Taming the Outlaw Ocean
Ian Urbina
5511

Pirates and Slaves

A true story about what happens at sea, why you should care, and what you can do about it

Once you know, it’s hard not to be interested in ocean conservation: seas and oceans cover more than 70 percent of our planet; they contain a vast diversity of life, around 90 percent of our planet’s living biomass; they soak up around one quarter of the carbon dioxide we produce each year; and generate about half of our oxygen, more than all the world’s forests.

The incredible beauty and richness of life in our oceans is a constant source of wonder and fascination, compelling in its complexity and depth.

Today, over 3.5 billion people depend on the oceans for a primary source of food, for employment, and for income. Yet less than 3 percent of the oceans is currently protected, and species after species are being hunted to either commercial or biological extinction, undermining the entire fabric of these astonishing habitats. I have seen again and again just how important the richness of life in our oceans is as a vital resource for people — especially the poorest — and how we are allowing a once seemingly-inexhaustible supply of fish to be devastated.

Humanity has become a super-predator and is now in the process of degrading the life support systems that sustain us all.

For species such as sharks — as old as the dinosaurs, present as top predators for around 400 million years — it seems astonishing to me that within just one generation, we may wipe most of them out. Since the 1950s, over 90 percent of the world’s large ocean species — like cod, halibut and swordfish — have been fished out. And today, industrial “pirate” fishing vessels undermine attempts to secure sustainable management of our fisheries and protect the fabulous biodiversity that exists in our oceans. We need to stop them. And consumers — in the United States, Europe, Scandinavia, and across the globe — certainly have a role to play.

In his article, “‘Sea Slaves:’ The Human Misery That Feeds Pets and Livestock,” part of his Outlaw Ocean series, Ian Urbina vividly describes the human rights abuses inflicted on migrants who are held captive on fishing vessels hundreds miles away from the Thai shore, forced to work in brutal conditions to provide the so-called “trash-fish” that ends up as pet food or feed for livestock or farmed shrimp destined for western markets. Urbina presented the debt bondage, intimidation, brutality, and murder used to coerce these modern-day slaves, mainly migrants coming from countries neighboring Thailand, into working. Now consider that Thailand is only the sixth-largest exporter of pet food, with 305,038 tons sold in 2011[1]; how would you feel knowing that the seafood that may be hidden in your cat or dog food has been fished by slaves and may have cost a human life—not to mention, taken unsustainably from a resource that has been almost fished out?

The abuses described in the Times’ series are the same conditions that the Environmental Justice Foundation investigated and documented in the 2013 report Sold to the Sea, interviewing fourteen men who were rescued from a port in Kantang, southern Thailand. The 2014 EJF report Slavery at Sea then went on to reveal the structural failings in how Thailand dealt with these abuses, both at sea and on land. In March last year, EJF’s evidence on human trafficking and human rights abuse in Thailand’s fishing industry was presented to the U.S. Department of State. In June 2014, Thailand was downgraded to Tier 3 in the U.S. Department of State’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons report. A year later, the same U.S. State Department has decided to keep Thailand on the bottom Tier 3 considering that the Thai government still does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so, ranking them alongside countries such as North Korea and Iran.

But there is another story in the awful situation that Urbina has so powerfully documented, and this is the links between the appalling mismanagement of Thailand’s fisheries over decades, and the economic forces that now drive the use of bonded, forced labor in the Thai seafood sector, linkages first documented in detail in EJF’s 2015 report and film, Pirates and Slaves.

Exacting profits from exploiting people will often go hand in hand with illegal, unsustainable, and unregulated industries. — Secretary of State John Kerry, 2014

The Thai fishing industry is a textbook example of over-fishing. Rapid industrialization of the fishing fleet during the second half of the 20th century resulted in too many vessels — using highly destructive and unsustainable fishing gears — catching too many fish. In 1945, there were just 65 powered fishing vessels in the whole country. In 2011, a Thai Government survey estimated the fishing fleet (both non-powered and mechanized) exceeded 57,000 boats, with other studies estimating there to be more than 3,300 trawlers in the registered Thai fleet.

Thailand’s industrial fishing industry has long failed to consider the true ecological (and economic) costs of its unsustainable business model. The widespread adoption of unselective fishing methods aimed at maximizing total catch has devastated the marine ecosystem and created a situation where the industry has “fished down the food web” by targeting fish at progressively lower trophic levels. Marine biodiversity crashed, with some researchers claiming that 60 percent of large fin fish, sharks, and skates in the Gulf of Thailand were lost during the first five years of industrial trawl fishing.

Thai fishing boats operating in national waters today catch the equivalent of just 14 percent of what they did in the mid 1960s. Thailand’s fish stocks and marine biodiversity are in crisis. The Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea have largely been fished out.

Faced with depleted stocks, Thai fishing vessels have targeted the so-called “trash fish” — a significant proportion of which is made up of juveniles of commercially important species — and therein created a self-reinforcing cycle which has largely exhausted Thailand’s marine resources.

And the downward economic pressure arising from these decades of mismanagement today means that many Thai fishing boat operators and owners can only maintain their profits through the use of bonded forced and slave labor — migrant workers in the 21st century, bought and sold as slaves.

How did this pitiful situation come about?

“There are laws, but they aren’t enforced. You get fined $150 for fishing within three kilometers of the coast, but this is like a grain of sand for the larger fishers; they might as well just pay up before they head out for the night.” — Sirasa Kantaratanakul, Thai campaigner

The Thai fishing fleet has been, and still is, governed by an antiquated, corrupt, and wholly inadequate management regime which has combined with a failure of enforcement — commonly no enforcement at all — to facilitate a free-for-all in Thailand’s waters. Successive governments have allowed this to continue, bowing to blatant self-interests in the personal fiefdoms of provincial officials and corrupt enforcement officers to create a feeding frenzy in its territorial waters. Worse still, these abuses are now being “exported” to neighboring states, as Thai fishing vessels have moved further away to maintain their catch and their profits. The reality at sea — which EJF has documented first-hand — is that fishing vessels flying the Thai flag operate with virtually no controls on what they fish, how they fish, or where they fish. These are modern-day pirates plundering our seas for simple profit.

“[The Captain] verbally abused me, but I was so sick I couldn’t work. He knocked me down, dragged me, and threw me into the sea.” — Sai Ko Ko, from Mon State, Myanmar, 2013

And this is where the slavery and brutality comes in; free labor in an uncontrolled market. Thailand is in the enviable position of having close to full-employment and in its highly lucrative, export-driven seafood sector, there has been an acute shortage of labor. Hence, among the roughly 650,000 workers who populate the Thai seafood sector, well over 90 percent are migrant workers, coming primarily from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. Many of these economic migrants have been trafficked in, without the necessary papers to legitimise their status, often not speaking any Thai and without support — just desperate for work. Vulnerable and largely unprotected, these workers have been targeted by brokers or middlemen selling workers on to seafood businesses to staff their operations for cheap or slave labor, as Urbina, EJF, and others have documented.

“In the last two years, nothing has changed on the issues of human trafficking in fisheries (in Thailand)… It just stays the same. Nothing new, no improvements.” — Kyaw Lin Oo, interpreter for victims in human trafficking, 2014

Testimonies EJF has gathered from fishermen repeatedly reflect brutality, slavery, and the common use of murder, and this is why EJF has, for the past three years, focused on Thailand. Nowhere else in the world have we been able to identify anything remotely like the extent to which forced, bonded, and slave labor is used in the Thai industry, and nowhere else have we witnessed the common-place use of such extreme violence. Our findings are repeatedly corroborated by numerous others, from the United Nations, to the International Labor Organisation (ILO), to multiple other NGOs.

For example, a United Nations inter-agency survey found an astonishing 59 percent of those it surveyed had witnessed an execution at sea, while an ILO survey noted 94 percent had no contract; 17 percent worked against their will; 17 percent were threatened with violence; and 10 percent were severely beaten. These are not ad hoc, one-off cases of abuse by rogue operators. They are present across the Thai fleet that has used slave, forced, and bonded labor as a means to keep costs low, as chronic mismanagement of the fisheries in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea have reduced stocks and productivity to such a level that they simply could not fish there profitably without this brutalized labor force.

Today, despite the international outrage generated by recent exposés, and despite claims by government to be reforming the industry, the new fishing law introduced this year is woefully inadequate, failing to even define illegal fishing properly; there are still no robust certification or traceability schemes that could help build the transparency needed to expose bad operators and reward good. Thailand still has to sign up to vital international agreements such as the Port State Management Agreement, and crucially, the clearest illustration of ongoing failure is highlighted by the lack of prosecution and convictions of Thai nationals (not Burmese or Cambodian) that own and operate these “pirate” fishing vessels and seafood companies reliant on bonded, forced, and slave labor.

Now remember, Thailand is the third-largest seafood exporter in the world, and we are talking about a highly lucrative business[2] worth over $7 billion in export income in 2011, with much of the product coming to the United States and European Union as shrimp, in your pet food or to produce other foods.

Fundamental changes in thinking and action are needed from the Thai Government and seafood sectors, to create the legal framework and enforcement actions needed to eradicate both the slavery and labor abuses, and illegal fishing, as one interconnected problem. As consumers, we also have a part to play. You can use the power of your wallet to put pressure on retailers, requiring them to leverage transparency and traceability to ensure that their supply chains are free from these abuses.

Without such fundamental changes, the Thai industry will continue to be embroiled in one of the most outrageous social, ecological, and economic crimes of the 21st century. “Trash fish” caught by these vessels will then continue to make it is way to the U.S. and E.U., and the same fish will inexorably end up in your pets’ bellies. Or maybe even yours.


[1] FAO Stats (2011)

[2] FAO Stats (2011) Thailand Export of Pet Food, Unit Value ($/ton) = 2333

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