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Expert series: Protecting human rights at sea

Expert series: Protecting human rights at sea

The views expressed in this article are the author’s considered opinion

How do you regulate and monitor an industry that is largely “out of sight, out of mind”?  The fishing industry often operates hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from shore and the practice of at-sea transhipment, where smaller fishing vessels offload their catch to, and resupply from, larger carrier vessels, allows fishing companies to keep fishermen at sea for as long as two years without setting foot on land. Conditions on these fishing vessels are often bleak, with only minimal accommodations, insufficient food and water, and poor hygiene that leads to infection, illness, and even death. When you consider that these same fishermen are subject to long hours in physically demanding and dangerous conditions with minimal pay, calling it “slavery” is not really a stretch.  Yet, despite what we know about the abuse occurring across this industry, many fishing companies continue to operate with impunity under the idea that “what happens at sea, stays at sea.” 

Thanks to the relatively recent exposure of some of these atrocities at sea by excellent journalists such as Ian Urbina in his New York Times “The Outlaw Ocean” series and book, as well as Martha Mendoza and her team uncovering seafood slavery in their Pulitzer Prize winning series, the public has begun to understand the deeply troubling nature of criminality at sea, and how the fish on their plates might be the product of slavery, at worst and human or labour rights abuse, at best.

Moreover, the abuse occurring in these fisheries has reached a level at which it is undeniable. As recently as April 2020, Indonesian fishers working on the Chinese fishing vessel Longxing 629 revealed graphic human rights abuse allegations resulting in the deaths of 4 Indonesian crew members (including video evidence) as well as other violations involving shark finning, killing protected endangered species, and illegal transshipments at sea.  As a result, countries responsible for addressing these abuses have, rightfully, come under increasing scrutiny and pressure to do something.

Unfortunately, prosecuting instances of human rights abuses at sea is fraught with complexity where multiple jurisdictions overlap and responsibilities are often unclear.  This aspect is evident in the recent deliberations of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), a multilateral international body charged with regulating fisheries within its jurisdiction as established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  In December 2020, Indonesia, a member state of the WCPFC, brought forward a proposal to create a binding regulation aimed at addressing human rights abuses in fisheries, which would have been the first of its kind in such a forum.  The proposal would create responsibilities for flag states (the flag carried by a vessel indicates it is a legal extension of the country under that flag) and coastal states (the states that control their adjacent 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)) to ensure that human and labour rights abuses are not occurring in fisheries under their respective jurisdictions and, if they are, to create compliance measures to address those abuses.  The proposal was largely supported by most member states of the WCPFC, but China insisted that the issue was out of the remit of the WCPFC, noting that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and International Maritime Organisation (IMO) as well as their own domestic laws as a flag state should be the principal authority. Because all decisions before the WCPFC must be made by consensus, Indonesia’s proposal was effectively blocked, although China ultimately conceded to allow discussion to continue under a myriad of procedural requests that will unquestionably delay any meaningful action for years. 

Meanwhile, Indonesian fishing crew, which comprise as much as 70% of crew in the Pacific, continue to suffer at the hands of tyrannical captains and unscrupulous owners. Worryingly, because of the heightened scrutiny and actions taken by Indonesia to protect their citizens working in the fishing industry, owners are increasingly sourcing crew from countries such as Nepal and Mongolia, where such protections remain weaker and the cost of labour is lower. Therefore, the risk of human rights abuses at sea is being transferred to even more vulnerable communities, making it an extremely urgent issue to address.

So why would someone working for a conservation organisation such as myself take such a discrete interest in human rights?  Well, mostly because it is simply the right thing to do, but also because no country or company that allows these horrific human rights abuses to occur can ever be expected to respect the laws governing our natural world.  If we cannot manage to protect the people charged with harvesting resources from our marine environment, then we certainly cannot protect the marine environment itself.  If we ever expect humanity to live in harmony with nature, then we absolutely must root out and eliminate one of the last vestiges of human slavery that is contributing, without consequence for its horrific impact, to a global marketplace which we [as consumers] might be unknowingly supporting. Therefore, I believe that, where governance processes fall short or fail, there are technological and market solutions available that can change the course of human and labour rights abuses in fisheries. As public awareness increases, supply chain traceability improves, and markets as well as consumers make increasingly informed purchasing decisions of the fish they eat, we will be progressively able to “vote with our wallets” and eradicate slavery from the seafood supply chain.

About the author:

Alfred “Bubba” Cook has spent a lifetime on the ocean and the last 17 years working in fisheries conservation and management.  At age 18, he joined the United States Navy’s Nuclear Power Programme, which took him around the world and sparked an interest in global affairs and, especially, international fisheries. Troubled by fishery declines he observed at home and abroad, he sought out an education focused on fisheries policy and law.  In 2000, he received a B.S. degree in Fisheries and Aquaculture from Texas A&M University followed in 2003 by a J.D. with a certificate in Natural Resource Policy and Environmental Law from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, making him well suited to take on complex policy initiatives in large-scale fisheries. After law school, he was hired by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska where he led a dedicated team in the implementation of one of the world’s most complex and effective fishery management programmes for the North Pacific crab fishery made famous by the TV show “Deadliest Catch.” He later joined the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF’s) Arctic Programme to support fisheries conservation and management efforts across the Bering Sea from the Russian Far East to Alaska’s remote indigenous communities. In 2010, he joined the U.S. Peace Corps and served in Wailevu Village in Vanua Levu, Fiji, where he supported several grassroots marine conservation projects over two years.  Since 2012, Bubba has worked as the Western and Central Pacific Tuna Programme Manager for WWF, where he focuses on improving tuna fisheries management at a national and regional level in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean through policy improvements, market tools, and technological innovation. He has been a leader in promoting technology innovation in fisheries conservation and management. Among other fisheries related issues, Bubba has promoted human rights and labour justice in the Pacific through work targeting fisheries observer safety and security as well as crew welfare initiatives, recognizing that proper fisheries conservation and management is not possible without protecting the people prosecuting those fisheries.