Slavery: The Fishing Industry’s Shameful Bycatch

Forced labor on industrial fishing vessels is thriving in New Zealand, Russia, Turkey, Ireland and Scotland.

Were these fish caught by modern day slaves? Maybe, maybe. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 28, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

It certainly was poignant to see this week’s snapshots from Senegal of President Obama and the First Lady looking out at the Atlantic Ocean from a doorway through which tens of thousands of slaves once passed in manacles before being shipped to the Americas to start their horrific new lives.

But slavery by any name is still very much alive and well in 2013, with an estimated 27 million men, women, and children around the world forced into labor, doing everything from picking tomatoes to assembling smartphones, mining, cleaning and cooking in private homes—and working in virtual enslavement on commercial fishing boats.

Last month the Vatican decried the fact that, despite the publicity of such slave-like conditions on fishing boats going back nearly 15 years, they still exist. And we’re not talking just in the remote corners of the South China Sea, but off the coasts of developed countries including New Zealand, Ireland, and Scotland.

It’s estimated that 10 to 15 percent of commercial fishermen around the world work under conditions that make them virtual modern-day slaves.

Already one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, many of these bluewater fishers face daily exploitation and abuse. Most often they are untrained and illiterate and live in dismally unsafe and unhygienic conditions described as worse than prisons.

Two men often share a cardboard bunk, work 18-hour shifts, and if they are paid—most are not—it’s probably with frozen fish that have no value in local markets. Their identify papers are taken when they board and never returned, making escape problematic.

Most often they are flagged from China, South Korea or Thailand and fish for shrimp off the coast of West Africa, tuna in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans and toothfish in the seas near to Antarctica.

Men are often recruited from small rural villages, where they must pay their life savings (usually $300 or less) in return for the promise of a good-paying job on the high seas. (It’s a scam very similar to Asian and Eastern-European women who try to buy their way out of poverty and end up as sex slaves.) Instead they find themselves smuggled across borders and sold to illegal fishing syndicates. They often spend their first nights in dark rooms, padlocked from the outside, with hundreds of other men in similar straits.

It is a global phenomenon. Cambodians end up working on Thai trawlers; Ukrainians on Russian crabbers; men who are recruited from rural parts of China, Vietnam and the Philippines end up on boats far from home.

“It was horrendous,” said Duncan Copeland, a senior campaigner at the Environmental Justice Foundation, in 2012 to The Guardian. “The men were working in the fish hold with no air or ventilation in temperatures of 40-45 degrees. It was rusty, greasy, hot and sweaty. There were cockroaches everywhere in the galleys and their food was in disgusting boxes. All they had for washing was a pump bringing up salt water. They stank. It was heartbreaking.”

Solutions other than educating fish buyers are few. Some European countries have tried to limit purchasing only from boats that have the “certified” approval of their flagged homeland, but it’s a system that is apparently easy to beat.

Knowing where you’re fish comes from is a big problem in southern Europe, given its proximity to West African fish, shrimp, prawn and lobster fishermen.

But it’s also an issue in the U.S., where some of America’s largest supermarkets—including Costco, Giant, Trader Joe’s and Walmart—have all bought seafood originating from factories with substandard working conditions, according to the AFL-CIO.

Onshore fish farms are proving to have no better working conditions. Over the past 20 years, the boom in shrimp farms across southeast Asia that today provides about 90 percent of the world’s shrimp, has similarly led to a boom in scathing reports from groups like Human Rights Watch on labor abuses, underage workers and more slave-like conditions.