US Customs claims Vanuatu tuna vessel used forced labor

U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced on Wednesday, 6 February it had issued an order against a vessel from Vanuatu claiming the tuna it was carrying was caught using forced labor.

“The order will require detention at all U.S. ports of entry of tuna and any such merchandise manufactured wholly or in part by the Tunago No. 61,” the CBP statement said. “Importers of detained shipments are provided an opportunity to export their shipments or demonstrate that the merchandise was not produced with forced labor.”

According to a search of the CBP website, the action taken against Tunago No. 61 was the first withhold order it issued this year and the first ever issued against a fishing vessel. 

The order took effect on Monday, 4 February. CBP spokesperson Kelly Cahalan told SeafoodSource that the Tariff Act of 1930 bans imports of merchandise or food produced at least in part by forced or indentured child labor, including forced child labor.

“Such products are subject to exclusion and/or seizure, and may lead to criminal investigation of the importer,” she said. “When information reasonably but not conclusively indicates that products of forced labor are being imported, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection may issue withhold release orders.”

The Southern Shrimp Alliance, which has encouraged greater government scrutiny on imported seafood, noted in its press release a 2006 report that said six Chinese fishermen fled the Tunago No. 61 in 2005 after being beaten by the ship leaders. 

The group also noted the ship’s captain was killed in 2016 by six Indonesian crew members. In 2017, according to the Daily Post in Vanuatu, the six, who ranged in age from 21 to 25, received 18-year sentences for the murder. A judge initially sentenced them to 30 years, then reduced it because of their ages and nationality. He further reduced the sentences citing the captain’s “ill-treatment.” 

In their defense, the Indonesian workers claimed they worked for 16 months without pay and were treated differently than other crewmembers. 

The SSA’s release also states the impact of the CBP order may carry over to other boats if they hold fish caught by Tunago No. 61. The Seafood Import Monitoring Program requires tuna importers to trace their shipments to prevent illegal, unreported, and unregulated fish from entering the country. IUU fishing includes slave labor. 

“Although it is unclear whether this is the first step in meaningful enforcement of laws banning the importation of goods produced through forced or child labor with regard to the seafood industry, CBP’s issuance of a WRO on seafood associated with Tunago No. 61 is a welcome development,” the SSA said in its release.

Cahalan told Seafoodsource the CBP's order also applies to other vessels if they hold fish caught by Tunago No. 61.

"This WRO is applied to all products caught by the Tunaga No. 61. This includes product caught by Tunaga No. 61, but subsequently imported to the U.S. by another vessel. Importers of detained shipments are provided an opportunity to export their shipments or demonstrate that the merchandise was not produced with forced labor," Cahalan told SeafoodSource.

Human trafficking has long been considered an issue affecting global seafood trade. A report from the International Labour Organization states nearly 25 million people work as slaves or in other coerced labor arrangements, such as debt bondage. Of that number, 11 percent work in farming and fishing sectors. 

Tunago No. 61 is a 53.5-meter tuna longliner owned by the Tunago Fishery Co., Ltd., based in Port Vila, Vanuatu, according to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission

The company could not be reached for comment.


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