Fishers and plunderers

French trawler Alf

A new study on the conditions of world fishers, the destruction of marine environments and the depletion of fish stocks

Lead author Alastair Couper, Emeritus Professor at the University of Cardiff and a Director of Seafarers’ Rights International, summarises the findings

There is excessive competition in world fisheries, and a vast oversupply of capacity and effort in relation to the volume of marine life. Consequently vessels spend longer at sea in pursuit of scarcer fish. Capital and operational costs are rising, and economies to offset these are obtained through subsidies from governments, increased technology, destructive methods in fishing, illegal catching, fraud and systematic criminality, and especially through drastic reductions in the labour costs of crewing. While there are many on-going scientific projects on marine ecological problems that stem from overfishing, pollution, acidification of the sea and climate change, our study gives particular consideration to the human elements involved in finding, catching, preserving and delivering fish to world markets. Our data have been derived from reports, articles and field work in Africa, Asia and the Pacific as well as in Europe. Because of the paucity of statistics on most of the topics, we have placed much reliance on fishers’ own statements.

About sixteen and a half million sea fishers serve worldwide on over four million vessels in national and international waters; the greatest numbers are from developing countries. In total, around 90 million tonnes of fish are lawfully landed each year. This figure does not include illegally caught fish; nor are the millions of tonnes of fish dumped at sea as ‘bycatch’ included in overfishing estimates.

Huge human risks accompany ‘the race to fish’. Available statistics on injuries and mortality are very sparse outside developed economies, but we know that, even in a well-conducted industry such as the UK’s, one in twenty fishers is likely to be killed at work. The risks are much higher elsewhere. Sea fishing is the most dangerous of all industrial occupations.

Imperial advantage

Nation states claim rights to fish under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 82). Our study shows the advantage that the most developed countries, with their imperial inheritances, derive from this in the allocation of sea areas, as well as the preferences that governments give to larger companies in allocating quotas. The advantages that developed countries have over the mass of fishers in the developing world include subsidies, and extend to violations of UNCLOS 82 articles involving deprivation of opportunities for small-scale fishers owing to corruption in the provision of licences to foreign vessels by developing country governments, for private profits.

In several parts of the world, fishing vessels have become pawns in territorial disputes, and innocent fishers have been imprisoned as a result. At the same time, extensive illegal fishing throughout the world ocean not only deprives countries of income but again results in the imprisonment of fishers when vessels are apprehended and owners are not traceable behind corporate veils and flags of convenience. Some twenty to forty per cent of catches from many exclusive economic zones (EEZs) are taken illegally. The appearance of legality is given to sales of these black fish through systems of processing, disguise and laundering.

The crews of distant-water fishing vessels are particularly exposed to systemic abuse and criminality. Under the intolerable conditions prevailing in many fisheries, low-cost crews can only be obtained by means of duplicity in contracts, and the trafficking of migrant young men and boys from rural areas. Our study cites accounts of recruitment methods from several parts of South East Asia. Where contracts are involved, these are generally very unfair, but in the main there are no contracts. Agencies require recruits to pay for the job, and their representatives in rural areas provide only promises on pay and conditions while families have to provide collateral, and any costs involved in bringing migrants to ships are recovered from wages. We have some one hundred first-hand accounts of the conditions experienced by fishers, which include slavery, abandonment, beatings, and in several instances child labour, sexual abuse and murder.

Actions taken by fishers in response to being deprived of opportunities to fish from their communities are evident in accounts of attacks by coastal people on foreign ships, though these have generally been unsuccessful in driving them away. Actions by fishers on board ships include desertion, mutiny and even the murder of captains and senior officers. All of these have resulted in imprisonment. However, it has been impossible to establish the full extent of such instances, the level of sentences and whether fair trials with representation have been possible.

The limits of the law

Success in the protection of abused fishers by recourse to legal methods is only achieved when trade unions and NGOs are able to bring matters to a court of law. The unusual case of New Zealand, where crews have taken legal action in pursuit of unpaid wages and compensation, offers an example of what can be achieved. However, our study also shows that fishers who cooperate in such cases have been exposed to blacklisting and other retaliation on return to their home areas.

Poverty in fishing communities has driven many young men into crewing vessels engaged in drug smuggling. Their value in this role comes from their knowledge of coastal areas and their skills at sea. One chapter in our study provides a good indication of the extent to which drugs may be carried on board fishing vessels, even inside frozen fish. Transfers take place at sea to smaller craft able to make beach landings. When arrests are made and vessels are sunk in reprisal, it is the fishers who suffer, never the drug cartels.

Another alternative for impoverished fishers is engagement with piracy. We have accounts of this from South East Asia and from East and West Africa. But fishers are themselves victims of pirates to a much greater extent than is evident from the coverage of hostage taking from merchant ships. Many fishers do not report being robbed for fear of reprisals against themselves when they next go to sea, or against their communities. Fishers can sometimes buy some protection from the gangs in the form of immunity certificates.

Protecting fish and fishers

What measures are being taken for the protection of fish stocks and the related wellbeing of fishers and their communities, and what more needs to be done? There is clearly a need to integrate science, technology and law, and to take due account of the many human factors involved. New international projects supported by the United Nations with massive state and private funding will make use of satellite surveillance to track thousands of vessels. But the methods of disguising catches, and the use of fraudulent documents and ports of convenience, can only be tackled with the cooperation of fishers themselves. Similarly, the expansion of marine protected areas requires the close involvement of local fishers, especially where fishing populations exist only on the margins of survival.

The main conclusions of our study highlight a list of 39 issues that are receiving different degrees of attention under various international agreements that define the rights of fishers. Existing conventions on safety and training and the neglected articles of UNCLOS 82 need to be implemented, while the more recent ILO Work in Fishing Convention 188 (2007) remains to be ratified as well as implemented by member states.

Such mechanisms will be given most force – channelled through retail companies and NGOs – by pressures from below that arise from public awareness of the atrocious working and living conditions experienced by the fishers who harvest the fish we buy and consume.

Fishers and Plunderers: Theft, Slavery and Violence at Sea, by Alastair Couper, Hance D. Smith, and Bruno Ciceri, is published by Pluto Press.