Bui Quang Mong took delivery of his new fishing boat in June 2016. Photo: Supplied

As a fisherman, Bui Quang Mong, 50, has faced many challenges casting his frayed nets into South China Sea: He has stared down typhoons, been chased and caught by Chinese navy ships, fought over confiscated catches, been detained, and forfeited his boat to a Vietnamese bank.

Mong’s xui xeo – bad luck – has followed him since 2008 when his first wife died from cancer, leaving him with two children. His second wife, 36, has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and has just undergone her fourth round of radiation therapy.

Fishing did not run in the family. His dad came from a hardscrabble farming life in Quang Ngai province in Vietnam’s South Central Coast region without any experience in seafaring. In 1992, after completing his military service, Mong decided to become a fisherman.

His first job was working as cook aboard a squid-fishing boat on the central coast. During his time working as cook, he started to learn engine repair from the ship’s mechanics.

The ship owner’s behaved like a Captain Ahab, the complex antihero of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, toward the apprentice mechanic. 

Fortunately for Mong, he was a quick study and began to learn everything about the engine. Every time the engine of the ship broke down – and this was a frequent occurrence – he gained experience, earning the trust of the shipowner, who even promoted his engine-repairing skill to other ships. 

Mong’s brothers fished near the shore, and were able to make a decent living with stable families. But Mong had bigger dreams, and with those dreams came greater risks. He borrowed money from a bank to go fishing offshore in a custom-built composite-constructed trawler in the East Sea, as the Vietnamese refer to the South China Sea. 

This rich, biodiverse semi-enclosed sea has more than 250 atolls, cays, islands, shoals, reefs and seamounts. The fisheries in the South China Sea are of significant local, national and international importance, since they are a major contributor to the food security and economy of the bordering countries.

From trawlers, some steel-hulled, some composite, but mainly wooden and mostly leaking, fishermen compete for pelagic species such as tuna, mackerel, flying fish, billfish and sharks along with a large array of ground fish and invertebrates, especially penaeid shrimps.

The highly migratory pelagic species are generally recognized as swimming across the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and international waters and thus are also known as shared stocks.

However, Vietnam’s neighbor China has little interest in sharing their fish. Beijing’s declaration to become at all costs a maritime power and a respected member of the international community has put much pressure on the fishing industry. 

Beijing’s urge to control the seas is part of the nation’s development and to pursue the “China Dream.” This is the compass that fishermen are using as they drive their fishing vessels into dangerous geopolitical waters. A study by the Overseas Development Institute puts the Chinese fishing fleet at around 17,000.

Fishermen in the region need no further education about how this sea is one of the world’s most contentious areas with significant territorial disputes among neighboring countries.

There have been territorial disputes between China and Vietnam over the sovereignty of the Paracel Islands (which have been occupied by China instead of Vietnam since 1974) and among mainland China and Taiwan and their Southeast Asia neighbors over the sovereignty of the Spratly Islands and other offshore resources.

Although Vietnamese authorities attempt to forecast fish stocks in all fishing grounds, fishermen generally keep their secrets closely guarded about where they can find abundant fish stocks. The universal fishing aphorism is that there are two ways to tell the experience of an angler: how he holds a fish and how he keeps his secrets. The latter, especially among Vietnamese, is always more important.

As a result, fishermen often rely on experience to find fishing sites. However, the weather also plays an important role in their success and failure. The storms in the East Sea can be cruel. In fact, almost 15 cyclones, typhoons and storms occur annually in the churning sea and claim hundreds of lives. 

It often does not pay for fishermen to venture more than 200 nautical miles out because such a trip’s revenue cannot cover expenses or break even. Mong, who has never forgotten his difficult life as a farmer in Quang Ngai, wants the government’s participation to solve many of these problems for fishermen.

He said many others have faced circumstances similar to his own.

Mong was able to apply for a commercial-boat-construction loan under the Vietnamese government’s Directive No 67, designed to facilitate low-interest loans to help qualified fishermen build new boats or upgrade existing vessels.

The intrepid fisherman was successful in approaching a small shipyard that has launched several fiberglass vessels. Having demonstrated to the bank that he was both deserving of a boat loan and capable of repaying it, he was able to order a new 24-by-6.5-meter-beam glass reinforced plastic (GRP) fishing boat, named Ju Mong Truong Sa

He says he wanted to build a fiberglass boat with a big expensive engine, since it would enable him and his crew to travel further and faster.

In June 2016, a proud and determined Bui Mong took delivery of his new fishing vessel with a modeled depth of 3.5 meters and a 10,000-liter fuel capacity. With a packing capacity of 70 cubic meters in eight compartments, it allowed efficient use of ice and provided storage for significant catches of tuna and other fish species.

Mong got his powerful and reliable engine, a 12-cylinder Cummins KTA38 delivering 800 horsepower at 1,800rpm.

His fishing vessel was 95% funded by the state and he contributed the remaining 5%. Its engine alone cost 3 billion dong (around US$130,000) and the total value of the ship was 12.5 billion dong ($538,000). In comparison, a traditional wooden fishing boat of good quality costs 1 billion dong (around $43,000).

Fishermen on Vietnam’s central coast who took out loans from commercial banks to buy steel fishing boats under a government-backed scheme have reported huge losses. 

At least 10 owners of steel-hulled fishing boats have signed a petition to complain about the quality of vessels built by Nam Trieu and Dai Nguyen Duong Shipbuilding Company, claims Vo Dinh Tam, a senior fishery official in Binh Dinh province. 

From the traditional coracle bamboo basket woven boats to the multi-colored traditional blue-hulled wood trawlers, Vietnamese fishermen in each port and coastal fishing town are busy repairing their nets in anticipation of another day casting for their living. 

There’s growing competition for the dwindling fish stocks in the disputed South China Sea. It has been dangerously overfished, and catch rates have declined by 70% over the last 20 years. Now more fishermen fully realize that bigger and faster boats only translate as less fish to catch. 

Yet Mong felt confident in his decision to have a composite trawler built, since too many modern steel-constructed boats that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars were foundering only a few months after they were launched, generally from inferior steel purchased from Chinese suppliers. 

“The steel from China is of a poor quality, and this only leads to damage and disappointment for the fisherman,” Mong claims. 

One fisherman, an acquaintance of Mong, built a steel-hulled ship, also under Program 67. However, his ship was heavy, so it couldn’t chase the fish and returned to port with many problems.

The steel-hulled ship’s ice cellar was too hot, so the ice melted quickly, decreasing the quality of the fish. As a result, the fish could only be sold at a lower price. Moreover, these steel-hulled ships deteriorate after three to five years and every repair costs a lot of money.

When his wife became ill, Mong could not go on seafaring trips and chose to stay at home to take care of her, and his vessel was left in the port. But he still was faced with the demands to pay salaries for his crew as well as the government loan to build the vessel (a 16-year payment).  

The bank placed him on a list of individuals unable to repay debt and sued him. He refused to go to court, but he was tried in absentia and the court sided with the bank, confiscating his ship.

He was forced to say goodbye to his seafaring life, although he did not want to. He changed to another job and left behind a few friends who were also former fishermen. 

At home now, Bui Quang Mong misses seafaring most days. For now, he clings to his fishing memories. The approaching winter, and with it the decline in fishing grounds along with more Chinese fishing vessels on the horizon, only serve to cast a longer shadow over him and the sea.

James Borton

James Borton has been reporting on Southeast Asia for three decades and has just finished his latest book, Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.