Organizations call for investigation in wake of crew deaths, suspected IUU on Chinese longliner

Published on
May 1, 2020

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) and the Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL) are calling for an investigation into a Chinese tuna longline vessel that crewmembers report denied medical care to four crewmates, who subsequently died.

The news comes from the account of Indonesian crew members, who tell of being forced to work 18-hour days, being subject to physical violence, and being forced to partake in illegal fishing. The four members who died, they said, suffered swelling, chest pains, and breathing difficulties for weeks and were denied medical care.

The crew were initially on the Long Xing 629 in early 29, before being transferred to a sister vessel, the Long Xing 802. Then, in late March, all the fishermen were transferred to two further sister vessels for transit to Busan, South Korea, according to the EJF.

“The three crewmembers who died on their vessels were quickly buried at sea on the same day they died, despite the contract requiring vessel owners to repatriate bodies,” an EJF release said. “The fourth crewmember died while in quarantine after arriving in South Korea. He also did not receive medical care despite complaining of the same symptoms for two months. No autopsies were conducted in any of the cases, though the victim who died in Korea was tested and found not to have COVID-19.”

The three crewmembers who died on their vessels were “quickly buried at sea on the same day they died,” despite requirements that vessel owners repatriate bodies.

The crewmembers detailed being physically abused by senior crewmembers, during stints at sea that would last over a year without calling to any ports. Indonesian crew members also reported being forced to drink salty water, while Chinese crew members were given clean bottled water.

For their trouble, workers were paid USD 42.00 (EUR 38.22) per month, despite having contracts that promised them USD 300 (EUR 273) per month. That pay was subject to further deductions and fees, resulting in some crewmembers reporting being paid less than USD 300 for the entire year.

“These reports came from Indonesian crewmembers originally from Long Xing 629 now in Korea, where they were interviewed by lawyers from APIL. These interviews were combined with evidence from analysis of contracts and other documents,” the EJF stated.

The reports of the crewmembers also included claims of “industrial-scale illegal fishing,” and crewmembers provided photos that according to the EJF suggest the vessels were performing shark-finning on endangered species of sharks.

As a result of the testimony, the EJF and APIL are both calling for a full investigation by Chinese and international authorities.

“The severe labor exploitation we witness in this case is only the tip of the iceberg,” APIL Attorney JongChul Kim said. “We must understand the structural and contractual mechanisms that prevents these people from leaving their job and forces them to work, even when they face extremely serious illnesses and gross human rights abuses. It constitutes human trafficking and forced labor. This is a textbook example of human trafficking that is closely related to illegal fishing”  

EJF Executive Director Steve Trent added that the case shows “change is needed” in the seafood sector.

“In an effort to maintain profits amid declining fish populations, unscrupulous operators are resorting to human rights abuses and decline crew basic medical care,” he said. “These are possible because large parts of the global fishing industry operate in the shadows, away from government and public scrutiny. We need a radical move toward transparency in fisheries, for the sake not only of the marine ecosystems but also the people who depend on the ocean for food and livelihoods.” 

Photo courtesy of the Environmental Justice Foundation

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