Skip to content

The Catch Behind Illegal Fishing

More than 3 billion people depend on fisheries for their food security and jobs according to USAID, with U.S. consumers spending more money on seafood than any other nation. To date, the U.S. is the largest single-country market for fish and fish products, the fifth largest exporter, and the third largest wild seafood producer. Needless to say, the United States is vested.

As a result, the U.S. leads and partners with nations who have a shared interest to regulate global waters. This becomes challenging when dealing with nations who do not adhere to international maritime regulatory programs or practices in place. Nations who challenge regulations tend to practice Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing also known as IUU. It is estimated that one-third of today’s global seafood harvest comes from fishing operations engaged in IUU fishing practices. In 1992, the U.S. enacted the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act, requiring the U.S. to provide nationals to Congress who practiced IUU fishing. The 2021 report identified 31 nations, including repeat offenders like China, The Russian Federation, and Mexico. In the 2019 report to Congress, there is a section calling out the concerns of China’s illegal fishing practices.

In this week’s Overwatch, analysts investigate the ongoing IUU practices, the ongoing struggle for regulation of global waters, the correlation IUU has to human trafficking and the counter narrative from China. This is all contributing to a larger impact threatening sustainability, the resiliency of the fishing community, economies, and the oceanic ecosystem.

Illegal Fishing Invites Human Trafficking

Illegal fishing is a prosperous business that depletes near-shore fisheries, perpetuating forced labor through human trafficking in seafood sectors because the vessels need to travel out further and stay at sea longer to catch enough fish – all raising operational costs. The unattractive conditions also make it difficult to recruit and keep costs down, further enticing forced labor tactics.

Last May, the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act was enacted to not only remedy IUU, but also human trafficking, as more stories are released about the inhumane conditions on the vessels and the disinformation campaigns used to recruit workers. Many incidents target individuals vulnerable to making money quickly, only to discover long 18-hour workdays, poor living conditions left to eat fish bait with unclean water and being isolated at sea with monthly salaries turning into annual salaries.

A Mongabay article shares a personal account of vessel Long Xing 629, where deckhand Sepri never made it to the end of the catch. This story of Sepri was published by the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) this year and won an Excellence Award. Like most deckhand stories, Sepri responded to a Facebook ad recruiting deckhands. The position was attractive to Sepri, who only had a middle school education. The ad boasted a compensation of $350 per month, twice the minimum wage in South Sumatra province, where Sepri lived. The dream was short lived though, with hard labor 18 hours a day, as he was forced to eat the same bait fish hooked onto fishing gear, along with desalinated seawater. Sepri fell ill, leading to his death. Sepri’s sister, Rika, shares, “He wanted to make a lot of money. He wanted to make his cousins and me proud. That was his wish. Even though I always said the important thing was finding a job.” Unfortunately, the fate of Sepri on Long Xing 629 (owned and operated by the Dalian Ocean Fishing Company) is not uncommon.

Facebook photos posted at Lakemba Perkasa Bahari show, clockwise from top left, men training with fishing lines; a sign outside Lakemba’s office in Bekasi, a satellite city of Jakarta; Lakemba recruits; and coffee and cigarettes.

The Dalian Ocean Fishing Company has many aliases and also goes by its formal Chinese name Dalian Yuan Yang Tuna Yu Ye Co., or by “China Tuna,” or Liaoning Dalian Ocean Fishery Group Corp. 辽渔集团有限公司, ‘State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of Liaoning Provincial People’s Government.’  A Customs and Border Patrol Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) investigation led to a Withhold Release Order (WRO) after finding evidence of forced labor aboard 32 of Dalian’s vessels.

Based on the current bill of lading shown below, the Dalian Group is still active with a ship currently heading to the Port of Long Beach.

Polarizing Narratives

With the U.S. spending more money on imported seafood than any other nation, consumer campaigns were created to raise awareness about illegal fishing and the threat it plays on sustainability and the oceanic ecosystem. An example is through the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ consumer campaign last June to educate the public about the impact of IUU. Without traceable resources to understand where your fish is coming from, the campaign encourages consumers to ask a simple question, “Where is this fish from,” whether fish was being purchased from a local market or ordered at a restaurant.

Outside of protecting food security and the ocean ecosystem, the U.S. is a global leader in protecting human rights issues. Much like the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act earlier this year, the U.S. takes a stand for peace, security, and human dignity. The definition of human dignity continues to be subjective, with the Chinese narrative, guaranteeing human rights sentiment of the Chinese people to have notable increases in their sense of fulfillment, happiness, and security. The portrayal from China is that the U.S. has a track record of being the biggest human rights abusers in the world, citing examples such as the death toll in the U.S. for COVID-19, the Forced Labour Convention, and rising numbers of gun violence.

Our Assessment

With the global demand for seafood continuing to grow alongside illegal fishing, regulation combined with consumer awareness is the answer. However, compliance proves to be an ongoing challenge as narratives and definitions continue to be a debate. As the debate continues, the coastal environments and forced laborers are at risk of the greatest vulnerability.

Overwatch analysts anticipate the U.S. will continue to make strong ground domestically through matching consumer campaigns that extend awareness and tracing products from sea to table. According to David Schorr, the Senior Manager for Transparent Seas, Oceans, WWF:

On a global front, the U.S. will continue to build alliances with nations who have common values in protecting the lives of both humans and marine life, impacting IUU. As recently as October 7, 2022, State Secretary Antony Blinken launched a new project, the Por la Pesca (for fishing) Project. The effort is to support sustainable fishing like Peru and Ecuador through artisanal fishing.

As alliances on land and sea attempt to regulate the sea, tools such as the Global Fishing Watch’s map will help the U.S. Coast Guard and analysts discover hot spots where IUU vessels are, identify vessels and owners that are suspect, and monitor their movement and transponder activity to make strides in our effort for greater sustainability.


Subscribe Today!

Get instant access to Overwatch.

Topic(s) most interested in:
Please check if you need Overwatch to be delivered in plain-text format to override aggressive spam filters.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Leave a comment