How new technology is helping to identify human rights abuses in the seafood industry

Every year, the U.S. imports billions of dollars worth of seafood from countries that may be using forced labor on distant water fishing vessels. A growing cadre of tech companies and non-governmental organizations are playing a central role in identifying the most likely violators.

After being at sea for two long years, 37-year-old Indonesian fisherman Darmaji finally stepped off the Taiwanese tuna fishing vessel he had been working on and back onto firm ground in May of 2020. Verbally abused daily, Darmaji’s largely Indonesian crew of 22 often worked 18-hour days—even when seven-meter waves flooded the boat interior—and were typically allowed to sleep for only three hours. Meals consisted of gummy rice, boiled chicken or fish, and, at times, even bait fish. The crew had to pay for any other food they consumed and drank largely distilled saltwater.

As if the daily indignities weren’t enough, Darmaji didn’t receive the full pay he was promised in his contract, and even had to pay a $1,200 security deposit before receiving his monthly salary. “It’s a prison at sea,” Darmaji said.

Lured by the promise of high wages offered by recruitment agencies, Darmaji is one of an estimated 23,500 Indonesians working on foreign boats. Globally, capture fishing—as opposed to aquaculture—employs 27 million people, primarily from developing countries. Indonesia is one of the biggest sources of cheap migrant labor for fishing fleets from China, South Korea, and Taiwan. 

“The tech is coming–and it is coming so fast that we, in the conservation community, are growing an ecosystem of organizations that have the skills and capabilities to take advantage of it.”

Darmaji experienced verbal abuse, debt manipulation, underpayment, and atrocious living conditions, but he is one of the luckier ones—thousands of other forced laborers also endure physical abuse at sea. Beatings for insubordination are not uncommon, said Max Schmid, deputy director at the Environmental Justice Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to raise public awareness of environmental and human rights abuses. One worker described getting locked in a freezer, and later electrocuted with a tool used to kill tuna, he notes. Schmid and colleagues have interviewed hundreds of Indonesian fishermen about working conditions on distant water fishing vessels mainly flagged to Taiwan, China or South Korea; over 20 percent of them described physical violence.

In 2016, the Associated Press revealed the extent of modern-day slavery and human rights abuses at sea, after conducting an 18-month investigation that ultimately freed 2,000 slaves, some held in cages, in Southeast Asia. Since then, governments, companies, and non-governmental organizations have assembled a rapidly expanding constellation of surveillance capabilities, intelligence tools, and treaties necessary to create law enforcement capacity to rein in the “wild west” in the sea. While vessels, often thousands of miles from shore for years at a time, remain largely unregulated, technology is poised to play a central role in identifying the most likely violators.

Buckets of fish are seen at the port in Songkhla on February 1, 2016. Around 100 people have been arrested by authorities in a recent crackdown on abuses involvingThailand's multi-billion dollar seafood industry. The deep-rooted problem caused the huge global brand, Nestle in 2015 to admit that hat it had discovered clear evidence of slavery at sea in parts of the Thai supply chain. Thailand is the world's third largest exporter of seafood. February 2021

The U.S. imports over 90 percent of its seafood, and up to 32 percent of wild caught imports come from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing sources. In 2015, the United States imported more than $34 billion in seafood from countries such as China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Paula Bronstein/ Getty Images

The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 40 million victims of modern slavery around the world; of those, 25 million are subject to forced labor. Countries in Southeast Asia and Africa are most at risk for human trafficking in their seafood sectors. Seven countries with the highest slavery risk in 2018 generated 39 percent of the global fisheries catch, according to the Global Slavery Index.

Forced labor allows vessels to cheaply venture farther out to sea to access profitable fisheries, since coastal fish stocks have already been depleted by illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Since the U.S. imports over 90 percent of its seafood, and up to 32 percent of wild caught imports come from IUU sources, those fish end up on American plates. In 2015, the United States imported more than $34 billion in seafood from countries such as China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Not only is IUU costing the global economy an estimated $10 to $23.5 billion, U.S. fishermen could be losing $1 billion in revenue annually, according to the World Wildlife Fund. After slave-caught seafood was found in popular food chains that included Wal-Mart, Costco, and Whole Foods, seafood companies realized the need to protect their supply chains from claims of forced labor or IUU. As seafood supply chains develop methods to track and label sustainably caught fish, the industry is exploring ways to monitor what happens on ships out at sea.

 

“The tech is coming–and it is coming so fast that we, in the conservation community, are growing an ecosystem of organizations that have the skills and capabilities to take advantage of it,” said John Amos, president of SkyTruth, a non-profit conservation watchdog organization whose analysis of satellite imagery supported the AP slavery investigation. The foundation of these efforts is the Automatic Identification System (AIS), a tracking system that employs transceivers on ships; over 200,000 vessels now broadcast their location via a transponder. In 2016, Amos helped launch Global Fishing Watch, a website that tracks those AIS signals to provide the world’s first global view of commercial fishing activities.  

A growing cadre of tech companies and non-governmental organizations are using their expertise to, for example, identify the so-called dark fleet, the vessels that do not broadcast their location or appear in public monitoring systems. While tech alone can’t end forced labor in the seafood industry, these intelligence services offer a much-needed assist to overburdened, developing coastal governments who are struggling to establish efficient, meaningful oversight to protect their fisheries.

In 2015, Valerie Farabee was one of a growing number of eyes surveying the sea for suspect behavior. She is currently the director of research and analysis for Liberty Shared, a non-profit organization that focuses on preventing human trafficking. Farabee specialized in unearthing food supply chain abuses that had a large number of victims and where products could be traced via shipping records and other methods from forced labor to consumer.

Even before satellite tools became available, she traced vessel behavior through open-source research of registered fisheries management organizations and reports from non-governmental organizations, and routinely scanned southeast Asian news outlets for stories of abuse. “I could see vessels stayed out too long, fished near protected zones or areas they were not allowed to be in,” she said. Further, the same features regularly emerged among vessels charged with forced labor and illegal fishing: The below deck crew, the ones most often victimized, were of different nationality than the above deck crew, and they often came from vulnerable populations that desperately needed jobs to feed families, she said.

“I could see vessels stayed out too long, fished near protected zones or areas they were not allowed to be in.”

Gavin McDonald, a data cruncher at University of California at Santa Barbara who was looking for ways to identify suspicious behavior of fishing vessels, reached out to Liberty Shared and the Environmental Justice Foundation. Previous research had called into question how some vessels in remote, high seas areas could be making a profit. “Given the species they were catching and how much they should be paying crew and how much it costs to get out to middle of ocean—it wasn’t adding up on how [they were] making a profit,” said McDonald.

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Farabee and Schmid helped McDonald identify boats that had been busted for human rights violations. Analyzing the behaviors of 23 of those vessels in the Global Fishing Watch databases, McDonald identified over 20 different signature behaviors of vessels known to have human rights violations—including spending longer time at sea than other boats, avoiding ports, fishing more hours per day, and having longer gaps when the AIS signal was not being transmitted. McDonald then used predictive modeling to detect patterns in data. He found those same high-risk behaviors in 14 to 26 percent of 16,000 fishing vessels, including industrial longliners (used to catch tuna or swordfish), as well as squid boats and trawlers which pull a fishing net through the water, in Global Fishing Watch’s database. Between 57,000 and 100,000 individuals worked on these vessels and may have been forced labor victims.

“Given the species they were catching and how much they should be paying crew and how much it costs to get out to middle of ocean—it wasn’t adding up on how [they were] making a profit.”

Global Fishing Watch’s David Kroodsma is now looking for more records of vessel violations to hone the model’s ability to distinguish suspect vessel behavior. “To scale this approach, we need more examples,” said Kroodsma. There’s one problem. “It is harder to verify the good behavior,” he said. But it is a critical step, added SkyTruth’s Amos. “The first problem to stop the bad guys is to separate the bad and good players,” he said. “And, certainly, GFW is doing that.” One of the most important actions that will help the world solve the IUU fishing, said Amos, is offering legitimate operators a way to make themselves visible, trackable, and show their customers they are adhering to applicable laws.

Luckily, Global Fishing Watch isn’t alone. Other tech titans are carving out their niche in the budding law enforcement seascape. An avid yachter and ocean lover, billionaire Paul Allen’s philanthropic organization, Vulcan, has long tackled thorny marine concerns. Vulcan’s Skylight program identifies so-called dark vessels, the ones not transmitting AIS, via satellite imagery—for example, boats loitering near marine protected areas, or vessels brought in to refuel fishing vessels. Another partner, Norway-based Trygg Mat Tracking, tracks the constantly shifting names and country flags used by tens of thousands of vessels, and maintains an image repository and a record of compliance problems to keep tabs on the most likely bad actors. “The worst actors will flip names as much as every year or even more,” said Duncan Copeland, executive director of Trygg Mat Tracking, a non-profit organization that gathers fisheries intelligence for governments. He says Trygg Mat Tracking has focused the majority of their efforts on coastal Africa because they have the biggest gaps in oversight and capacity, and are at the highest level of risk of illegal fishing. 

A watchkeeper analyzing Vulcan Skylight rendezvous alerts at Zone F Operations Center in Accra, Ghana.

Vulcan Skylight

“One of the biggest messages from governments is they don’t have coast guard or inspection capacity to investigate every vessel in our waters or ports,” said Courtney Farthing, global program manager at Global Fishing Watch. Giving governments tools to narrow their field of vision and be more cost-effective will be a game-changer, she added. It’s already proven to be.

On September 16, 2020, Skylight and Trygg Matt Tracking, working with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, provided the Ghanian navy with enough information for the country’s maritime law enforcement agencies to detain and inspect 14 fishing vessels, resulting in the arrest of four of the vessels for IUU fishing practices. “The ocean is big. This is a needle in haystack problem,” said Ted Schmitt, Vulcan’s principal program officer.  And, he added, “it’s not just a sheriff coming to [tame the wild west],” he said of the partnerships that have developed. It’s sheriffs backed by intelligence and forensics experts, Schmitt said.

Ghana is one of only 68 countries to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement, a UN Food and Agriculture Organization treaty to strengthen port controls to prevent illegally caught fish from entering the global market. It is one of three treaties that aim to end illegal fishing—none of which have been ratified by a majority of countries. “We need governments and industry to embrace transparency and put data out there,” said Farthing. With transparency, compliance becomes the norm, and non-compliance indicates risk, she added.

The tangible value of greater transparency can be seen in the waters of North Korea and Russia, where dark fleets operated one of the largest known cases of illegal fishing operations. Spanning 2017 to 2019, illegal fishing yielded over 160,000 metric tons of squid, worth roughly half a billion dollars—in a region where squid stocks have dwindled by 80 percent since 2003, according to a study published by Global Fishing Watch.

“One of the biggest messages from governments is they don’t have coast guard or inspection capacity to investigate every vessel in our waters or ports.”

A follow-up analysis of dark fleet fishing activity in those same waters throughout 2020 shows 50 percent fewer vessels observed during the annual squid fishing season, which Global Fishing Watch attributes to both increased satellite monitoring and to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ominously, the team’s analyses suggest that the sharp decrease seen in the number of “ghost boats” washing up empty or with human remains on Japanese shores supports their hypothesis that the ghost boats were actually North Korean fishing boats that had to venture farther from home into Russian waters due to competition from industrial trawlers.

Governments have begun sending strong signals that lax regulatory oversight from problem countries will no longer be tolerated. In 2015, the European Commission issued Taiwan a “yellow card,” a distinction that labels a country as being uncooperative in fighting IUU fishing. It was lifted in 2019 after over three years of actions to improve monitoring, enforcement, and traceability. Still, the average fisherman aboard a Taiwanese vessel is unlikely to ever meet a government labor inspector, said Schmid. “There are 32 ports that Taiwan has authorized their distant water fleet to use; only eight have employed Taiwanese fishery inspectors—and they are not labor rights inspectors,” said Schmid.

Human rights violations represent a complex, wicked problem, said Elena Finkbeiner with Conservation International. “One organization coming at it from one angle will not do it justice,” she said. It requires collective action and combined resources, she adds. To that end, a team of researchers including McDonald, Juno Fitzpatrick from Conservation International, and Farthing from Global Fishing Watch are conducting a study of global trends in worker rights violations in marine wild capture fisheries. Conservation International has already developed a social responsibility assessment tool to help the seafood industry players identify at-risk areas in their supply chains—whether they be physical treatment of fishermen, safety practices, or access to food and first aid.

“Far more common, on many fishing vessels, overseas and distant waters, working conditions are appalling, even if crews are sort of there by choice.”

Sadly, there is a synergy to preventing both overfishing and human rights violations. Copeland said fishing violations can be a sign of human rights violation risk. “If you bust a boat for using the wrong size mesh gear, that is a risk indicator that that vessel will cut other corners or break other laws,” he said. Slavery, forced labor, indentured servitude, as well as poor labor conditions exist along a continuum of human rights violations. Slavery and forced labor are at the most extreme end. “Far more common, on many fishing vessels, overseas and distant waters, working conditions are appalling, even if crews are sort of there by choice,” said Copeland, emphasizing that bad working conditions persist precisely because, in the face of poverty, there are so few other choices for work. 

Darmaji doesn’t want anyone else to experience what he did and hopes governments and international institutions will stop these kinds of operations. He doesn’t plan to continue fishing—but he knows many others will. The relatively high paying job continues to attract, for example, young workers in Indonesia and around Southeast Asia to work on fishing vessels from China, Korea, and Taiwan. But he wants the public to understand the reality of life on fishing boats “so that sailors around the world, not only in Indonesia, can get their human rights.”

Virginia Gewin is an independent science journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about global food security, agriculture, and climate change for a variety of publications, including Nature, Popular Science, The Atlantic, and many others. You can find her at virginiagewin.com.