Blood and Water: Slavery in the Fishing Industry Revealed

Credit: EJF
Credit: EJF

Published Jun 6, 2019 11:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

A new report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) details cases of slavery, debt bondage, insufficient food and water, filthy living conditions, physical and sexual assault and murder aboard fishing vessels from 13 countries operating across three oceans. 

The report Blood and Water details numerous cases of abuse, on vessels flying the flags of both developing and developed nations, from the E.U. and U.S. to Asia and South America. It includes recent investigations revealing serious abuses on vessels ranging from Taiwanese long-liners fishing far out at sea for high-value tuna, to desperate Vietnamese trawlers illegally entering Thai coastal waters because of the collapse of their own fisheries.   


Supriyanto, an Indonesian man recruited overseas to work on a Taiwanese longliner. Supriyanto had previously worked on a similar vessel in 2014 and had returned to Indonesia, before deciding that he needed more money to sustain his family. He was recruited the second time by an Indonesia-based recruitment agency with a contract that promised $350 per month. It was later revealed that his Taiwanese employer would deduct $100 from his monthly wages, which would then be given back to him at the end of his 24 month contract. This was designed to prevent him from running away. Further deductions and fees were charged to Supriyanto over the first few months meaning that he only received $100 for his first two months of work. During his time on board, photographic and video evidence shows that Supriyanto was beaten and abused by the captain and fellow crew members – on the captain’s orders. He eventually died on board the vessel as a result of his injuries, less than four months after starting work.

South Korea

In a two-year investigation by Seoul-based Advocates for Public Interest Law and the International Organization for Migration, numerous cases of human rights abuses and negligence aboard South Korean fishing vessels were documented. Interviews with some 70 migrant fishermen based in the Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines revealed cases such as the Oryong 501. Aboard this vessel, safety provisions were so poor that when the ship sank in the Bering Strait in 2014 – as a direct result of the captain forcing the crew to continue fishing despite severe weather – only seven out of the 60 crew, mostly migrant fishers, survived.

Human rights abuses facing migrant fishermen aboard South Korean ships first came to light in 2012, when 32 Indonesian crew members escaped from the Korean vessel Oyang 75 in New Zealand. They claimed that they were sexually and physically assaulted, and not paid their wages, which was confirmed by both Korean and New Zealand authorities.


In the northern UAE region of Ras Al-Khaimah lies a string of fishing communities, made up of mostly Amarati Indians who have migrated to the UAE. They fish using small 12 meter skiffs owned by local UAE businessmen, catching approximately 100kg of fish per trip. According to local organizations, the workers are not paid a salary but instead given a small proportion of the catch. This is barely enough to feed themselves, let alone their families. Workers have also reported having their identification documents confiscated by their employers to prevent them from leaving. As a result, these communities are working in a semi-bonded state, completely reliant on the boat owners to sustain themselves and their families. 


Honolulu is a hub for 140 U.S. flagged longliner fishing boats that ply the waters around Hawaii for prized swordfish and tuna species to supply local and national restaurants. Fish from these boats are air-freighted over to the mainland in an industry worth $110 million every year. Serious labor abuses including forced, unpaid labor, and living conditions akin to slavery were discovered on some of these boats in September 2016. There were approximately 600-700 workers on board these vessels, predominantly from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Kiribati. Some of these workers reported being paid less than $1 an hour while being forced to pay off debts to their brokers and recruiters. One Indonesian worker accumulated debts of over $5,000 to pay for getting to Hawaii, recruitment fees and even for finding his replacement. This sum was gradually deducted from his already meager salary. Ship owners or captains could pay up to $10,000 to brokers for each worker, a cost which is often then transferred to the worker for the duration of their contract.

These workers do not have visas to enter the U.S. and are not lawfully allowed to set foot on US soil. Through a legal loophole in U.S. immigration law, they are forced to remain on board their vessels whenever they return to port. The law in question (I259) specifies that workers must be “detained onboard” for the entire duration of their stay in port and requires the vessel captain to retain the men’s passports – a practice often used to facilitate trafficking and forced labor.

Workers have also reported being verbally and physically abused. Two Indonesian men who escaped from their vessel in 2010 while it was docked in San Francisco told police how they were beaten and kicked by the vessel captain, forced to work 20-hour shifts and denied access to medical treatment for work-related injuries. One of the victims said that food was so scarce he would often take pieces of raw fish to eat, just to keep his strength up.


The vast majority of the abused fishers are migrants, often trafficked to the vessels via brokers who facilitate the abusive practices. Undercover work in Thailand has shown how easily recently arrived migrants, commonly unable to speak Thai and unaware of labor laws and rights, can be exploited. Contracts are often written in Thai, meaning that workers cannot understand the terms and conditions.

Brokers charge exorbitant fees, with interest, often taking payment directly from workers’ wages and creating the conditions for debt bondage.

A Cycle of Abuse

This abuse of workers is part of a vicious cycle of abuse of the oceans, says the EJF. As unsustainable and often illegal fishing continues to drive steep declines in fish populations, income from fishing falls. To maintain profits, unscrupulous vessel owners seek to lower their costs through illegal fishing and forced, bonded and slave labor. This unmanaged and destructive exploitation of marine ecosystems causes fish populations to fall further – and the cycle continues.

Detailed evidence of this vicious cycle of abuse is presented in EJF’s interviews with fishers aboard Vietnamese vessels. Crew spoke of long hours, restricted access to food and water and only receiving pay if the catch was good. Crucially, they knew when they left port that they were headed to Thailand to fish illegally. There is no point in fishing in Vietnamese waters, they said, because there are no fish left. The Vietnamese fishing fleet is one of the largest in the world, and now stands at well over 100,000 vessels.   

Corruption and poor governance continue to feed the problem, limiting effective management and enforcement of laws. However, it is the almost total absence of transparency in the global seafood industry that allows such harmful practices to flourish, the report asserts. The lack of transparency enables illegal operators to create as much confusion as possible around their identities; escaping detection by changing vessel names, concealing vessel ownership, flying different flags to avoid detection or removing ships from registers entirely.

The Way Forward

EJF’s Executive Director Steve Trent says it does not have to be this way. “Adopting EJF’s Charter for Transparency would be transformative. 10 simple, logistically deliverable, low-cost measures  such as the publication of vessel license lists and the mandatory requirement of unique identifying numbers for vessels – measures that are well within the reach of any country – would make it vastly easier to identify and act against the illegal operators, while rewarding legitimate law-abiding businesses.”  

The process will be greatly aided if all countries ratify, implement and enforce international agreements such as the International Labour Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention (C188), he says. “Likewise, the case for aggressive action against the brokers who trick migrants, selling them to traffickers and into debt bondage, is both clear and compelling.”

A Multi-Billion Dollar Industry

Seafood is a multi-billion dollar global industry with total export trade valued at $152 billion in 2017. This represents more than nine percent of total agricultural exports across the world (excluding forestry products) and in some countries accounts for more than 40 percent of the total value of traded commodities. Per capita fish consumption has risen from just 9.9kg of fish consumed in the 1960s to 20.5kg in 2017, and this ever-growing demand for cheap seafood from buyers around the world has seen employment in this sector expand at a phenomenal rate.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing presents a grave threat to the world’s fish stocks, which are already on the brink of collapse. A third of fish stocks are being exploited at unsustainable levels, with a further 60 percent of fisheries on the edge, fished at maximally sustainable levels.

The report is available here.