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Human Rights Abuses & Organized Crime on IUU Fishing Vessels Photo Courtesy: U.S. Navy

Human Rights Abuses & Organized Crime on IUU Fishing Vessels

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Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing violators are often engaged in global human trafficking trade and transnational organized crime. These crimes jeopardize international security on the high seas and are inherently hard to prosecute. After catch, the illegally sourced fish products make their way into the global market. As a result, unaware American consumers buy into this broken system, contributing to slavery at sea and transnational criminal activity.

Human Rights Violations

Fishing companies engaged in IUU fishing activity are primarily interested in profit maximization. As a result, IUU fishing vessels often employ migrant labor for unpaid or cheap wages and house workers in inadequate, unsanitary conditions. In some cases, workers are enslaved at sea for extended periods of time. In recent years, investigations by the media and environmental justice groups have exposed bad actors for heinous conditions and treatment of crewmembers on the high seas.

In October 2020, for example, an investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation discovered extensive human rights violations committed against Ghanian workers aboard Chinese-owned trawling vessels. Chinese vessel presence off the coast of West Africa is significant; one Chinese state enterprise, Dalian Mengxin Ocean Fisheries, operated 35 Meng Xin-owned vessels in this region, with at least 17 located in Ghana alone. On these vessels, Ghanian crew members were found to have been given unclean drinking water, denied food to maximize work productivity, physically assaulted by Chinese captains, and subjected to verbal threats. Ghanian crew members slept above deck under a tarp, with limited opportunities to wash or bathe. All of the men interviewed claimed that they had not signed written contracts with their employers. Many stated they were wholly unaware of the method or amount of their compensation and that deductions were made from their wages without prior notice from the company. 

Similar injustices occur in the Thai fishing industry, where young men are sold into slavery and forced to fish without pay. These injustices were depicted in the 2018 Vulcan film ‘Ghostfleet,’ a documentary following Tun Lin, a Myanmar man kidnapped by human traffickers at fourteen years old and subjected to brutal working conditions at sea for the next eleven years. Tun Lin’s true story of struggle in the fishing industry is a sad reality for so many Thai crew members. Although the U.S. Department of State has recognized improvements to address human rights abuses identified in the Thai fishing industry, the Thai Government has a long way to go to ensure humane labor practices in the fishing industry.

In February 2021, an investigation conducted by the Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL) and the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) found that migrant workers onboard South Korea’s distant-water fishing (DWF) fleet were forced to work over 18 hours a day. Many crew members reported that their captains confiscated their passports and cut their wages after signing their initial employment contracts. Of the forty vessels audited by this investigation, twenty-nine were authorized to export fish products into the EU and UK.

Organized Crime

Some IUU vessels commit other trafficking crimes in tandem with illegal fishing, including unlawful transport of drugs, arms, and people. In 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted a 70-foot fishing vessel off the northern coast of South America, transporting four tons of cocaine worth an estimated $125 million. A 2020 study found that drug trafficking on fishing vessels has tripled since 2012.

Fishing vessels provide the opportunity for criminals to use the legitimate operations of fisheries in coastal communities to exploit fishers and create shell companies that conceal illicit activity. Fishers suffering from low wages and depleted fish yields are often coerced into the IUU fishing industry’s wide net of organized criminal activity. These illegal activities include tax crimes, money laundering, corruption, document fraud, and trafficking in persons, drugs, and arms. Large-scale IUU fishing operations have constructed vast criminal networks to launder profits and traffic fish products to buyers and markets.

The 2020 Interpol report ‘Fighting Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing’ details the interdiction of one of the world’s most wanted pirate fishing vessels. The ship operated under the names “Andrey Dolgov,” “STS-50,” and “Sea Breez 1” interchangeably to evade authorities. This vessel is suspected of having stolen a total of $50 million worth of fish from the ocean in ten years. This vessel was also engaged in several transnational fisheries-related crimes, including document fraud, manipulation of shipborne equipment, and illegal open-sea transshipments. Further investigation of the ship revealed that most of the crew were victims of labor exploitation. Evaluation of financial documents and onboard intelligence systems divulged the vessel’s link to Russian organized crime activity.

U.S. Seafood Supply Chain Fails Consumers

Unfortunately, the opportunities to evade authorities and mislabel fish products make discerning illegally sourced fish and punishing bad actors a constant challenge. As a result, American consumers unknowingly buy and consume seafood products from a supply chain embedded in criminal activity, unfair labor, and human rights abuses. In 2019, the U.S. imported $2.4 billion worth of IUU seafood, a figure representing 11% of total U.S. seafood imports. Given that a large portion of U.S. seafood is imported internationally, adequate tracing of the foreign seafood supply chain is essential to ensure fish are sourced ethically and labeled accurately.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) implements the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), which requires reporting and recordkeeping disclosures for foreign vessels offloading catch at U.S. ports of entry. These required disclosures include: the name and flag designation of the fishing vessel(s); evidence of authorization to fish (such as a license number or permit); the types of fishing gear used; the species of fish caught; the point of first landing (where the vessel first harbored post-catch); and the name of entities to which the catch was landed or delivered. This process attempts to verify the sourcing and handling of fish products throughout every stage of the supply chain before allowing entry into U.S. commerce.

However, recent compliance data suggests that SIMP does not sufficiently monitor products for IUU fishing. According to a recent SIMP progress report, 42.7% of vessels audited in 2020 were noncompliant. Out of the four main audit non-compliance categories, the most common violation was a lack of verifiable traceability information from catch to port. In other words, the vessels failed to provide sufficient documentation of the seafood’s handling from the moment of catch to its point of entry, casting doubt on whether the seafood was ethically sourced. Additionally, SIMP only monitors for thirteen specified fish species, allowing IUU fishing vessels to catch and import other fish species without risk of detection. Due to a lack of agency resources and a high volume of seafood imports, SIMP cannot prevent IUU fish products from entering U.S. commerce as currently implemented.

The Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act (H.R. 3075), which was introduced in May 2021 by U.S. Congressmen Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Garret Graves (R-LA), seeks to expand SIMP to cover all seafood products. This bill would also require foreign importers to report additional data such as the catch location and electronic chain of custody reports. These electronic reports would need to be submitted and verified by authorities at all major transfer points in the supply chain. The expansion of SIMP data collection and species monitoring is an encouraging step toward seafood transparency. U.S. maritime agencies must conduct comprehensive oversight of foreign imported fish products to ensure American citizens have no hand in furthering crimes on the high seas.