Guest Post: An Ocean With Neither Pirates Nor Slaves

John Hocevar is the Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA. His team has been using Global Fishing Watch to help focus their attention on specific areas within known hotspots of illegal activity. John is a co-author on a paper in the current issue of the journal Marine Policy that presents arguments for a moratorium on transshipment on the high seas. Among the issues raised in the paper is the association of transshipment with human trafficking and exploitation of workers who are trapped and abused on fishing vessels.


If you care about the ocean, you are probably familiar with the problem of pirate fishing. Known in wonkier circles as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, pirate fishing catches somewhere between 11-26 million tons of fish per year and confounds efforts to sustainably manage fisheries. To put that in perspective, the weight of the entire human population of the state of California is roughly 3.5 million tons. As incredible as this figure is, the true impacts are almost certainly far worse, as it doesn’t fully account for the high rates of bycatch – of sharks, turtles, birds, and fish – that are thrown over the side dead and dying by these fisheries.

People are just starting to realize the scale of a closely related scandal regarding ill-treatment of workers on fishing boats. Shockingly, there are more people enslaved today than at any time in human history, and many are at sea. In interviews Greenpeace conducted with fishermen on Pacific longliners, people told us horror stories of being beaten, starved, and forced to work 18 hour days – often for months or even years at a time. Some reported being given so little food they had to eat bait to survive. Several had even witnessed a murder on board.

How are pirate fishing and slavery at sea connected?

We have caught and eaten most of the fish in the ocean. That has made it more difficult for fishing companies to be profitable, because they have to spend more time and fuel looking for fish. To cut costs, some unscrupulous operators are paying fishermen less – or even not at all.  Even the most basic conveniences are denied these workers; we spoke to fishermen who had to pay to use the toilet. These inhumane and often illegal practices enable companies to keep more boats on the water, which further drives the overfishing that started the problem in the first place.

Shark finning is another example of how these issues are intertwined. Fishermen on many tuna boats are not paid a living wage, so they intentionally fish in a way that will catch a lot of sharks. They cut the fins off the sharks, often tossing the living bodies overboard to starve or be picked apart by fish and crabs once they sink to the bottom. The fishermen sell the fins for extra money, as they are (still!) highly valued for shark fin soup. The big tuna companies know this is happening, and it is a shameful part of the business model  for those that do not ensure the fishermen supplying their tuna are paid enough to feed their families.

Many of the solutions to pirate fishing also address human rights abuses at sea. Increasing observer coverage  and ending transshipment at sea are powerful means to protect workers as well as our oceans. With a commercial fleet of roughly 64,000 fishing boats operating in every corner of the globe, often hundreds or even thousands of miles from land, we need greater transparency in order to tackle these problems. Global Fishing Watch is playing a vital role in increasing supply chain traceability and improving monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS), which are fundamental parts of the answer. We have our work cut out for us, but it is finally possible to see a future ocean without either pirates or slaves.  

 

[To read more about the global scope of transshipment, see the Global Fishing Watch transshipment report.]

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Last year, a study comparing the economic value of tourism and commercial fishing around a cluster of remote Eastern Pacific Islands put some hard numbers behind a proposal to create the one of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas (MPA). Those numbers shifted the balance in a previously one-sided dialogue with the government of Mexico which owns the islands. Read more

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The first of ten points outlined in their agreement is to: Read more

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Last month, the EU Fisheries Council of Ministers slashed next year’s catch quota for the Western Baltic Sea cod by 56 percent. It was a bold move that has fishermen concerned for their livelihoods and scientists concerned for the sustainability of the stock. Though unprecedented, Read more

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This week the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has convened in Slovenia. The gathering marks the 30th anniversary of the commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling. Read more

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After years of monitoring large pelagic sea life with remote tracking devices, researchers have started to build a picture of where certain species travel throughout the year. Together with our fishing vessel maps, we have a real opportunity to minimize the deadly encounters between humans and marine life. Read more

Diversity Expedition Update

Last week we reported on an expedition to survey diversity in the deep sea off the coast of Southern California. The goal of the expedition was to document on video the diversity of deep sea diversity in the area and demonstrate the need to close the waters of the Southern California Bight to bottom trawl fishing which destroys seafloor habitat. The team is back, and according Goeff Shester, California Campaign Director and scientist for Oceana, it was a great success. Read more

Rush Hour in the Sanctuary

Way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a sanctuary off limits to fishing activity, scientists are learning the habits of marine life uninterrupted by humans. In a recent study, they’ve found that sharks commute in and out of the lagoons of Palmyra on a daily basis. Rush hour according to the researchers appears to hover around sunset, Read more

Video Expedition Hopes to Capture and Protect Deep Sea Diversity off Southern California

Once considered to be a cold, dark desert nearly devoid of life, the deep sea is now known to support more species of marine life than the shallow reefs of the tropics. A menagerie of corals, sponges and undiscovered creatures—some of them previously unimaginable, others known only from the fossil record, lies hidden in near complete darkness beneath hundreds, or thousands, of feet of water. Read more