping around in a weirdly beautiful floppy dance. We watched as they propelled their slender, silver bodies out of the water, twisted themselves slightly, and landed back into the water in a silent smack.

“Mullet,” my dad said.

Mullet, I wrote in my notebook. My first quote of the day. A few moments later, I looked back at where the mullet had been jumping out of the water, but they were gone. A medium sized ship had taken their place, its engines spewing out black smoke. A large hook loomed over its deck on a beam, and from the hook hung something flowy and gauzy. Almost like a dress. Definitely like a purse seine net.

Fishers on the commercial boat prepare to purse seine for mullet.

The people on board started throwing the net into the sea. 

My jaw dropped. My pulse picked up. We were in the middle of the fishing moratorium in Hong Kong. “Are they – ?”

“They are.”

Illegal fishing. I could have written it in my notebook, but I didn’t. Instead, I took out my phone and started filming. The net was a lot larger than the other purse seine nets I’d ever seen. But then, I had only seen the nets the small-scale fishermen in Hong Kong use. This was a commercial fishing boat.

“From the mainland [China],” my dad added. I frowned. Were they doing something doubly illegal, then? Were they fishing in Hong Kong waters without permission and during a moratorium?

“This is outrageous!” My uncle shouted. “What are they doing here? They have a lot of guts, to come this close to shore!”

“They’re after the mullet,” my dad said. 

I looked at my phone. In  my screen, the boat was turning so that the net would form a circle. The mullet had started jumping again, but I wasn’t paying them any attention. The name and number of the boat became visible, painted a stark black against the boat’s white body. The boat was from Guizhou. Bingo. I copied the characters into my notebook with my spare hand. Another quote.

“Should we report them?” I asked. “To the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department [AFCD]?” Something in me thrummed wildly. I wanted to report these illegal fishermen, I realised. They were taking our fish. But, more importantly, they were breaking the law.

My uncle started Googling for the AFCD’s number, and I turned back to watch the fishermen. They were starting to haul the net back up, the five of them, their wide-brimmed hats bobbing as they tugged the net out of the water. I strained my eyes for any signs of fish, but didn’t find any. I wanted proof that they had taken something. 

My uncle started speaking. Then he was quiet. Then he started speaking again. When he hung up, the fishing boat had just gathered back its net. 

“So?” I demanded. “What did AFCD say?”

“Actually,” my uncle said, “They forwarded me to the marine police, who said it wasn’t illegal for a mainland fishing boat to fish in Hong Kong waters even though there’s a moratorium in place in both territories. Sounds like bullshit to me. How is it not illegal? We should look up this rule.”

“We should,” I echoed. But I was less certain now. As soon as my uncle said that he’d talked to the police, the thrumming in me waned, and the excitement curdled. We had just called the police on someone. Since the Black Lives Matter movement started and conversations about police abolition began, I had told myself that I would not call the police on anyone, ever, without thinking about how the call might harm them first. And there I had been, almost gleeful that I had just witnessed illegal(?) fishing, so sure about the illegal-ness that I was giddy about reporting them. I had wanted to report them despite all the reasons I had learned I shouldn’t.

Did it matter that I had suggested calling the AFCD instead of the police? Would I have called the police if I had known they were the people these reports would get forwarded to? In my giddiness and eagerness to see justice done according to Hong Kong law, I had forgotten about the myriad of reasons why laws didn’t exactly mean justice and why people choose to fish illegally. These reasons came rushing back to me now. What if the fishermen were going hungry because they were not receiving enough compensation during the moratorium? What if the alternative livelihoods they’d been designated to during this period wasn’t sufficient in terms of both income and job satisfaction? Who was I to deny these people their fish, when I rarely eat fish myself and could certainly afford a living outside of recreational fishing? 

Was I reporting out of concern for conservation? That was a big fat no. 

I’d like to think that this is an instance of me practicing amphibiousness – going along with people to experience one thing only to get swept up by the currents of another and being okay with it. Certainly, I did get swept up by something other than recreational fishing. But I think this has less to do with practicing amphibiousness than realising that learning and unlearning and not the same process. You can learn things without unlearning their antithesis. You can learn about the blurred lines between the illegal and the legal without unlearning your tendency to stick to “the law.” You can learn about police abolition without unlearning your instinct to call them. You can learn about decolonisation without unlearning your colonial ways of doing. The absence of unlearning has consequences: what if the police had agreed that the fishing was illegal and had sent a patrol? What then?

 My dad went to get another piece of bait. The sun continued setting. I pretended that I had gone back to waiting for some fish to come to us hook, line, and sinker. I guess one kernel of clichedness is that if I didn’t get out of the office, I wouldn’t have been confronted with these questions of morality that have lingered long after the fishing boat left in a plume of exhaust smoke. 

The calm after the self-imposed storm evidently-not IUU fishing.


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