Labour abuses including modern slavery are ‘hidden subsidies’ that allow distant-water fishing fleets to remain profitable and promote overfishing, according to new research from The University of Western Australia and the Sea Around Us initiative at the University of British Columbia.
Published in Nature Communications, the research paper “Modern slavery and the race to fish” combines fisheries data from the Sea Around Us initiative at UBC with country-level data on modern slavery, to find countries whose fleets rely heavily on government subsidies fished far away from home ports and failed to comprehensively report their actual catch, tended to fish beyond sustainable limits and were at higher risk of labour abuses.
Lead author David Tickler, from UWA’s School of Biological Sciences, said crews on vessels from China, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea and Russia were particularly at high risk because of a lack of regulatory oversight in those countries combined with the complexities of jurisdiction at sea.
“This makes it easier to force people to work excessively long hours, often under appalling conditions, to extract as much fish as possible in exchange for a low – or zero – pay,” Mr Tickler said.
“With global marine fish catches declining at a rate of 1.2 million tonnes per year since the mid-1990s, the only way many industrial countries’ fleets have been able to remain ‘profitable’ is by receiving government subsidies. However, labour costs can typically only be lowered by reducing worker pay and conditions.
“The lack of control over these boats makes them a fertile ground for labour abuses, as well as other crimes including illegal fishing. It also facilitates trans-shipment, where catches of multiple fishing vessels are often combined before landing.”
Co-author Daniel Pauly, principal investigator of the Sea Around Us initiative at the UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries said seafood caught illegally or under conditions of modern slavery was being laundered by mixing it with legally caught fish before it entered the supply chain.
This is how ‘low slavery risk’ markets, such as the US, the EU and Australia, end up consuming seafood that may have been caught by modern slaves.
Mr Tickler said around 70 per cent of seafood consumed in Australia was imported, primarily from Asia with Thailand, China and Vietnam the main sources.
“Our imports include products processed in one country but caught by another (e.g. Taiwanese tuna processed in Thailand),” he said. “So we have a high dependency on fisheries classified as ‘high-risk’ for labour abuses.”
Co-author Dirk Zeller, leader of the Sea Around Us – Indian Ocean initiative at UWA, said while domestically the average slavery risk in the United States was low, the US accounted for about 14 per cent of global seafood imports and those imports had a slavery risk 17 times higher than fish caught by US fleets domestically.
Co-author Jessica Meeuwig, Director of the Marine Futures Lab at UWA, said imported seafood was usually combined in local markets with US-fleet caught fish.
“Thus, the seafood available to domestic consumers in the US becomes eight times more likely to have been produced or processed with modern slavery, making choice about both sustainability and social justice,” Professor Meeuwig said.
The researchers are calling for national laws to be strengthened so that both the environmental and the social elements of sustainability in seafood supply chains can be audited in a transparent manner.
Fiona David, director of research for the Walk Free Foundation, which set up the Global Slavery Index, said stronger laws would place increased responsibility on the large seafood corporations that can often best influence supplier behaviour and who, maybe without even knowing it, are currently profiting from modern slavery.
The research was an international, collaborative effort between Sea Around Us initiative, UBC, Walk Free Foundation, Australia, Fisheries Economics Research Unit, UBC, Marine Futures Laboratory, UWA, and Sea Around Us – Indian Ocean initiative, UWA.
Professor Jessica Meeuwig (Director, UWA School of Biological Sciences) 0400 024 999
David Tickler (UWA School of Biological Sciences) 0451 008 755
David Stacey (UWA Media Manager) 08 6488 3229/ 0432 637 716