Fueled by the world’s growing and insatiable appetite for seafood, China has dramatically expanded its reach across the high seas. With as many as 6,500 ships, the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet is more than double the size of its closest global competitor.
The size and behavior of the Chinese fishing fleet raises concerns. Seafood is the world’s last major source of wild protein and the largest globally traded food commodity by value. Western political analysts say that having just one country controlling this precious resource creates a precarious power imbalance. They warn that China is expanding its maritime reach in ways that are undermining food security, especially in poorer countries, and eroding international law. Frequent illegal incursions by these ships into other nations’ waters are heightening military tensions. American lawmakers are concerned because the U.S., which is in a trade war with China, is also the world’s largest importer of seafood.
This vast fishing armada has great value for China that extends beyond just maintaining its status as the world’s seafood superpower. It helps the country create jobs, make money, and feed its growing middle class. Abroad, the fleet forges new trade routes, flexes political muscle, presses territorial claims, and increases China’s political influence in the developing world.
The Chinese government and western seafood companies often dismiss illegality in the fishing industry as an isolated problem. But the investigation revealed a wide pattern: Almost half of the Chinese squid fleet, 357 of the 751 ships studied, were tied to human-rights or environmental violations.
The investigation identified at least 119 ships with possible human-rights abuses documented since 2013. These abuses included debt bondage, wage withholding, excessive working hours, abandoning crew in port, forced and captive labor, beatings of deckhands, passport confiscation, prohibiting timely access to medical care, and deaths from neglect or violence.
More than 100 Chinese squid ships were found to have fished illegally, including by targeting protected species, operating without a license, and dumping excess fish into the sea. The investigation revealed other environmental or fishing-specific crimes and risk indicators, including Chinese ships illegally entering the waters of other countries, disabling locational transponders in violation of Chinese law, violating U.N. sanctions that prohibit foreigners fishing in North Korean waters, transmitting dual identities (or “spoofing”), finning of protected shark species, fishing without a license, and using prohibited fishing gear. But the most common environmental violation involved Chinese ships poaching fish from other countries’ waters.
About 80 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is caught or processed abroad, with China as its biggest supplier. The investigation found that many of the ships associated with human rights or environmental abuses deliver catch to processing plants that supply over 160 U.S. companies, including major grocery store chains such as Walmart, Safeway and Kroger, as well as food-service providers such as Sysco and Performance Food Group. These problems, on land or at sea, touch a huge variety of brands, restaurants, food-service companies in countries around the world, and much of the seafood industry is implicated. To see an explanation of the extent, see ‘Ubiquity’.
Forced labor from China’s Xinjiang province is being used extensively across the country’s seafood industry. The Chinese government has forcefully transferred more than a thousand ethnic minorities over 2,000 miles across the country to work in Shandong province, the country’s most important fishing and seafood processing hub, in factories that supply hundreds of restaurants, grocers, and food-service companies in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere.
Ten large seafood companies in Shandong have received at least a thousand Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities from forced labor transfer programs out of Xinjiang since 2018. During that time, five of these Chinese seafood companies have exported over 47,000 tons of seafood to dozens of importers in the United States. Processing plants owned by three of these conglomerates have shipped 17 percent of all squid exported to the U.S. from China in the last five years.
North Korean labor is being used extensively in seafood plants in China’s border province of Liaoning, despite a UN prohibition on the use of such labor. The United States has also outlawed the importation of goods produced using forced or exported labor from North Korea. Up to 100,000 North Korean laborers are working in border regions of China, including up to 80,000 in the cities of Donggang and Dandong, where the use of North Korean labor in seafood processing is known to be widespread. Since 2017, at least three Chinese seafood-processing companies known to employ North Koreans have exported over 1,000 tons of seafood to over a dozen importers in the United States.
In North Korean waters, more than 700 Chinese vessels fished in 2018 after UN sanctions banned all foreign boats from operating in these waters, according to satellite data and reporting on the Sea of Japan. These ships are not internationally registered and operate apart from the portion of the Chinese fleet that operates on the high seas. Among these were ships owned by large seafood companies that supply thousands of stores across the U.S. In 2020, the nonprofit Global Fishing Watch used satellite data to reveal the presence of this fleet in North Korean waters. Since then, China has cut down this illegal armada by seventy per cent.
In Russian waters, at least 20 Chinese squid vessels fished after June 2022, when the U.S. government imposed a ban on all Russian seafood in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Of those vessels, eight are owned by the China National Fishery Corporation, a state-run giant that sells calamari in the United States, Canada, and Europe. The owners of these vessels have a documented history of wrongdoing, including cases of forced labor, violence, crew deaths, and lengthy periods where their locational transponders were deactivated, which is a risk indicator of illegal fishing. Hundreds of other fishing ships from Russia and elsewhere operate in Russian waters, according to satellite data. This renders a ban on the U.S. import of Russian seafood ineffective, because much of the seafood pulled from Russian waters is processed in China and so can be labeled as coming from there, rather than Russia.
In Argentinian waters, local naval authorities have since 2010 chased at least 11 Chinese squid vessels for suspected illegal fishing in national waters, according to the government, and have sunk at least one. Some of these ships were owned by China National Fisheries Corporation, which sells calamari in the United States, Canada, and Europe.
In waters near Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, three Chinese vessels violated regional fishery rules in 2022 by refusing to allow at-sea inspections by U.S. Coast Guard authorities. Two of these ships attempted to flee the scene, while the third turned aggressively towards the Coast Guard cutter James, forcing it to take evasive action. In 2017, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 reefer was detained by the Ecuadorian Navy and was found to have over 6,600 sharks illegally on board. Some of the sharks found were species threatened with extinction. The arrest was the largest shark-smuggling bust in Galapagos history. While Chinese authorities suspended the operator of the 999 and blacklisted its captain, they allowed the fishing ships that caught the sharks to continue operating, and several months after the trial awarded two of these ships with new subsidies.
In Peruvian and Chilean waters, dozens of fishing ships have gone dark or falsified their location since 2018. In that time, Peruvian authorities have sanctioned at least eight Chinese vessels for illegal fishing inside its waters. In 2019, the bodies of an Indonesian deckhand and a Filipino deckhand were dropped off in Peru in separate incidents, according to government records. Both bodies showed signs of beriberi, a disease caused by malnutrition that medical experts say is preventable, reversible, and an indicator of severe neglect.
In Taiwanese waters, more than 600 Chinese ships have fished illegally since September 2022, according to satellite data. Some of these ships supply Shantou Haimao, a Chinese company that processes squid for Walmart. The U.S. International Trade Commission cites Chinese fishing in these waters as illegal. U.S. seafood companies are fully aware that Chinese ships are targeting these waters. Beaver Street Fisheries, for example, is part of a program in collaboration with Shantou Haimao focused on targeting these fishing grounds. The fishing grounds near Taiwan are among the most hotly contested waters on the planet, a location where some military analysts predict a U.S.-China clash may be sparked. In April 2023, China announced it would begin boarding all vessels passing through Taiwan Strait, including Taiwanese vessels fishing in Taiwanese waters. Taiwan said its ships would not comply.
In waters belonging to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, several hundred Chinese fishing ships operate as a civilian militia for the purposes of escorting Chinese oil and gas survey vessels or drilling rigs, delivering supplies, gathering intelligence, and obstructing or expelling foreign fishing vessels or survey ships. These fishing ships generally do not fish. Their workers are typically military personnel, and the Chinese government pays the owners of the ships roughly $4,500 a day if they remain in the contested area for at least 280 days in a year. Other countries maintain navy and coast guard assets in disputed areas, but China is unique in using its fishing fleet for sovereignty and territorial purposes.
In and near Yemeni and Omani waters, at least 170 Chinese squid ships engaged in illegal, unauthorized, or unregulated fishing between 2015 and 2019, according to satellite data and at-sea reporting. These ships have increasingly targeted a high-seas fishing ground in the region that lacks oversight by any governing body. Unregulated fishing is an unsustainable practice that drives fish-stock collapse, according to marine researchers. These ships are also often equipped with multiple gear types that enable these ships, without authorization, to target species other than squid. The use of multiple gears also enables these ships to fish more intensively and less selectively, raising the risk of bycatch or the killing of juveniles and non-target species.
In the waters of Gambia, Senegal, and Mauritania, China is using its commercial fishing fleet to expand its international reach in ways that marine researchers say are straining global food security, especially along the coasts of developing nations like those of West Africa. The annual cost of illegal fishing in the region is $2.3 billion, according to estimates by the United Nations. In 2022, the Chinese government called for more investment in fishing ports and processing plants especially in West Africa. One of China’s largest overseas fishing bases is in Mauritania.
In Ghanian waters, over 90 percent of the industrial trawl fleet is illegally owned by Chinese companies, in violation of local laws prohibiting foreign investment. Chinese trawlers routinely target the staple catch of artisanal fishers in Ghanian waters, then transship the catch at sea to specially adapted canoes and sell it back to the same food-insecure communities. This practice, called “saiko,” is illegal and amounts to more than $50 million worth of fish being resold by the Chinese. In Liberian waters, six huge Chinese supertrawlers arrived in 2020 along the coast. Collectively these six ships could land nearly double the country’s entire sustainable catch, which led marine researchers to warn that they would dramatically accelerate stock collapse. In Sierra Leonean waters, almost half of the industrial fishing licenses are owned by Chinese vessels. When local law-enforcement officials patrolled these waters in 2021, several of the Chinese ships were arrested for illegal fishing. Nearly a dozen others refused to stop and fled to neighboring waters.
Knowing when Chinese ships are illegally crossing into other countries’ waters is difficult, because their captains often turn off their locational transponders and go “dark.” Over 100 of the Chinese squid ships investigated have gone dark for at least seven days, often disappearing from view as they approached other countries’ waters. These periods of darkness happened after the Chinese government imposed a law in January 2020 banning the practice in its ships operating in foreign waters. In 2022, China passed another law banning the practice on the high seas. Marine researchers say that fishing ships going “dark” is a source of concern because captains often conceal their location to enter prohibited waters undetected or to transfer catch illicitly between ships. Darkness makes it difficult for law-enforcement authorities or buyers and sellers to trace and verify the legality of seafood.
Work on Chinese fishing ships is dangerous. The investigation found that the bodies of 43 dead crew were disembarked from 37 Chinese squid jiggers between 2013 and 2022. Most ports globally do not release crime data. This makes it impossible to calculate a global tally of fatalities on distant-water fishing ships. Uruguay is an exception in their transparency, however. For most of the past decade, one dead body has been disembarked on average every other month, sometimes with signs of severe neglect of physical abuse, according to port data. Fishing is categorized as the world’s most dangerous profession, with more than 100,000 fatalities per year globally, according to the Fish Safety Foundation. It remains unclear how many of these fatalities were from violence, deprivation, or avoidable accidents.
Forced labor is widespread in the Chinese fleet. The investigation identified cases of forced labor on 29 squid fishing vessels, and the risk of forced labor on 59 other ships. The cases documented included wage theft, violence, the confiscation of passports and deprivation of food and drinking water.
Workers on Chinese squid ships are often the target of human trafficking. Chinese fishing ships relied heavily on foreign workers, particularly from Indonesia, that were often hired through employment firms that included hidden costs and upfront recruitment fees in their contracts that create debt bondage. Since the pandemic, China has shifted away from foreign labor. To entice deckhands, recruitment advertisements in China target the poorer rural and inland workers from China as well as the divorced, indebted or otherwise desperate. Chinese news media and online forums warn about scams, wage theft and brutal working conditions on these ships. Chinese court records and worker testimonies indicate that mutinies and strikes on these fishing ships often turn violent. The Chinese government has taken steps to control such labor unrest, including installing satellite video links between squid ships and police departments in Chinese port cities. Disgruntled deckhands are usually blocked by their captains or foreign port officials from being allowed to flee their ship. If Chinese workers are disembarked and flown back to China, they sometimes face charges for piracy or hijacking.
Some workers on Chinese ships are dying from beriberi. Typically caused by a dietary lack of vitamin B1, beriberi has been largely eradicated on land but under conditions of neglect still appears at sea. The investigation found at least 24 workers on 14 Chinese fishing ships suffered symptoms associated with beriberi between 2013 and 2021. Of those, at least 15 died. As beriberi symptoms are rarely recognized, and many at-sea deaths go unreported, it is likely that the number of deaths is much higher. Typically in these cases, captains refused to send crew back to shore for medical care. On at least seven of these ships, other evidence pointed to forced labor.
Beriberi is more prevalent and more often fatal on Chinese fishing ships, according to medical researchers, because this fleet relies heavily and increasingly on trans-shipment, whereby refrigeration ships carry the catch from fishing vessels back to shore so that fishing crews can work longer. The investigation found that foreign and Chinese workers on these fishing ships stay at sea for more than three years. The longer a fishing ship stays away from shore, the more likely beriberi is to occur, because keeping fresh fruits and vegetables becomes tougher during longer trips, and captains do not usually require vitamin supplements. Medical experts add that the long and intense work on these ships also accelerates beriberi.
The investigation found that the Chinese fleet uses transshipment more than any other fleet. Since 2019, it has increased the use of this practice nearly five fold, according to satellite data. Transshipment enables Chinese fishing ships to keep workers at sea for perilously long periods, allows scofflaw vessels to avoid oversight, and makes it difficult for companies to know where their seafood was caught.
Many of the problematic fishing vessels identified in the investigation are owned or operated by the Chinese government. At least 63 of those tied to illegal fishing or human rights violations are operated by the Chinese state, including some that violated UN sanctions against fishing in North Korean waters, used forced labor, or raided other countries’ territories.
Most of the seafood consumed by Americans is caught by Chinese boats or processed in Chinese plants. One company, the China National Fisheries Corporation (CNFC), plays a particularly important role in this relationship. The CNFC, which is the largest fisheries company in China and built its first distant-water fleet, now operates over 200 fishing boats, refrigeration vessels, processing plants and fuel carriers. Between 2017 and 2022, at least nine refrigeration ships operated by CNFC subsidiaries transshipped at sea with 149 fishing ships implicated in IUU fishing and human-rights abuses. CNFC has also been caught engaging in a diversity of fishing crimes along the coast of West Africa. In the past decade there have been more than three dozen cases in the region of CNFC ships involved in cases of fishing without licenses or in prohibited areas, using forbidden net types, and under-declaring the amount of fish they catch.
Governments are among the big buyers of tainted seafood. In the past five years, the U.S. government has spent more than $200 million to buy seafood from importers tied to Uyghur labor, for use in public schools, military bases, and federal prisons. (A spokesperson noted that federal agencies are required to source their seafood from U.S. waters. But watchdog groups have pointed out that the extensive use of exemptions means that much of the seafood actually comes from China.) In Europe, major government suppliers in France, Sweden, Germany, Spain, the U.K. and the Netherlands, including Bidfood, Sysco France, and Transgourmet, are distributing seafood from importers that are supplied by plants tied to violations on both land and at sea.
The Chinese government heavily subsidizes its fleet, including by funding squid ships that have previously engaged in crimes. Between 2018 and 2022, at least nine Chinese companies collectively received more than $17 million in government subsidies, even though at least 50 ships owned by these companies had engaged in fishing crimes or had deaths or injuries of crew onboard. Such subsidies reward bad actors and worsen overcapacity, which ocean researchers say is the biggest factor in depleting global fish stocks. Subsidies put too many boats on the water. Without subsidies, most high-seas fishing would not be profitable, including trawling along the seabed, which is the most damaging of all fishing practices, according to a 2008 study. Though the WTO recently limited fishing subsidies, it did not forbid the most harmful types that intensify overfishing, such as those for fuel, new engines, or new ships.
Over 150 Chinese fishing ships owned by two Chinese companies have already been banned by the U.S. Treasury Department from exporting seafood to the U.S. due to crimes associated with them, including forced labor and invading other countries’ waters. Roughly a third of these are squid ships. But the investigation found that these problems reach far wider than these two companies. A variety of laws exist to prevent the U.S. import of goods tied to crimes. These laws are particularly ineffective with seafood, however, because there is limited information about what happens on fishing ships.
Some Chinese companies that play an especially dominant role in the seafood industry are also closely tied to illegality. For example, one Chinese company called the Chishan Group is especially large and tied to at least five fishing ships associated with crimes or risk indicators. Chishan owns at least two reefers that carry squid from at least 38 more ships tied to crimes and concerns. Chishan owns factories that have processed almost a fifth of all squid exports to the U.S. since 2018.
Seafood from Chinese ships tied to human-rights and environmental abuses and from factories using illegal labor pervades the global market. Seafood tainted by these abuses was identified at big brand and independent grocery stores across the U.S., and diffused throughout the foodservice sector, which supplies restaurant chains, hotels, and public institutions. Seafood tied to abuses is shipped to over 36 countries, including at least 80 European importers. All of the ten plants using Uyghur forced labor are authorized to export to the U.S., while eight are authorized to export to the E.U.
The ties between China’s forced labor and the global seafood market reach far and wide. The U.S. companies importing seafood linked to Xinjiang labor transfers have supply relationships with major food-service, wholesale, and retail companies, including Sysco, the food-service giant, Walmart, the largest American supermarket chain, and Ruggiero Seafood, one of the country’s biggest squid distributors. Sysco supplies over 400,000 restaurants in the United States alone.
But the problem is global. Seafood processed at plants using forced labor is imported across Europe by French, Danish and U.K. subsidiaries of the world’s second-largest seafood company, Japan’s Nissui Corporation. Cité Marine, Nissui’s French distributor, supplies white fish to virtually all major supermarkets, including Carrefour, Auchan, Aldi and Lidl. The frozen foods giant Nomad Foods – whose retail banners Findus, Birds Eye, and Iglo are the most popular brands in 16 European countries – is supplied white fish by at least two importers buying fish from Chinese plants using Uyghur forced labor.
Almost three quarters of all the seafood imported by China from countries such as the U.S., Italy, and Spain is simply processed and re-exported back to the country of origin. For the U.S., up to $900 million of seafood is sent to China annually for processing and then re-imported. The prevalence of Uyghur labor in Chinese processing plants means that even seafood caught in U.S. waters by American ships is at risk of being tainted by criminality.
Governments and companies have failed to effectively police seafood supply chains for a variety of reasons. In the many handoffs of catch between fishing boats, carrier ships, processing plants and exporters, there are gaping holes in traceability. Most of the information about what occurs on the fishing vessel where the seafood is caught is unverifiable, self reported, and often backfilled by processors after the catch has already been dropped off on land. When the catch reaches the processing plant it is often co-mingled with that of other ships, making it impossible for buyers to know the true origin of their seafood.
Even companies with certifications designating them as sustainable are implicated. All ten of the Chinese seafood processing plants tied to Uyghur forced labor have been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), and four have been certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). MSC claimed that a recent update to their certification would “provide seafood buyers and consumers with greater assurances” that certified companies did not use forced or child labor, but certificates were issued after all ten processing plants had accepted Uyghurs through government transfers. In response to the findings, MSC acknowledged it was reliant on social audit, which has “significant limitations.”
Factories trying to conceal the presence of workers from Xinjiang can simply fail to list them on forms. Social audits are typically announced, which allows managers to hide Xinjiang ethnic minority workers ahead of inspections. Even if they get to interview these workers, auditors aren’t trained to identify state-imposed forced labor, and workers are reluctant to be candid for fear of retribution. Sarosh Kuruvilla, a professor of industrial relations at Cornell University, analyzed more than forty thousand audits from around the world and found that almost half were unreliable. “The tool is completely broken,” he said. “It’s a tick-box exercise on the part of the auditor, but it’s also a tick-box exercise on the part of the brand.”
Despite the unreliability of social audits, most seafood buyers referred to them in their responses to the investigation, many asserting that audit reports proved there was no forced labor at the implicated factories. The investigation surfaced evidence of Uyghurs working at processing plants within days of visits from auditors, however, including, in one case, on the very same day that an audit was conducted by the leading social auditor S.G.S, a Swiss multinational. Audit firms asserted that they conducted their inspections based on whatever was required by the standard being used. Sedex – the author of the world’s most widely used social audit standard, and the one used in all known audits of plants tied to Uyghur labor – said that it was “difficult and risky for auditors themselves to explicitly recognise state-imposed forced labour” that “may have been covered up.” The organization said that it would update its guidance on the matter.