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Scientists reveal shocking levels of abuse in the global fishing industry

Workers help unload fish at a Thai port.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In 2015, more than 2,000 fishermen were rescued from slavery on an island in eastern Indonesia.

For years, they were subjected to depraved working conditions. Many said they were whipped with skate tails, beaten and starved, while being forced to contribute to a seafood supply chain that trickled down to massive brands, including retailers, supermarket chains and supermarkets. pet food manufacturers. They were not paid for their work.

It wasn’t until seven years ago, after an Associated Press investigation uncovered the truth, that these former enslaved workers were freed, miraculously reunited with their families, and brought relief to the states. -United.

It was a heartbreaking story, but one that only represents a fraction of the fishermen who suffer labor abuses across the seas.

In a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, Stanford researchers quantify how deeply rooted these abuses — and other illegal practices, like fishing in areas designated for nature conservation — are in the global marine sector. Their results are shocking.

After studying 792 fishing ports, they found that 57% of them were linked to either labor abuse or illegal fishing, and often both. And after analyzing more than 8 million fishing trips between 2012 and 2019 that ended in these ports, they found that 82% were also associated with workplace abuse and illegal fishing. Isolating labor abuse, they found over 41% of ports studied specifically associated with it.

These findings are driven by a machine-learning model that combines a database that tracks fishing vessels around the world with first-hand accounts of fishing crimes from research institutes, corporations, human rights organizations and governments.

The need for numbers

“We wanted to take a more quantitative look to try to estimate the risks of these two activities,” said Elizabeth Selig, a researcher at Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions and co-author of the study.

At present, hard statistics on labor abuse and illegal fishing are poorly known, mainly because the illicit nature of these practices means there is a strong incentive to “hide the numbers” , she said. But if governments want to intervene more effectively, the first step is to identify how far the exploitation of the fishery is going. The team’s new study is a solid step in that direction.

“Governments must focus on strengthening legal and regulatory frameworks that ensure there is no abuse and that adequate catch inspections take place in ports,” Selig said.

Although most governments have standards in place to block abuse and illegal fishing practices, there are still gaps. For example, Selig points to an unfortunate consequence of airtight security measures in ports.

There are many restrictions on “disembarking”, which simply means getting off the boat. Often, fishermen are asked to show their passport to land. But what if they don’t have access to this passport? Or what if they hold a visa that does not allow them to leave the ship?

“Imagine you don’t speak the language, maybe you don’t have a cell phone that works in this country, maybe you don’t know how to get to your embassy,” Selig said. It would be really difficult, if not impossible, to report illegal activities and abuse occurring on your vessel. This is why frontline human rights organisations, or easier access to port-based social services, are extremely important to maintain, she stresses.

But the responsibility does not rest solely with governments.

Scientists reveal shocking levels of abuse in the global fishing industry

Indonesian maritime workers at a protest rally.

Ismoyo Bay/Getty Images

“Companies need to improve traceability in their supply chains and design solutions together with workers to prevent abuse,” Selig said.

This responsibility is well illustrated by an incident in 2015. In an attempt at self-policing, food giant Nestlé found evidence of modern slavery in its seafood supply chain, a gruesome finding that was ultimately attributed to a multi-billion dollar seafood vendor in Thailand. The company later warned that all US and European companies that buy seafood from the same region face the same risk of labor abuse along their import line.

Define terms

An important aspect of Selig’s research is how his team decided to define “work abuse.”

“We’ve taken a bit of a broader definition,” Selig said. “Partly because we believe that while much attention is paid to the more serious end of the spectrum, what are perceived to be less serious abuse are often potential indicators of more serious abuse at the ‘to come up.”

Forced labor, for example, like the operation in eastern Indonesia, was at the most extreme end. Poor labor standards, such as dirt or neglected workers’ rights, were less extreme.

Scientists reveal shocking levels of abuse in the global fishing industry

Unloading a catch in Indonesia.

Chaideer Mahyuddin/Getty Images

But in terms of illegal fishing practices, the team followed a more standard definition.

To be considered illegal fishing, a vessel had to be in violation of either the general laws of a country, the conservation measures put in place by a regional fisheries management organization, a participant in an unreported or misreported fishery, or even having fished in places without applicable conservation measures.

Once the definitions were established, the team began looking for correlations between reports of labor abuse or illegal fishing and ports or vessels in the tracking database. They looked at entire fleets to mitigate the chances of missing something. If a vessel showed signs of risky activity, another in the same fleet could do so as well.

Flags and equipment are clues

The team found that ship flags, which indicate the country in which a vehicle is registered, had an important role to play in assessing the risks of labor abuse.

“The most risky flags were associated with [vessels] where the flag state … is registered in countries that have what is considered poor corruption control,” Selig said.

When researching the risks of illegal fishing activities, Selig said, the fishing gear was telling.

The riskier vessels tended to have gear geared towards what is known as transhipment, which is what happens when fishing vessels transfer their catches to larger vessels and those larger vessels bring the sockets back to earth.

Presumably, the team suggests, moving catches to a larger vessel means there’s less oversight on the illicit vessel, particularly because transshipment happens in the middle of the ocean, not near ports. If something suspicious is going on behind the scenes on someone’s boat, they’ll probably want to cut back on the time they spend in ports with security guards.

Going forward, a major question is: how can we deal with these ongoing tragedies in the fishing industry?

“A big part of trying to untangle this puzzle,” Selig said, is to improve transparency and accountability in the process of recruiting anglers. “So that they understand their rights, their contract terms and can seek redress in the event of a breach.”

This new document, she adds, is a way “to help us get there”.


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