In Copenhagen on the weekend of 3-5 May, the European Justice and Peace Commission organised a conference on the oceans. You can read a report by Stefan Lund.

This was my first visit to Copenhagen, in a part of the world which was home to my Viking ancestors. There is a great sense of space in Copenhagen not only because of the presence of water everywhere but because, when the city planners made wide streets, they made them very wide indeed. Our meeting place looked out through full length windows on an expansive channel of water. Copenhagen is definitely a great place to visit and you can imagine setting out from there, by sea to any part of the world. In Copenhagen the sea looks great and there were swimming places right beside our conference centre.

Fiji-Kiribati island

The story inside the meeting hall was also about the sea but it struck a more sombre note. The speakers who addressed us spoke from many different perspectives, including one by video link from Fiji. There was talk of rising sea levels, bleached coral reefs, depleted fish reserves and, of course, plastic. One of our speakers told us of fishermen in one part of the world who set off with two nets. One of them was used to gather the plastic which they could sell to be recycled. With the other net they did what fishermen have done since the dawn of time.

I was intrigued by the thought of fishing for plastic, but the overall story is now familiar enough. The oceans were being filled with filth. Another story, however, took me by surprise. It was about what happens on ships. I had no difficulty seeing the world of shipping as a tough place, but I was not expecting to hear about how widespread slavery is in that world and how the cost of a human being varies from €10,000 to €20,000. Nor was I prepared to hear that many of these crew members, on being interviewed, had witnessed murder meted out as a punishment. Some of them have spent years without setting foot on land. These stories are not about faraway impoverished places. All this happens in Europe and in addition to the ‘ordinary’ abuses of low wages, long hours and unsanitary conditions.

photo credit: ejfoundation.org

Yes, there are many law-biding ship owners and they work at a severe disadvantage, while others flout laws which are poorly policed.  They don’t go into fishing grounds which are protected in name only. They respect the rights of their employees while others don’t.

The conference spent a good part of Sunday morning on a boat out on the waves off Copenhagen. The sea was calm and it was not too cold, as one of our speakers, Cardinal Peter Turkson, presided at mass with everyone gathered around on the foredeck of a fishing boat adapted for passenger travel. It was a moment of communion not just with the Lord and with each other but with the sea itself.

Edmond Grace SJ

Editor, Eco-Bites

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