Hawksbill Turtle in Indonesia. © Paul Hilton
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Under the cover of night, away from prying eyes, the activity takes place. It’s worth billions of dollars but the price that it comes with is tainted with reports of murder, slavery, corruption, and deception of the most evil kind. Sounds like the premise of a brand new Netflix series, but instead this is the reality of what happens in one of the world’s most lucrative industries. And the secret activity worth billions of dollars? Fish.

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is surprisingly rampant and big business. In 2019, imported IUU tainted seafood in the US was worth an estimated $2.4 billion. According to a study by the University of British Columbia (UBC), between 8 and 14 million metric tons of fish are caught illegally every year, and are worth an estimated USD 9 billion to USD 17 billion.

Thinking about what happens in the murky world of the fishing industry is as mysterious as trying to crack down on the culprits behind it. For documentary and filmmakers, it’s a dark topic they wish to explore and expose. So if you’re curious about the real sea-to-shelf story behind seafood, then read (or watch) on.

1. “Murder at Sea”

The high seas is the perfect place for illegal activity to take place. With lack of monitoring and control, the ocean is the fishing industries’ oyster…and that’s where fishery observers come in. To prevent destructive fishing practices such as the use of illegal gear or shark finning, or track bycatch such as turtles or whales that might get caught up in fishing nets, fishery observers are often deployed onto vessels to be the eyes and ears on the ocean and help to track catches in order to preserve fish stocks.

But with this type of monitoring and surveillance, it’s also one of the most dangerous jobs in the world with “one or two deaths of fishery observers every year since 2015” according to the Association of Professional Observers (APO). The documentary, “Murder at Sea” questions the true cost of unchecked industrial overfishing worldwide where fish catches are valuable enough to potentially murder someone for.

2. Buoyancy

Chakra is just 14, likes playing soccer, and wishes one day to have a rich girlfriend. Instead, he works under the hot sun in the rice fields for his family, as his friends go to school. So when an opportunity comes to get away in a higher paying job, he leaps at the chance. Eventually, he finds out that the job was not what he was promised and instead comes with plenty of hidden costs with no way of getting out.

Buoyancy is fiction, but the story behind mirrors reality. IUU fishing is connected to human rights violations, and each year, thousands of vulnerable workers by way of Southeast Asian nations who are looking for a promising buck reportedly get caught up in modern slavery. According to these young workers they fall into traps such as debt bondage, in which they have to keep working to pay off hidden costs. In some cases they are at sea for months, or even years at a time due to transhipment in which fish catches, fuel, and other resources are transferred to a secondary vessel to enable the main vessel to spend longer on the high seas.

Chakra’s story is like many others and is a realisation that behind every can of seafood comes a cost.

3. Ghost Fleet

On the opposite end of slavery-caught seafood is a story of hope and heroism. Patima Tungpuchayakula ia a Thai human rights activist, and along with her husband, Sompong Srakaew, they run the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN), an organization that works to end modern slavery at sea. Ghost Fleet follows Patima as she tries to rescue slaves, many of whom were reportedly kidnapped, and connect them to their families. It’s going to take more than a rescue mission to clamp down on modern slavery, but watching this documentary and seeing the trauma of what some of these men reportedly had to go through is an eye opener into what happens in illegal fishing.

4. Chasing the Thunder

When it comes to cracking down on IUU fishing you can’t get more hardcore than this! When the non-profit organization, Sea Shepherd spots the world’s most notorious poaching vessel, it’s like striking gold. With fierce determination, they pledge to corner the vessel and capture the captain. What happens is an epic 110-day, 10,000-mile chase through massive ice floes, storm-tossed seas, a near collision, and a sinking ship. It’s a cat and mouse game that will have you on the edge of your seat!