It’s a rare privilege to dive on the net of a tuna fishing boat.

Tuna fisheries often exist hundreds of kilometres from land, far beyond the reach of recreational divers. The Philippines’ tuna fleet has long overfished its own waters and is turning its attention to the less-regulated high seas.

When I awake to witness marine wildlife being rounded up on an industrial scale, I am 400 kilometres from land, on the Philippine fishing boat Vergene. The crew employs gigantic nets and fish aggregating devices anchored to the seabed by cables eight kilometres long.

Below the surface, nets bulge with dead fish and by-catch; the sea clouds with oily blood and guts; predators such as marlin and sharks are never far away. What I hadn’t expected to witness 25 metres down, though, was a fellow human being.

I am astonished to see a foot pushing up against the black nylon mesh from the inside of a net. Like an underwater shepherd with prune-skinned toes, a pa-aling diver is busy inside, scaring the fish towards the surface.

Pa-aling, or compressor diving, is common in the Philippines, but is dangerous and controversial. Breathing through a single plastic air hose connected to a compressor at the surface, these divers wear neither masks nor fins. Decompression sickness – when one ascends too quickly or stays at depth for too long, and otherwise known as the bends – is the biggest killer.

Later, I meet the diver whose foot I saw inside the net. Joel Gonzaga says he risks suffocation from compressor failure daily and fears his hose could get knotted, kinked or break. He says fatal accidents are common in his line of work. Halting fishing operations to sail back to port if an injury occurs is rarely an option as hospitals and decompression chambers are just too far away to be of much use.

On deck, he shows me his thin plastic hoses, neatly coiled and hanging from hooks.

Then Gonzaga takes me to the dripping hold of the wooden boat to show me the small compressor upon which his life depends. By flashlight, I can just make out that it is covered in rust and salt; a sure sign of corrosion.

Gonzaga’s account is confirmed by the International Labor Organisation and labour rights unions in the Philippines. Fishermen often spend months at sea. Far from land, working conditions are harsh, pay is low and safety equipment can be non-existent.

Pa-aling has an environmental cost, too. It is contributing to overfishing in the western Pacific, where skipjack tuna catches have steadily declined since 2011. This has pushed up prices, threatening the supply of a vital source of protein for coastal communities across the Pacific region.

As long as labour is cheap and the illusion that fish are plentiful remains, there will be more deaths in the Philippine fishing industry. Seemingly oblivious to the problem are the consumers of tuna – whether for sashimi or sandwiches – in Asia and the West.

Greenpeace is calling for a network of marine reserves to be established in four pockets of international waters in the western Pacific, and for these zones to be declared off-limits to all fishing. In the long run, they could save both the tuna and the livelihoods of those who fish for them.

The establishment of reserves probably wouldn’t help Gonzaga and his fellow pa-aling divers much, though.


These pictures and others in the series will be on display at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, in Central, throughout August.