EJF: Declining fish stocks, demand for cheap seafood driving human rights abuses

Published on
June 5, 2019

Establishing full transparency in fisheries is crucial to ending the “vicious cycle of abuse” faced by workers in the catching sector, a new report compiled by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) asserts.

The United Kingdom-based charity is also calling for the urgent ratification of international agreements designed to improve workers’ rights, vessel inspections, and enforcement. 

According to EJF, there are direct links between declining fish stocks, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and serious human rights abuses in the catching sector. Its report, “Blood and water: human rights abuse in the global seafood industry,” also contends that the challenge is being further exacerbated by a growing demand for cheap seafood. These powerful economic forces have driven down profits in many fisheries and have led to the increased abuse of crews, said EJF. 

The report documents cases of slavery, debt bondage, insufficient food and water, filthy living conditions, physical and sexual assault, and even murder aboard fishing vessels from 13 countries operating across three oceans. These included trafficked fishermen in the U.K. and Ireland, bonded labor in the United Arab Emirates fisheries, forced labor on U.S.-flagged vessels based in Hawaii, and workers tricked into working on Thai fishing boats by brokers and traffickers.

Max Schmid, deputy director of EJF, told SeafoodSource that through the diagnosis that human rights abuses can be directly attributed to the decline of fisheries resources, it was clear that transparency could be an important tool with regards to fixing the problem.

“Fisheries by their nature are not transparent because these activities often happen far from view, and also because of the way that the industry is organized with flag states and vessels that can move around the world,” Schmid said. “It lacks the transparency that you might get in other industries. We need to reverse that and introduce transparency measures that overcome these obstacles.”

The report insists that solutions to human rights abuses and associated problems exist and that they are easily implemented and increasingly affordable. It also maintains that everyone has a part to play, from countries and international authorities through to fishing companies, processors, importers, retailers, and consumers. 

For countries, EJF has developed 10 transparency principles: 

  • Give all vessels a unique number
  • Make vessel tracking data public
  • Publish lists of fishing licenses and authorizations 
  • Publish punishments handed out for fisheries crimes
  • Ban transferring fish between boats at sea – unless pre-authorized and carefully monitored 
  • Set up a digital database of vessel information
  • Stop the use of flags of convenience for fishing vessels
  • Publish details of the true owners of each vessel 
  • Punish anyone involved in IUU fishing
  • Adopt international measures that set clear standards for fishing vessels and the trade in fisheries products

In addition, the foundation wants countries to ensure appropriate legal mandates; training and support for relevant authorities; tight regulatation of the recruitment process for migrant workers on fishing vessels; an end to the ability for brokers to use exploitative contracts that create bonded labor; and a supply  of sufficient resources for detection, investigation, and prosecution of human rights cases in the seafood industry. 

Its recommendations to corporations involved in the global seafood industry include adopting clear risk-mitigation policies and processes that extend through the supply chain, backed with third-party verification, to identify and deal with human rights abuses and associated issues. They are also urged to record or demand data on sourcing vessels to ensure no vessel with a history of committing IUU fishing or labor abuses can taint the supply chain, and to use in-house and third-party verification to ensure the accuracy of this data. 

For consumers, EJF advises that they demand proof of net-to-plate traceability and clear, specific assurances that products are caught or farmed legally, sustainably and ethically. Furthermore it advises that businesses publicly state the measures they are taking to ensure they are not sourcing products that use trafficked, bonded, forced or slave labor. 

“We can’t just wait for governments to act, though we do have some good examples of governments taking action. We need the industry and the people buying from the industry to be pushing, too. It’s not sustainable or effective for NGOs to find the latest bad state and then spend the next five years fixing that state while the problems are displaced to other destinations. That’s not going to fix the problem,” Schmid said. “You need the buyers in the big market states to have sophisticated due diligence systems that can drive these problems out by making sure that these things are being checked. That’s what we are calling on all industry to do, and we are seeing, particularly in the U.K. but others as well, that there’s more and more organizations setting that expectation and telling their suppliers that this is what they want to see.”

An industry-led process, Schmid added, can often bring faster results than simply expecting governments to tackle it at the behest of NGO pressure.

“When governments have industry asking them to [implement traceability procedures], it’s much more effective than when it’s just NGOs asking,” Schmid said.

In dissecting the pathways to the human rights abuses that it has documented, the report states that because labor costs can account for up to 60 percent of total vessel expenses, many fishing operators seek to take advantage of large labor pools from poorer countries in an attempt to drive down costs and increase their competitive advantage over their rivals. With lower salaries, less social protection and weaker labor rights compared to their domestic counterparts, migrant workers are extremely vulnerable to traffickers, exploitative brokers, and abusive captains or crews. 

The report states this can ultimately lead to workers being forced into bonded labor or slavery, being paid little or nothing for exhausting and hazardous work, while those who engage in slavery and human trafficking capitalize on capacity gaps in monitoring, surveillance, and enforcement tools of states. 

Weak governance has allowed these two issues to become embedded in many national seafood supply chains, said EJF.

It has also identified that practices such as trans-shipment at sea and the use of flags of convenience heighten these risks and make it more difficult to identify and track possible cases of illegal fishing or labor abuses and less likely that governments can take enforcement action. 

“Often it’s the human trafficking, the forced labor, or debt bondage that then enables the worst abuses and that might be set up by brokers or by wider networks that are getting the workers onboard vessels,” said Schmid. “There might be captains that work those workers hard but still treat them with some element of respect, but you may also get captains that take advantage of the fact that the workers cannot escape and who implement some of the worst types of human rights abuses. Essentially, there are two levels: the debt bondage and the forced labor, which are more widespread; and then there’s the worst abuses, where captains really take advantage of the workers’ situation.” 

On the positive side, he highlighted the "big step forward” of seeing ILO's Work in Fishing Convention (C188) agreement that came into force last year.

“You have some states that have had some serious issues that are mentioned a lot in the [EJF] report, like Thailand, who have now adopted that agreement and are now taking this problem seriously. We are also seeing the beginnings of change in Taiwan as well,” Schmid said. “And hopefully, if you can change the Taiwanese longline fleet, you’ll see other longline fleets change as well. So there’s reasons to be optimistic.” 

Photo courtesy of the Environmental Justice Foundation   

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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