Advocate for fair fishing the 2019 seafood champion of the world

by Claire Heath | 24 June 2019 | News

Francisco and a Solomon Islander at work on a pole-and-line vessel in 2010 (Photo: Francisco Blaha)

A man who is a familiar presence in tuna circles in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, Francisco Blaha, is this year’s SeaWeb Seafood Champion in the area of advocacy.

Francisco “brings a unique perspective and has the credibility of very different but complementary groups in fisheries”, SeaWeb said when it announced the 2019 winners earlier this month. It noted that some of his ideas had been adopted by big players in the fishing industry.

Francisco Blaha on stage being awarded the SeaWeb Seafood Champion for advocacy in Bangkok in June 2019 (Photo: Francisco Blaha)
Francisco Blaha receives his award as the 2019 SeaWeb Seafood Champion for advocacy in a ceremony in Bangkok this month (Photo: Francisco Blaha)

Francisco sees his award as recognition of his ability to work with three groups that were often at odds with each other: governments, industry, and non-government organisations (NGOs). He says the SeaWeb awards brings together many people trying to do the right thing.

“This is a good thing, with all the bad news that fisheries get,” Francisco says.

“There are no superpowers attached to the award, to the disappointment of my daughter.”

Francisco Blaha stands outside a fisheries office in the Pacific, with a bicycle for transport and manual scales to work with (Photo: Francisco Blaha)
No superpowers here … the realities of work in some parts of the Pacific mean that there is barely an office, the work vehicle is a bike, and the scales are manual (Photo: Francisco Blaha)

SeaWeb is a project of the Ocean Foundation. It has presented awards in four categories since 2006 to recognise individuals and companies for outstanding leadership in promoting the production of environmentally responsible seafood.

Francisco’s credibility in the Pacific fishing industry is something he acknowledges himself.

It comes in part because he works for himself, and does not have to follow any company line, he told Tuna Pacific after winning the award.

“I guess people appreciate that I don’t pretend to be anyone or anything I’m not: I’m just a dyslexic fisher that got lucky with access to education and work for himself,” Francisco says.

“I have never had to use a suit and ties, even when I was working with the UN [United Nations] in Rome.  Whatever I got was on my own terms. I don’t ‘sell’ anything for anyone. If I don’t like something, I just don’t accept the job, and I’m vocal on why I disagree with it.

“I dislike profoundly ingratitude and pretentiousness.”

Francisco discovers a love of the ocean

Anyone who has read Francisco’s popular blog – he says it had 25,000 individual readers in 2018 – knows that he began his fishing life working on boats taking squid, hake and toothfish in southern Argentina. But they may not know that he has an earlier association with the sea.

Francisco grew up far from the ocean, in the traditional lands of the Guaraní people around the border of Paraguay and Argentina, with his local mother and European father.

“My family crossed the Atlantic on board a cruising ship from Germany all the way to Argentina when I was six years old. I like to think that trip marked my life,” Francisco said.

It wasn’t the only thing that influenced him to take up a life on the sea.

“I guess some people grow by action: they decide they want similar things to their parents and other people around them. Others, like me, grow by reaction, by going the opposite way. As anything to do with the ocean was outside my family’s influence, I went that way,” Francisco says.

By joining the Argentinian navy as a cadet, Francisco was able to go to high school. He learned a lot about “the ocean, and rowing and swimming” – and then a second-hand 1976 National Geographic fell into his hands.

“It had an article about the trip of the Hokule’a, the Hawaiian double-hulled canoe that went from Honolulu to Papeete. I started learning, reading history, and fantasising about the South Pacific,” he says.

Francisco loved the ocean, but not the military life – he admits to having a strong anti-authority streak – and when he was released from the navy after the Falklands War, he decided to go fishing for a few years, and worked as technician on board fishing and research vessels while he gained a Masters in fisheries science.

His experience of working during this time taught him that he had no desire to work in a job “where you spend half your time navigating political storms” of bureaucracies and grooming political connections to get jobs and promotions.

“So, I decided to come to the Pacific and go to all those places I had read about in the article on the Hokule’a as teenager. Two weeks after graduation, I got in a sailing boat that was going to Tahiti via Cape Horn … no plans, no contacts, just hopes and a smile.”

He spent almost two years heading west, fishing and doing odd jobs in Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, before landing in New Zealand in 1995. He fell in love with the country, and has set up his life there.

An introduction to fisheries compliance

Francisco worked for New Zealand fishing companies such as Sanford and Simunovich Fisheries. It was here that he was introduced to a level of fisheries compliance he had not experienced. To his surprise, he enjoyed the work.

Having decided it would be useful to have a degree from an English-speaking university, he earned a Masters in food science, then started doing domestic consulting work.

“I found international fisheries consulting work mostly by chance,” Francisco says. “I didn’t know such a job existed. But if fit me well: I know fishing, I have a good practical and academic background, and I love travelling and spending time with fisheries people. I also have a total lack of embarrassment about trying new languages, and that helped, too.”

Apart from a two-year stint with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in Rome, he has worked for himself for the past 25 years.

The crew breaks for lunch when Francisco (far left) is on board controlling transhipment at Noro, in the Solomon Islands. (Photo: Francisco Blaha)
The crew breaks for lunch when Francisco (far left) is on board controlling transhipment at Noro, in the Solomon Islands. (Photo: Francisco Blaha)

A familiar face in the Pacific – and around the world

Francisco is now a familiar face in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, where he holds contracts with governments, charitable and non-government organisations, and international bodies. Most of his work these days is with monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing. This involves him in the development of port state measures (PSM) and catch documentation schemes (CDSes).

He does a lot of work with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Forum Agency (FFA), from high-level development of procedures such as the Port State Measures Framework to training compliance officers to the use of new hook-type scales to monitor transhipment volumes.

“The Guaraní I grew up with have a culture that has a surprising affinity with the cultures of the Pacific, so the customs that are the basis of Pacific life are not too foreign to me. When I started collaborating with the FFA over 10 years ago, I found an organisation whose values are akin to mine,” Francisco says.

“FFA is at the edge of the best practices in fisheries worldwide. I love working for them. In fact, I consider many of the staff as part of my extended family now.”

Home, soul and family in the Pacific

Francisco has his fingers in many other pies, too. Among other projects, he is an adviser for the Marshall Islands Marine Resource Authority (under a contract with the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade), “dealing with an amazing variety of stuff, from strategy advice, procurement for boarding boats, intelligence analysis of vessels arriving at port, inspections—and 100 other things.”

He is working with FAO on the implementation of port state measures and social responsibility and the use of blockchain technology to make the chain of fish production more transparent. And he is collaborating with OceanMind on remote intelligence analysis of fishing vessels.

A one-off project he had fun with was developing a colouring book to help train subsistence fishers of countries that belong to the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on best practice in fishing.

Francisco’s work isn’t restricted to this region. In his CV, he lists 58 countries he’s worked with around the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea.

Francisco (left) and crew member unload frozen tuna during training given by Francisco in the Maldives, 2012 (Photo: Francisco Blaha)
Francisco (left) works with the crew he is training as they unload tuna after a fishing trip in the Maldives in 2012 (Photo: Francisco Blaha)

However, while he works around the world, his work in the Pacific has special meaning for him.

“The Pacific has been home for half my life. It has given me a second run in life, and family, friends, meaningful work, and an oceanic playground to surf, do open-water swims, spearfish, paddle, navigate by wayfinding … My soul is at home in the Pacific. And the Pacific fishing problems are my fishing problems – I live off fishing in this ocean for most of my year.”

A passion for fairness

For someone who holds little regard for rank, the challenging world of compliance may seem like an odd choice of career.

“The fact that I am here today in New Zealand with this job is a function of my past, and relates to my appreciation of the concept of fairness and equal opportunities. I’m coming into it from the perspective of it being fair for all sides. It does not relate to enforcing rules,” Francisco says.

“For me, the fisheries ‘crisis’ is not a biological crisis, but one of politics, transparency, and fairness.

“Right now, the system is not fair. When I broke my knee on board back in Argentina, when I had exams at university, there was a ‘system’ set up by the fishers’ union to look after me. When I see the conditions and pay that many of the crews today have, it just upsets me!

“I have the same posture on gender and diversity. I don’t participate any more on panels and conferences unless the organisers can prove that there is more diversity than at the last one. This is not some ‘new age’ thing I’m trying to pose for; it’s just that is not fair, and that is enough for me.

“I grew up in a country with not much of a culture of compliance, and while I felt that many of the rules were dumb, at least I expected they should have applied equally to everyone and not just to some. The equality of the rule of law in New Zealand is a rare cultural privilege.”

He says he had found a niche that suits him, working “in the middle” between regulators with whom he shares insights into fishing; industry, which he can help be more cost-effective; and the fishers, for whom he is a voice for decent working conditions and wages.

He is proud of being trusted by all.

“People respect that you understand their job because you have done it yourself. For example, when you go on board, crew immediately know if you spent time fishing by the way you move on board, the fact that you know how to operate the instruments and the bridge—and that you can call them on technical issues when they are trying to derail the conversation when you find a compliance problem.

“It’s the same at factories. And in boardrooms. When people know you know your stuff, that is good for everyone to improve the industry.”

Francisco looking through telescope at work on board a purse seiner at Tokelau in 2002 (Photo: Francisco Blaha)
Francisco at work on a purse seiner at Tokelau in 2002 (Photo: Francisco Blaha)

Fishing is the people – men and women

Francisco likes to point out that he doesn’t work with fish any more.

“I work with the people who work with fish. I love working with fishermen and fisheries inspectors, factory people. I have gained a much wider perspective by working on the ground than being in classrooms,” Francisco says.

“In a fishing boat, you don’t have to like the guy next to you, but you should be able to trust him. Everyone on board has a job, and you have to do your job right. If you don’t, people die; it’s as simple as that.

“Fishing also makes you very aware of your overall insignificance. When you are in storm at sea and there are 20 metre waves outside and 80 knot wind gusts, nothing really matters a lot other than staying alive. And when you see those seas and what nature can be, it is a profound life experience … or at least it is for me.”

He would like to see more women working in all fields of the fishing industry.

“It still is an unfair playing field out there,” Francisco says.

“But I would say to women that it is getting better, mostly because other women before you started opening the way. Now it’s your turn. Many men are also changing and walking along with you, and you’ll be surprised how many good people are out there for each of the idiots you will still find along your path.”

Francisco says that he has been shaped by fishers and fisheries; that they allowed him to educate himself, help his family, make friends, and work in places he’d never heard of.

“I love fisheries, and fisheries are people, for good and for bad, and they cannot and should not be separated. My favourite Māori proverb or whakataukī is something I appreciate more as I get older. It goes: He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

“What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.”