UPDATED: Your Seafood may be Caught by Slaves

by Myriam Fallon

March 26, 2015

Crew on a rusting Chinese fishing vessel which appears unusable but is still in use. The location is 60 miles off Conakry, Guinea. This is the hidden story behind pirate fishing - the conditions of near-slavery imposed by ruthless fishing companies in the rush for quick money. The men on board aren't pirates - they're the victims, left to rot on broken-down trawlers, half a world away from their families. Human life is cheap, and profits take priority as the workers exist in terrible conditions often waiting for crew that never arrives. Some of them at have been at sea for two years, and that their trawler hasn't visited a port in eight.

© Greenpeace / Pierre Gleizes

UPDATE: Many of the fishermen featured below have been rescued by authorities and are awaitingreturn to their homes. For the latest update on these men, check our blog. For details on slavery in the fishing industry, read below.

“If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us,” said Hlaing Min, 30, a runaway slave. “There must be a mountain of bones under the sea. … The bones of the people could be an island, it’s that many.”

Yesterday the Associated Press published a devastating article exposing the modern day slavery currently taking place on fishing vessels that supply the US market. After a year long investigation by the news agency, the article details the heartbreaking working conditions on board fishing vessels, and outlines how fish caught by enslaved workers can make its way into American stores, seafood, and pet food.

One of the companies named in the story, Thai Union, owns American tuna brand Chicken of the Sea and is in the process of buying Bumble Bee. It also supplies Walmart and Kroger. Poj Aramwattananont, president of an industry group that represents Thai Union stated, “We don’t know where the fish come from when we buy from Indonesia. We have no record. We don’t know if that fish is good or bad.”

The AP investigation included interviews with escaped and current slaves who spoke of terrible conditions, inadequate safety equipment, tiny cells, lack of food, 22 hour work days, no pay for years at a time, death, and even murder.

“All I did was tell my captain I couldn’t take it anymore, that I wanted to go home,” said Kyaw Naing, his dark eyes pleading into an Associated Press video camera sneaked in by a sympathetic worker. “The next time we docked,” he said nervously out of earshot of a nearby guard, “I was locked up.”

While this news may be a surprise for the general public, the issue of slavery at sea is not new and has been marked by superficial talk rather than real action. Many American companies have lackluster policies that do little to address the issue, but help them appear like they care. The standard industry line seems to be condemning bad labor practices and saying they dont knowingly buy seafood caught or processed by slaves.

This sounds nice, but it passes the responsibility for their product to an unknown third party. Its essentially a see no evil, hear no evil stance on human slavery. If Western seafood companies really care that some of their product is likely caught by enslaved people living in terrible conditions they need to take proactive, meaningful steps to ensure they know where their fish comes from.

Slavery at sea is directly tied to illegal and unsustainable fishing. Rampant overfishing of our oceans has depleted fish stocks and driven boats further and further out to sea to catch the same amount of fish. This means boats stay at sea much longer, making it easier to hide their labor practices. It also motivates boat owners to cut their costs down by using terrible but cheap labor practices.

The good news in all this misery is that there are steps that can be taken to start fixing this problem. American companies can choose to be the drivers of the change that will create a global seafood industry that is both just and sustainable.

Last year Greenpeace released a briefing on slavery at sea that details what seafood companies and retailers can do to get slavery out of their supply chains and help end the problem once and for all. Weve seen these horrific conditions first hand in our work to end illegal fishing and we know just how intertwined human rights and sustainability issues are in the seafood industry.

American companies can make a huge difference in reforming the global seafood industry, by demanding better practices from their suppliers and actively working to ensure that they know exactly where their fish are coming from and how they are caught. They cant just wait for an investigation to reveal the problem to them. Companies must be able to assure their customers that they know exactly how and where their fish were caught.

One big change that would go a long way in traceability, sustainability, and ending human rights abuses, is refusing to buy fish that has been transferred from one boat to another while at sea (a practice known as transhipment). Transhipment allows fishing vessels to stay at sea for years at a time, hiding terrible working conditions and making it next to impossible to know where or how the fish was caught. Ending this practice would mean that fishing vessels would have to return to port to unload, where inspections and monitoring can make the supply chain much clearer.

All of this can be confusing for consumers who want to be sure theyre not buying seafood that was caught or processed by enslaved workers so Greenpeace has surveyed and ranked major tuna brands on both sustainability and human rights issues to help shoppers make an educated decision in the tuna aisle. While the problem of slavery at sea goes beyond just tuna, the US is the largest market for canned tuna, so how we spend our money, and what standards we demand of our companies, can make a huge difference on the water.

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