Several studies have emerged linking human trafficking to the Asian fishing industry. New Zealand journalist Michael Field has been investigating the disturbing practice for several years and recently published a book entitled The Catch: How Fishing Companies Reinvented Slavery and Plunder the Ocean. Inside, he details how ships flying Russian and Korean flags are using Indonesian crews that work for sub-minimum wages, are fed only frozen fish meat and are often chained to the decks.
“I’ve almost stopped looking at what flag flies off the stern of the ship because that’s often a corporate decision of little consequence to the men on board it,” he told the South China Morning Post. “The fishing industry is plagued by it.”
Last year, the Guardian conducted its own six-month investigation into the industry’s slave ships. Journalists “established that large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand are integral to the production of prawns (commonly called shrimp in the U.S.) sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.”
The conditions described by men who escaped from boats supplying the Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods are nightmarish: “20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings.
“Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.”
Slavery is illegal in every country, but slavery or near-slavery in the fishing industry is rising in tandem with the rising demand for fish worldwide.
In 2011, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime published an issue paper on transnational organized crime on the fishing industry that focused on human trafficking. The authors describe a fatal loop: poor and migrants joining slave crews because overfishing has reduced employment, only to contribute further to the depletion of fishing stocks and the reduction of employment.
“Sources suggest that victims are vulnerable to trafficking in the fishing industry due to
depleted fish stocks caused by overfishing,” the report states. “As fishers are no longer able to provide for themselves and their families they fall prey to fishing operators involved in industrial fisheries operating further out at sea.”
The UNODC acknowledges that the effect of overfishing on fishing communities needs to be explored further.
The UNODC also makes it clear that their study was not conducted “to tarnish the fishing industry,” but rather to root out the criminal activities within the fishing industry that negatively impact “law-abiding fishers, the legitimate fishing industry, local fishing communities and the general public alike.”
The South China Morning Post writes that China has increased its South Pacific tuna fleet by over 125 percent between 2010 and 2012.
“The Chinese will fish until there is one tuna left in the ocean,” said Field, “and since the government is paying the bills the fish won’t stand a chance.”
But as overfishing and its terrible repercussions come to light, Field theorizes that reform from China could have an effect on the global industry.
“In the longer term,” he told the SCMP, “they have to realize that they can’t fish at this rate for much longer.”
“If we have more and more fisheries collapsing, the public clamour for some kind of concerted, combined action is going to be pretty strong,” he said. “We’re an international world where the good guys and the bad guys [are] answerable to public opinion on the world stage.”