- As fish populations decline in many regions, unscrupulous fishing fleet operators have turned to illegal fishing, human trafficking, slavery and other abuses to cut costs.
- This is facilitated by the complex, opaque nature of global fisheries, but there is one essential step every government can and must take to end this and bring fisheries out of the shadows: introducing comprehensive transparency.
- “The fact that illegal fishing, human rights abuses and ecological collapse in the ocean are so closely interlinked means that systematic, rigorous transparency can help to resolve them all,” a new op-ed argues.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), human rights abuses at sea and the collapse of ocean ecosystems are fundamentally intertwined. Fish populations have rapidly declined globally, with 35% of fish populations now overfished and 57% fished at the maximum sustainable level. More vessels are chasing fewer fish, and up to one in five fish are believed to be caught illegally.
To remain profitable, unscrupulous operators turn to illegal fishing, human trafficking, slavery and other abuses to cut costs. This is facilitated by the complex, opaque nature of global fisheries. There is one essential step every government can and must take to end this and bring fisheries out of the shadows: introducing comprehensive transparency.
Without knowing who is catching what, where, when and how, we cannot make progress for a safe, sustainable ocean. By publishing information like vessel licence lists or the beneficial owners who really profit from the activities of a given vessel, governments can make it much more difficult for those responsible for illegal fishing or human rights abuses to escape unpunished, or to sell their products into global markets.
The necessary steps are often straightforward and low cost. For example, all vessels should be given a unique number which remains with it through its entire life, regardless of changes in name or owner. This is the same principle as a car number plate, ensuring that any infractions can be handled appropriately.
The case of the ISRAR fleet demonstrates the importance of transparency. EJF researchers used satellite tracking to catch this three-vessel fleet fishing for tuna in the Atlantic without the relevant registrations. The fleet used every trick in the book to avoid detection, including changing vessel names mid-voyage, changing the flag the vessels sailed under and deliberately keeping their ownership structure unclear. Months of painstaking investigation by EJF meant that the fleet has now been blacklisted by fisheries authorities, dropped by its insurers and flag state, and will struggle to renew its illicit activities.
Another vessel, the Wisdom Sea Reefer, escaped sanctions for years by exploiting the lack of transparency in global fisheries. Between 2017 and 2019, it flew the flags of four different states, was owned by companies in three countries and repeatedly changed name to evade detection. While the Honduran authorities who originally raised the alarm were eventually able to chase it down, it remained at large for years and significant effort was invested in sanctioning it.
There is also a human cost to the lack of transparency in fisheries. Four crew on Chinese fishing vessels died after being refused medical care in December 2019. Another crew member on another Chinese fleet off the coast of Somalia died in 2021 after attempting to escape from the vessel he was on. Surviving crew reported to EJF that they suffered beatings, were forced to work without pay and were denied food if they did not work. These abuses are shockingly common, but they would be detected more quickly if transparency were the norm. This would mean that crew on fishing vessels would have a much greater chance of their basic human rights being upheld.
See related: Grocery chains fail sustainability, human rights tests for tuna
Beyond the crew on the vessels themselves, illegal fishing – and overfishing – have serious impacts for coastal communities and entire nations. In Ghana, Ghanaian front companies are used by Chinese businesses to conceal the true ownership of vessels and the destination of the profits they produce. Up to 90-95% of Ghana’s trawl fleet may have at least some element of Chinese ownership.
This means the financial value of Ghana’s fisheries is disappearing overseas at the expense of Ghana’s people. In coastal communities surveyed by EJF, over half of the fishers and fish processors we spoke to reported going without sufficient food. Greater numbers reported worsening living conditions and the destruction of their fishing equipment by industrial trawlers.
The complexity of exposing and resolving these issues underlines the importance of systemic, global transparency to make finding and sanctioning offenders simpler. Without it, we are stopping up gaps temporarily rather than solving the underlying problem. Rogue operators can continue to fish illegally or unethically knowing that their operations remain hidden.
See related: On board Ghana’s trawlers, claims of human rights abuses and illegal fishing
Ending any problem begins with identifying it. The good news is that this can be achieved with simple, cost effective steps, as outlined in the Global Charter for Transparency. The fact that illegal fishing, human rights abuses and ecological collapse in the ocean are so closely interlinked means that systematic, rigorous transparency can help to resolve them all.
Transparency can help expose and stop those responsible for slavery, murder and other horrific abuses of basic human rights and dignity. We have the ability now to bring this suffering to an end for good; it would be unforgivable if we chose not to. Transparency also supports those who follow the law and want to fish sustainably, respecting people and the planet in doing so. It protects the extraordinary diversity of life on our planet.
Fishers can enjoy sustainable livelihoods while contributing to healthy economies. Crews on fishing vessels can work with their human rights intact. Ocean environments, fundamental to all life on Earth, can recover. Governments and fisheries authorities can usher this future in now – transparency is the key to doing so.
Steve Trent is executive director and co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Banner image: Yellowfin tuna. Image by Ellen Cuylaerts / Ocean Image Bank.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with two writers about some of the most pressing issues in international fisheries management today, listen here:
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