Taming the Outlaw Ocean
Ian Urbina

Calling Out the Ocean Outlaws

A digital roundtable

An illegal transshipment of tuna in international waters taking place outside Indonesia, in November 2012. Shannon Service/Greenpeace

The New York Times’ outstanding Outlaw Ocean series shines a powerful spotlight on a number of issues demanding urgent attention. From slavery and violence targeted at seafarers to dumping and pirate fishing, there is much to be done to protect our oceans and the people who work on them. But who is responsible? What are the solutions?

Thai Union is the world’s largest seafood business, supplying pet food, shrimp, canned tuna and other products to companies in the U.S. and around the world. The company, which owns Chicken of the Sea and is in the process of buying Bumble Bee, has apparently benefited from slave labor for years. What should they do now?

Part of the answer involves the kind of step the company announced it would take after the Times story was published: full independent audits of its entire supply chain. For that to be effective, though, there are additional challenges the company will have to address.

First, there is the fact that for many fishermen, what happens at sea stays at sea.

For example, there are fisheries’ observers on just two percent of the thousands of tuna longline boats operating today. As someone who has boarded and inspected quite a few tuna boats, I can definitely confirm that many of them are not used to being under any scrutiny.

There is also the problem of transshipment at sea. Many tuna boats no longer catch their fill and return to port to sell their catch.

Instead, they hand over their fish to another boat and keep on fishing. This has made it possible for unscrupulous companies and captains to trap fishermen at sea for months or even years at a time without any chance to escape. Transshipment at sea also makes it extremely difficult for companies like Thai Union to be sure that slavery is no longer a part of their supply chains, because fish from responsible boats gets mixed together with fish caught by slaves — or pirates.

The way we treat the people who catch, process and ship the seafood we feed to our pets and our families is directly tied to the health of our oceans.

To begin with, overfishing made it difficult for many businesses to make a profit. This led some of them to cut corners and turn a blind eye to suppliers who were not paying workers a living wage. In turn, companies relying on slave labor can afford to put a lot more boats on the water, adding to the overfishing problem that started the cycle in the first place.

Companies like Thai Union have to start taking responsibility for the people in their supply chains — and to do that, they must address systemic problems like the lack of observer coverage on fishing boats and the traceability black hole that is transshipment at sea. Until then, it will not be possible for consumers to be confident that their shrimp or tuna was not produced in part by slaves.

Greenpeace activists unfold a banner next to a cluster of tuna longliners, urging the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission to save Pacific tuna and those who depend on it. James Alcock/Greenpeace

Ian, in the aftermath of your series, I’d love your perspective on the two following questions:

  1. Some of the companies implicated by The Outlaw Ocean series in slavery and other illegal activities have been quick to say they have taken steps to clean up their supply chains. Do you think the actions taken so far match how widespread and serious these problems are?
  2. From shrimp and cat food to tuna and Chilean sea bass, it seems like U.S. consumers are unwittingly supporting crimes against humanity as well as our oceans. What should lawmakers do to ensure that the products of slavery and illegal fishing do not enter U.S. markets?
Like what you read? Give John Hocevar a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.