Lawless Ocean: The Link Between Human Rights Abuses and Overfishing

The high seas remain an often-dystopian realm where the scant laws that do exist are frequently ignored. This has led to overfishing, illegal dumping, and other environmental abuses that are closely linked to human rights violations aboard thousands of vessels.

By Ian Urbina

There are few remaining frontiers on our planet. But perhaps the wildest, and least understood, are the world’s oceans: Too big to police and under no clear international authority, these immense regions of treacherous water play host to rampant criminality and exploitation of the marine life below the surface and the humans working the boats above it.

Consider the perils facing the tens of millions of people working aboard one of thousands of illegal fishing vessels on the high seas. At least one ship globally sinks every three days. Private security forces operating at sea are a $20 billion business, and when these mercenaries kill, governments rarely respond because no country holds jurisdiction in international waters. And what transcends all borders are the compounding environmental threats imposed by humans.

The urgency of this crisis is real. Operating with virtual impunity on the high seas, fleets from Spain, China, South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries are at the heart of an illicit seafood trade that generates an estimated $160 billion in annual sales. The trade in illegal fish has grown over the past decade as improved technology—stronger radar, bigger nets, faster ships—has enabled fishing vessels to plunder the oceans with remarkable efficiency.

The high seas are a place where anyone can do anything because no one is watching.

Stories from these depths together formed The Outlaw Ocean, a New York Times series and book, that took me more than five years to report on every continent and every ocean. My reporting revealed the disturbing reality of a floating world that connects us all, a place where anyone can do anything because no one is watching. For all its breathtaking beauty, the ocean is also a dystopian place, home to dark inhumanities.

I met a Cambodian migrant, who had been shackled by the neck on a trawler catching fish destined for American shelves. Captive at sea for three years, this Cambodian was an all too common example of a wider problem known as “sea slavery” that ensnares tens of thousands of men and boys on fishing boats each year globally.

In the case of Thailand, where this abuse is common, men or boys from surrounding countries such as Laos, Cambodia, or Myanmar are often offered a job in construction or some other lucrative industry by a human trafficker. This trafficker typically tells the potential worker that they can help the worker get into the country and that the debt incurred during passage will be settled up later. The worker soon finds out that he is not in fact destined for a job in construction, but is going to work on a fishing boat. When he arrives at port, the debt the worker accrued is used to sell him to the fishing boat captain. Sometimes these boys and men are kept captive at sea for several years before they escape or are released.

Off the coast of South Africa, I shadowed a Tanzanian stowaway who, discovered at sea by an unwitting and angry fishing boat crew, was sent overboard on a makeshift dingy and left to die in the middle of the ocean, hundreds of miles from land as a storm approached. This grim phenomenon, known as “rafting,” has become a more common way to dispose of migrants and stowaways, especially in the wake of new rules imposed after September 11 and recent anti-immigration policies that have raised penalties for captains who arrive in port with unplanned guests onboard.

At another point during my reporting, I embedded on a roach-infested Thai purse seiner, where 40 trafficked Cambodian boys worked 20-hour days, barefoot, rain or shine, on a slippery deck, just one misstep from disaster. That first night I tried to sleep on the floor as most do. I was soon awakened by rats crawling across my legs, dozens more scurrying all around me and the rest of the crew. Long-haul fishing isn’t just the world’s most dangerous profession, it’s also in many places the most gruesome.

In the South Atlantic, I joined the longest law-enforcement chase in nautical history. A vigilante conservation group called Sea Shepherd was attempting what no government had been willing to do. These advocates were trying to stop a ship that for nearly a decade had fished illegally and largely unobstructed in Antarctic waters, profiting to the tune of more than $76 million. Even though Interpol had placed this illegal ship on its so-called Purple Notice list—essentially an arrest-on-sight list—no one with the authority or responsibility to act did so.

The bottom line is that this realm, which happens to cover two-thirds of the globe, is home to an assortment of extra-legal actors. They range from traffickers and smugglers, pirates and mercenaries, wreck thieves and repo men, to elusive poachers and vigilante conservationists, clandestine oil-dumpers, shackled slaves, and cast-adrift stowaways. Many of these actors flourish in the absence of governance. And, importantly, many of the more urgent problems they are countering or creating involve an interplay between human rights and environmental abuses.

Globalization allows companies to rely on more tangled, international supply chains to tap cheaper labor.

Combating these issues is complex. Most commercial fishing occurs offshore, out of view and reach of authorities. Vessels often change their name, call sign, or flag to avoid detection. The global economy has also become accustomed to tangled and convoluted supply chains where it is very difficult if not impossible (perhaps by design) to discern whether forced labor is being used to move goods across the ocean or catch the fish that ends up on our dinner plates. Globalization has allowed companies to rely on more international and tangled supply chains so as to tap cheaper ingredients and labor. The consequence is savings for consumers, but, if we are honest, we also have to admit permitting the abuses that allow for these cheaper prices – be they a failure to pay workers anything close to appropriate wages, or a decided policy of unsustainable fishing that is destined to cause stocks to collapse.

We are all the beneficiaries of the lawlessness on the high seas, where 90 percent of all the products we consume come by way of ships, and the commercial channels are usually unbothered by the government and, therefore, rules. We have been able to access impossibly cheap products that arrive to our shelves with incredible speed. We are deeply dependent on the ocean: 50 percent of our oxygen comes from the ocean, and in some coastal communities in Africa and Asia, 70 percent of the protein people consume comes from the sea. All of these types of abuses, whether they’re human rights abuses, or environmental crimes, stem from a core problem, which is a lack of governance at sea, especially on the high seas.

There are three ways in which misbehavior happens offshore routinely and with impunity: too few rules, a lack of enforcement, and insufficient awareness of what is happening there. All of these problems are also connected in the sense that they occur with a certain tacit complicity from all of us who live on land.

Author Ian Urbina boarding a fishing boat off the Philippines while investigating the mysterious death of a deckhand. ADAM DEAN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES.

Seafood may be having its moment of reckoning, not unlike what occurred previously with blood diamonds, sweat-shop garments, and dolphin-free tuna, where companies and consumers say that they are willing to accept higher prices for goods that can actually be traced from bait to plate. Admittedly, because the sea is so far from inspectors and watchful eyes, it will be difficult for companies to track their products better and publicly prove that abuses are not baked into their production process. But if the will is there, spurred by consumer demand, companies and governments can accomplish this level of accountability and transparency.

If countries were serious about combating human rights, labor, and environmental abuses at sea, they would step up legal protections, at-sea patrols, and, most especially, inspections when ships dock. Broadly speaking, there need to be more rules, more proactive enforcement of those rules, and more awareness of what is happening out there.

It would also be perilous to ignore the way that environmental abuses contribute to and derive from human rights and labor crimes. When considering solutions, it seems prudent to consider not just the fish but also the fishers. It is often ill advised to push policy fixes that help to ensure that a fish hasn’t been caught using illegal gear or ensuring that it hasn’t been pulled from water where it’s forbidden, without also ensuring that the people doing the actual fishing were not sea slaves.

When it comes to this woefully out-of-sight, out-of-mind realm, solutions exist to many of the most vexing challenges, particularly illegal fishing and human trafficking. More often, however, what has been missing is the political and societal will to tackle these issues now.