Nowadays, commercial fisheries must exert twice the effort to catch the same number of fish compared to the 1950s. This has resulted in an industry that is highly motivated to cut costs. One serious consequence of these “diminishing returns” is labour abuse. A new paper published on 7 November in Nature Communications provides new insights into the conditions of workers on commercial fleets and outlines the connection between modern slavery and the sustainability of the fishing industry.
Many marine fisheries ― ranked among the world’s most inaccessible workplaces ― continue to operate “beyond economic or ecological sustainability,” and often out of reach of enforcement agencies. While the correlation between slavery and environmental destruction is now well recognised in illegal mining and deforestation, the connection between human rights abuses in fisheries and environmental challenges is not yet well documented. In this study, the international team of researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Western Australia found that fishing fleets that are heavily reliant on government subsidies, fish far away from home ports, and fail to comprehensively report their actual catch, tend to fish beyond sustainable limits and are at higher risk of labour abuses.
The International Labour Organisation and the Walk Free Foundation (WFF) defines modern slavery as “any situation of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power,” including “forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery and slavery-like practices and human trafficking.” It is currently estimated that 40 million people are trapped in slavery in the modern world, mainly in the textile, agricultural, construction, and fishing industries, sex trade, and forced marriages.
Quantifying the extent of labour issues in fisheries is near impossible owing to the isolation of workers at sea ― fishing vessels remain at sea for months at a time ― therefore, living and working conditions are difficult to regulate and monitor. In addition, the complexity of modern jurisdictions means it is also often unclear how and where a crew member should seek help in cases of abuse. Nonetheless, labour issues in fisheries have received more attention in recent years and high profile media investigations have helped to identify a number of extreme labour abuse cases involving fisheries, including human trafficking, forced confinement, physical abuse, and even murder.
The researchers used publicly available global data sets from the Sea Around Us ― an international initiative that assesses the impact of fisheries on the marine ecosystems of the world ― to examine empirical links between country-level slavery prevalence and industrial fisheries. Based on the Global Slavery Index (GSI) ― a national-level indicator that can be used to estimate slavery and labour abuses in fisheries ― the authors report that “labour rights abuses in fisheries appear widespread and serious, in many cases meeting the definition of modern slavery.”
Labour abuses and other forms of misconduct are not confined to the high seas ― unregulated zones often referred to as the “Wild West” of the ocean. In fact, incidences have been reported involving African and Asian crew on British and Irish vessels and on South Korean fishing boats in waters under New Zealand’s jurisdiction, as well as South East Asian fishers employed in US fisheries in Hawaii. Exploitation of fishing crew has also been uncovered in the waters of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Russia, and South Africa. Moreover, fish that have been caught illegally or under conditions of modern slavery is frequently laundered by mixing it with legal catches before it enters the supply chain. This means ‘low slavery risk’ markets, such as the US, the EU and Australia, end up consuming seafood that may have been caught by modern slaves.
The authors suggest four main policy areas must be addressed on a national level: (1) regulations of pay and conditions, including improved monitoring and reinforcement; (2) supply chain transparency; (3) industry restructuring to reduce harmful subsidies and redirect them towards sustainably managed small-scale fisheries; and (4) restricting high seas fishing, which is currently dominated by higher-income countries.
The ability to manage the sustainability of fisheries is of utmost importance as billions of people rely on fish as a source of food, not to mention the hundreds of millions that depend on the fishing industry for employment and livelihoods.
(1) Tickler, D. et al. Modern slavery and the race to fish. Nature Communications (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-07118-9