Equilibrium & Sustainability

High seas have become ‘safe haven’ for labor abuse, illegal fishing: study

Coastal regions off West Africa, the mid-Atlantic near Portugal and waters off Peru are the riskiest spots for illegal fishing and labor abuse, with most occurring aboard vessels registered to China and other countries with poor anti-corruption oversight, a new study has found.

The study, published in Nature Communications, found that nearly half of more than 750 ports assessed worldwide are linked to either labor abuse or illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The high seas have become “a safe haven” for illegal fishing, with millions of tons of such fish caught every year, authors wrote, incorporating an online survey of experts that revealed the pervasive nature of these practices.

Researchers found that vessels that engage is such activity also often have labor abuses on board, including practices such as forced labor, debt bondage and poor conditions.

“Surveillance on the high seas is innately challenging, so these data provide a critical first step in helping stakeholders understand where to look deeper,” lead author Elizabeth Selig, deputy director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, said in a statement.

The authors first distributed an anonymous survey to experts at seafood companies, research institutions, human rights groups and governments to help quantify the degree of certainty as to whether a port was linked to either illegal fishing or labor abuses.

They then used machine learning to combine survey responses with satellite-based vessel-tracking data, curated by Global Fishing Watch, an international NGO that provides open-source datasets relevant to ocean governance.

This combination also enabled researchers to home in on the difficult-to-trace periods in which vessels exchange crews and catches — called “transshipment” — and identify points at which illegal behavior is occurring during such swaps of people and equipment.

The authors found that fishing vessels incurred the most risk of labor abuse and illegal fishing off the coasts of West Africa, Peru and the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal located in the mid-Atlantic.

Vessels registered to countries with poor corruption controls, vessels owned by countries other than the “flag state” — the country to which a vessel is linked — and vessels registered to China presented a higher risk of participating in illegal activities, the study found.

While monitoring fishing fleets for such activity is inherently difficult due to the vastness of the world’s oceans, the authors said they expect their data to help countries and companies formulate more effective intervention strategies.

“We hope these findings can help to inform strategically expanded enforcement, focus development aid investments and increase traceability, ultimately lowering the chance that seafood associated with labor abuse or illegal fishing makes its way to market,” Selig said.

The authors highlighted some potential pathways to mitigate risks through detection and response activities at port, noting ports are “critical hubs where officials can monitor and enforce legal frameworks that govern labor and catch.”

One particularly important connection was the amount of time a vessel stays at port and the likelihood of labor abuse. The authors concluded that vessels with higher risks of labor abuse are at port for shorter periods, with port officials having less time to interfere with potential illegal activity.

“Ports are one of the few places to identify and respond to labor abuse,” Jessica Sparks, a fellow at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and associate director at the University of Nottingham Rights Lab, said in a statement. “We need to ensure that policies and practices allow fishers to access trusted actors and services at port so they can safely report on their condition.”

With respect to illegal fishing, the researchers explored how vessel visits changed after the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization implemented the Port State Measures Agreement — a binding international accord aimed at preventing, metering and eliminating illegal fishing that went into effect in 2016.

The year after the agreement went into force, the authors found that fewer risky ships visited countries that had ratified these measures, according to the study.

Selig, however, called for a regional ratification of the agreement, stressing such tools should be implemented “comprehensively across regions, so that vessels cannot easily escape scrutiny by going to a port in a neighboring country.”

Tags forced labor illegal fishing

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