World Oceans Day 2021: Paul Maillis

June 3rd, 2021; This interview was conducted via email and edited for clarity.

Since 2018, WildAid Marine has been working alongside The Nature Conservancy, The Bahamas Department of Marine Resources, and other Bahamian government agencies to strengthen the capacity of local marine enforcement agencies. To understand the importance of this work, we invite you to join us on a virtual trip to The Bahamas. We’ll meet community members, fishers, and ocean advocates who depend on the ocean for their livelihoods and whose stories highlight the need for strong enforcement and smart marine resource management. In honor of World Oceans Day, please join us in raising critical funds to support the implementation of the Marine Action Partnership for Sustainable Fisheries in The Bahamas.

My name is Paul Maillis of New Providence, The Bahamas. I have been fishing for over 15 years as both a small day-boat fisher and now commercially.  

Growing up in a family of fishers, the ocean has always been at the heart of my life and culture. As a young boy of 8 years, I would spearfish from a 15ft aluminum boat sometimes 25 miles from shore. Virtually every family tradition involves fishing or boating in some form or fashion. Over the years, I have depended on fishing for an income and to support my family.    

How did you get started with this work?
COVID-19 really was the impetus for becoming a full-time commercial fisherman. With the absence of any other opportunities, I had no choice but to use my skills in fishing to my advantage.  

What do you love most about your job?
I love freediving and spearfishing passionately. There is a peace beneath the waves that is inexplicable. The silent thrill of the hunt, and the fear of sharks, neither of which you can allow to alter your demeanor or heart rate. The stunning corals and myriad of small, colourful reef fishes. Even my target prey astonishes me. I feel respect towards my prey, and will always do what I can to minimise their pain and suffering. I strive to never waste fish – I will not take a shot if it is going to damage the most valuable part of the meat or if it is very large prey that will likely take my gear and die without retrieval. One of my favourite parts of the job is filleting and bagging the meat into beautiful packages. I believe that proper processing is key to respecting the fish that lost its life to satisfy my needs. 

What is one of the most challenging parts of your job?
It is challenging to locate and harvest fish, period. As a freediver, my greatest challenge is being able to upkeep the requisite stamina and blood oxygen levels to not only make hundreds of dives in a single day, sometimes at depths of 70 ft, but also to have the strength to repeatedly draw my weapon (Hawaiian sling and free shaft) and strike a fish accurately while under duress. At the same time, I am holding my breath and exerting energy in the descent, I must also be cognisant of the presence of sharks and how long and deep I can stay down on a single breath. Placing a fatal kill shot takes years of practice and a professional diver must have the discernment of when to and when not to take a shot. 

In what ways do your job and livelihood depend on a healthy ocean?
A healthy ocean is crucial to my livelihood. Without healthy coral reefs, the predatory fish I depend on would cease to exist. Bleached corals or destroyed corals are not suitable habitats for predators.

In what other ways do you depend on a healthy ocean?
My country’s national revenue is derived from the ocean, whether it be from tourism, fisheries, transport industries, or subsistence fishing. Further, my personal life and family life are directly integrated with healthy oceans. Whether it be our daily diet or bonding traditions out on the sea. If our waters are polluted, dying, and fished out, it would be catastrophic to my entire existence as a Bahamian.  

What does the ocean mean to you?
The ocean is everything to me. I studied Aquaculture in university to create alternatives to wild-caught fisheries. Fishing has given me everything I possess and is the ultimate objective for everyone in my family. Even if some of my family are not professional fishers, they enjoy it as recreation and benefit from the fruits of that labour. The ocean has inspired me to face my greatest fears and soften my heart towards all life beneath the waves. The ocean has also made me brave in the face of any odds life has put before me. Nothing can give and destroy quite like the ocean, and I have stared down certain death many times. We are inseparable and I will never stop fighting for her.  

What worries you most about the future of our oceans?
There is so much to be concerned about when it comes to the future of our oceans. Across the globe, illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, and even legal industrial fishing has vastly depleted many stocks, and fisheries are often used as debt repayment for poorer states. I fear that my Bahamas will fall into the same trap and strip our future to pay for a moment. I fear the impact of ocean acidification damaging the development of the clams and conchs my fisheries depend on. I worry about overfishing the reefs and shoals without reprieve. I worry about the damage to and pollution of our mangrove systems and the harmful effects of marine traffic throughout our waters. I worry about losing the culture and heritage of fishing which has sustained my people for hundreds of years. I worry about the collapse of tens of thousands of jobs and careers that fisheries support in my country.  

What gives you hope for the future of our oceans?
I have hope that our species will continue to find balance in marine ecosystems. I have hope that new legislation and attention to fisheries in my own country will strengthen efforts to sustainably manage every fishery, eliminate IUU fishing, and create a more structured legal regime governing our ocean. People are becoming more aware of the significance of the ocean to our global climatic health. People must fight ferociously to protect their swathe of ocean from unmitigated extraction and poaching, even if it leads to conflict. I have hope that my generation of fishers will learn to make more with less and move away from the pure volume-driven practices of the past.