"Philippines 'Pa-aling' Compressor Diving, Human Rights and Overfishing"
An Ocean in Focus Conservation Photography Contest Essay
Alex Hofford

Snorkeler underwater with giant net of fish

"Pa-aling" diver monitors net full of skipjack tuna

snorkeler inside net

"Pa-ling" diver inside the tuna net

Closeup - foot in net with fish

Diver's foot emerges through a mass of tuna inside the net

Snorkeler on boat demonstrating air line

Diver demonstrates the use of a breathing tube

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"Philippines 'Pa-aling' Compressor Diving, Human Rights and Overfishing"
An Ocean in Focus Conservation Photography Contest Essay
Alex Hofford


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

Far beyond the reach of recreational divers, tuna fisheries often take place hundreds of miles from land. The Philippines tuna fleet has long overfished its own waters, and now it is turning its attention to the less regulated international waters of the high seas.

On the morning that I awoke to witness marine wildlife being rounded up on an industrial scale, I was 250 miles from land. The Filipino fishing boat 'Vergene' uses gigantic nets, as well as fish aggregating devices anchored to the seabed by cables five miles long.

Fishing for skipjack tuna is a serious business.

Nets bulge with dead fish and by-catch. The sea clouds with oily blood and guts. Predators such as marlin or sharks are never far away. But what I hadn't expected to witness at 25 meters down was a fellow homo sapiens. Deep inside the net of the 'Vergene', I was astonished to see a human foot pushing up against the black nylon mesh. Like an underwater shepherd with prune-skinned toes, a 'pa-aling' diver was busy inside, scaring the fish towards the surface.

'Pa-aling', or compressor diving, is common in the Philippines, but it is dangerous and controversial. Breathing from just a single plastic air hose connected to a compressor at surface, these divers wear neither mask nor fins. In this most dangerous of jobs, decompression illness, otherwise known as 'the bends', is the biggest killer. Feared by many a diver, this is when one ascends too quickly, or stays at depth for too long.

Later I met Joel Gonzaga, the diver inside the net. Luckily for him, he had made it safely back to the 'Vergene'. Gonzaga told me he daily risked suffocation from compressor failure, and fears his hose could get knotted, kinked or break. He said that fatal accidents were common. Halting fishing operations to sail back to port if an injury occurred was rarely an option as hospitals and decompression chambers were just too far away.

On deck, he showed me his thin plastic hoses, neatly coiled and hanging from hooks. Then Gonzaga offered to show me the small compressor upon which his life depended. By flashlight in the dripping hold of the wooden boat, I could just make it out. It was covered in rust and salt. A sure sign of corrosion.

Gonzaga's account is confirmed by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and labor rights unions in the Philippines. Fishermen like him often spend long months at sea. Far from land, exploitation by industry executives is rife. Working conditions are harsh, pay is low and safety standards can be non-existent.

But despite the human and labor rights issues, 'pa-aling' has an environmental cost too. It is contributing to the overfishing crisis in the Western Pacific where skipjack 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 labor is cheap and the illusion that fish is plentiful remain, there will be more deaths to come in the Philippines fishing industry. Oblivious to the problem are the consumers of tuna in Asia and the West, whether for their sashimi or sandwiches.

Greenpeace is calling for a network of marine reserves to be established in four high seas pockets of international waters in the Western Pacific, and for these zones to be declared off limits to fishing. In the long run, this could be the only thing that helps save the tuna and the fishermen.


Alex Hofford is a Hong Kong-based photojournalist. Much of his work focuses on marine conservation issues. Alex has traveled extensively in East Asia and crossed the Pacific to document shark finning, tuna over-fishing and plastics pollution. He is currently a stringer for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA). Alex is British, was born in Cambridge, and has a young family.