22 October 2015

Dominion of the Sea

By Luc Forsyth and Gareth Bright
October 21, 2015

Luc Forsyth and Gareth Bright have set out on a journey to follow the Mekong river from sea to source, The Diplomat will be sharing some of the stories they’ve found along the way. For more about the project, check out the whole series here.

“If I had to give this boat a name, I would call it Happiness,” Nguyen Than told us at four o’clock in the morning as he prepared his shrimp boat for sea. But the family-owned boat, staffed entirely by an extensive network of brothers and brothers-in-law, had no formal name. Instead it went by the less evocative handle of TG1920.

We met his brother-in-law and co-captain, with the confusingly similar name of Thane, the previous afternoon in the town of Den Do, a small community of around 600 families that sits on the banks of the Mekong with a clear line of sight to the sea beyond. A short, swarthy man with a voice like a sand blaster, he seemed amused by our request to join his crew for a morning’s work, but granted permission nevertheless.

As we watched the members of the Nguyen family stumble bleary-eyed across the ship’s worn wooden deck to set about their morning tasks – coiling ropes, preparing tea, chain smoking Hero cigarettes – it became clear that TG1920 was one of the only boats still tied up to the shore.

“I really didn’t expect you to be on time,” Than revealed, “so I told everyone to sleep in.”

Barking instructions to his crew, he settled onto his haunches to watch us eat our breakfast of bland store-bought cakes.

A crew member prepares the shrimp boat to head into the South China Sea, known as the Eastern Sea in Vietnam. Photo by Gareth Bright. 

Twenty minutes later, the sun still well below the horizon, the ship’s engine rumbled to life and we began reversing away from the dock into the darkness of the river.

“This exit of the Mekong is the best in the area,” Thane, the driver of the day, told us with an air of pride as he swung the bow around to point towards the sea.

“There are many exits like this, but they are dangerous and full of criminals.”

With no frame of reference, we had to take this statement at face value, though we suspected that hometown pride – he and his brother had been shrimping out of Den Do for 40 years – may have biased his pronouncement, and that the rest of coastal Vietnam might not be, in fact, a haven for pirates and thieves.

Captain Nguyen Than sits on his shrimp boat, 30 km off the coast of Vietnam. In the background, a man traverses a line strung between the offshore nets. The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Photo by Luc Forsyth.

Motoring out of the river mouth and onto the South China Sea (or the Eastern Sea as the Vietnamese call it, disliking the implication of Chinese ownership for obvious reasons), a pot of hot tea was passed through a hatch in the cockpit roof where we sat with Than and Thane.

“Fishermen drink their tea from bowls, not cups,” Thane stated, an ever-present Hero dangling from the corner of his mouth. When we asked why this was so, he shrugged impassively in the dark. “Tradition.”

We were headed to the Nguyen’s shrimp nets 30 km offshore, and with nothing to do but wait we tried to steer the dialogue to questions of the Mekong’s importance in their daily life. But our idealized notions of a people deeply connected to the river were quickly put down: “The river doesn’t matter to people here. It is only the sea,” repeated Thane in various ways each time I tried to rephrase the question in the hopes of drawing him out. Eventually he admitted that the river allowed them to transport their catch to the inland processing facilities in Den Do, but he was clearly determined to downplay the Mekong in favour of the ocean.

“I love the sea,” Than said between sips of tea, in support of his brother in law’s statements. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Nguyen Thane (left) and Nguyen Than (right) are brothers and co captains of the family owned boat and have been shrimping off the coast of Vietnam for more than 30 years. Photo by Gareth Bright.

At Home on the Water

After an hour of motoring, the rows of shrimp nets appeared on the horizon and the hitherto lethargic crew scrambled into action. Parallel rows of evenly spaced coconut logs had been somehow hammered into the seafloor and secured with guy-wires, jutting into the sky to resemble a series of telephone poles in the middle of the ocean. Intermittently punctuating the repetition were a few small thatched shacks, perched precariously above the gently rolling waves.

Since none of our team had much in the way of shrimping experience, we were somewhat surprised to see shadowy heads popping out of the structures, silhouetted against the dawn sky. As Thane drew the ship closer, more men emerged to watch us approach. Whoops of humoured curiosity sounded out as they realized their resupply included a visit from three foreigners.

While Gareth, Pablo, and I moved into more advantageous shooting positions, Thane elaborated from his pilot’s seat. There were about twenty male members of the Nguyen family, with half allotted to boat duties and the remaining stationed in the remote fishing shacks for 8 or 9 days at time. Every morning the boats delivered fresh water and food to the isolated men, whose responsibility it was to maintain and bait the nets submerged in the sea below. At the end of their shift, the boat and net crews would switch duties and the men could return to shore to rest and visit with their families. Thane had pointed out earlier that this was one of the calmest days on the water in the last month; I couldn’t imagine the terror of weathering a storm in a two meter square wooden box in what might have well as been the middle of the ocean.

The nets are manned by a remote crew that lives in stilted shacks 30 km away from land. Every 8 or 9 days the crew members will rotate, and the men living offshore return to land. Photo by Luc Forsyth.

For the next two hours the boat crew threw grappling hooks into the grey-brown water, snagging the lines of sunken nets and dragging them out of the depths, hand over hand. Once out of the water, the nets were emptied into plastic baskets that lined the ship’s hold and given a cursory inspection; any particularly large or valuable fish were dropped in buckets filled with salt water to keep them alive, and plastic bags were separated from the tiny shrimp and thrown back overboard, likely to be hauled in again the next day.

When all the nets had been checked we turned back towards the coast, the men who would stay behind disappearing back into the safety of their stilted sanctuaries. And though the hold seemed reasonably full (again, none of us having any past experiences to draw on), Than revealed that all was not well on the sea.

“Now there are less than half the shrimp we used to catch,” he said between puffs of his cigarette. “If the sea was good we could catch up to one tonne, but now it is much less.” When asked about the abundance of plastic, Than seemed as indifferent as he was towards the Mekong. “We don’t know exactly where it comes from, but all the fishermen and communities throw it into the river, so it probably comes from there.”

Shrimp processors and buyers line the docs in the town of Den Do, unloading the day’s shrimp catch (L) and Ngyuen Than prepares a meal of “fisherman’s soup” – a blend of various species that are boiled in a pot with water and onions (R). Photo by Gareth Bright.

As we left the sea and churned against the Mekong’s current towards Den Do, I tried a final time to turn the conversation to the Mekong. Sighing, Than elaborated on his previous answers: “There aren’t many shrimp or fish in the river. The people who live there need to farm their fish, there are not enough wild fish left to live on. The river is not important here, we go to the sea.”

Whether because of overfishing, the presence of agricultural chemicals, or increased salinity, the Mekong, at its end, was no longer fishable.

Shrimp captain Nguyen Thane stands on the cockpit of his shrimping boat (L) and a fisherman stacks baskets in the hold of his vessel (R). Photo by Luc Forsyth

Shore Party

Many of Den Do’s shrimp boats seemed to return to land at roughly the same time, and we entered into a queue of vessels, each waiting to offload their catch. Groups of women wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical hats stood along the seawall, on the lookout for whichever boat they were employed by. When it was eventually TG1920’s turn to tie up, the transfer of seafood was swift. In less than 5 minutes around 400kg of shrimp was loaded onto waiting flatbed motorcycle-drawn carts and driven off to a family-owned processing facility where the shrimp would be sorted, dried in the sun and sold, or made into Ruoc – a salty paste and national delicacy.

Though we were exhausted, unaccustomed as yet to waking up at 3:30 a.m., Than was adamant that we follow him to his home for a meal. Over a suppressed hotpot of boiled squid (I was called out as “weak” for only eating 10 full squid), he explained that despite the challenges of living from an increasingly unproductive waterscape his family has no plans to change. “

“When I am an old man, my sons will take over this boat. There is nothing about this work that we don’t like, other than the storms. But we are used to them.”

After a round of boisterous handshakes we left the Nguyen’s, the first of encounter in what we hoped would form the basis of many fast friendships. To the southwest lay our next destination – the island of Phu Tanh, a 30km long mass of land pointed, dagger-like, into the Mekong delta.

The Nguyen family enjoying a fresh seafood meal after a hard mornings work hauling shrimp in the South China Sea. Photo by Gareth Bright.

This piece originally appeared at A River’s Tail.

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