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Sold at Sea

“To deny any person their human rights is to challenge their very humanity. To impose on them a wretched life of hunger and deprivation is to dehumanize them.”

Nelson Mandela


According to the World Food and Agriculture Organization, about 85% of fish populations around the world are fully exploited or overfished and need protection. Sea levels are rising, water temperature is increasing, the oceans are becoming more acidic and species are disappearing at an alarming rate. Chances are you already know about the destruction our oceans are facing and even a number of ways in which you can contribute to their conservation.

Stacks of fish lay in a pile on a Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel as a result of alleged illegal fishing activity off the coast of  Sierra Leone.

Stacks of fish lay in a pile on a Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel as a result of alleged illegal fishing activity off the coast of Sierra Leone.By U.S. Coast Guard, via Wikimedia Commons.

What you might not know is that a large portion of depleted fish populations is due to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. About 1/5th to 1/3rd of all seafood entering the market – or one out of every five fish– is likely to be IUU or the result of pirate fishing. Lately, this issue has been a hot topic in the media. With two bills in the United States Congress aimed at ending illegal fishing, one which has passed the House of Representatives and one making its way through the Senate, this issue is drawing some attention to policy makers. Beyond the headlines and the scientific studies, however, there is a more sinister side to illegal fishing that is rarely mentioned in popular news until very recently: human trafficking.

A 2012 study suggested that over 21 million people were victims of forced labor in various industries, a number that has likely increased in the following years. When people hear the phrase “human trafficking” their first thought is usually the hundreds of thousands or millions of women and children around the globe bought and sold for illicit purposes. This, however, is not the only kind of trafficking. Forced labor is also very common on fishing vessels that engage in IUU or pirate fishing.

 An Armed Forces for the Defense of Mozambique boarding team member searches a simulated illegal fisherman during an exercise. By Tech. Sgt. Chad Thompson ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Armed Forces for the Defence of Mozambique boarding team participates in a simulated IUU  raid. By Tech. Sgt. Chad Thompson  via Wikimedia Commons

In March of this year, Associated Press released a heartbreaking story about men and women who had been trafficked and forced to work on fishing vessels supplying the world’s insatiable demand for seafood. Trapped on an island, sometimes in cages, these men and women were waiting until their next voyage, not knowing if it would be their last. Many of these enslaved workers came to work on fishing vessels just wanting to earn a meager living. But once on board, their documents were often taken; they were harshly treated, barely fed and often unpaid.

The AP reporter described the situation, “They said the captains on their fishing boats forced them to drink unclean water and work 20 to 22-hour shifts with no days off. Almost all said they were kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing, as they hauled in heavy nets with squid, shrimp, snapper, grouper and other fish.”

One of the worst offenders of fisherpeople’s rights is Thailand. Over 650,000 people are employed in Thailand’s fishing industry and their 2011 exports were worth more than $7.3 billion. Until Thailand was put on notice by the European Union that its seafood exports were in jeopardy, the country made little effort to reduce IUU fishing and human trafficking.  Thailand remains on Tier 3- the worst level- of the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report. Tier 3 refers to “governments of countries that do not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”


A Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel suspected of illegal fishing activity, moves through the water before being boarded by crewmembers from the U.S. Coast Guard. By U.S. Coast Guard. Photo by Public Affairs Specialist 2nd Class Shawn Eggert  via Wikimedia Commons.


A frustrating aspect to this sad state of affairs is the difficulty often experienced when attempting to trace seafood from your plate back to the place it was caught and processed.  Seafood from different locations and fishermen is often processed and mixed, becoming completely untraceable, before reaching its final destination. A recent New York Times article highlights how “sea slaves” are responsible for catching the trash fish, which is “marine fish having little or no market value as human food but sometimes in the production of fish meal,” used in pet food. When you and your pets are eating fish likely caught by men and women trapped on fishing vessels fearing for their lives, how do you ensure this egregious activity stops?

There are a handful of ways in which you can help ensure your seafood is not linked to seafood slavery:

  1. Ask your restaurant, fish store, grocery store or supplier where your fish is from, who caught it and how it was caught. Look at the country or area of origin on packaged seafood and try to buy from countries that are known for having low IUU. Some stores have traceable fish. Try buying local, sustainably caught fish whose origins can be identified, or use the seafood ratings from Seafood Watch and Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector to decide what types of seafood to buy.
  1. Stop buying pet food with fish products or only purchase pet food that is Marine Stewardship Council certified.
  1. Encourage your government to look to the European Union’s actions on IUU seafood and seafood slavery. The EU threatened to stop seafood imports from Thailand if the country did not significantly clean up its human trafficking and illegal fishing activities. Thailand has responded with reforms and renewed enforcement efforts.
  1. Educate yourself. The Environmental Justice Foundation has spent years working on this topic and has produced multiple reports on the subject.
  1. In the U.S., contact your Representative in either the House or the Senate and ask him or her to support the bill on illegal fishing S. 1334 or H.R. 774. These bills will serve to ratify a treaty the United States has already signed called the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), which is focused on ending illegal fishing throughout the world’s ocean.
  1. If you are from outside of the United States, check to see if your country has signed onto the PSMA. If it has not, contact your government officials.

Stronger laws, more enforcement and a spotlight shining on these horrific acts can bring about the end of slavery at sea and reduce IUU fishing. Marine Conservation Institute is dedicated to advocating for healthy oceans and sound ocean governance. The organization has worked tirelessly to help push IUU legislation through Congress and will soon be releasing an in depth report on the economics of IUU fishing. To learn more about our work on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, please visit our website.

Cover photo credit: NOAA -Mike Markovina. “Catching under-sized fish off the coast of Gabon.”


  1. […] where laws are hard to come by and criminals are even harder to catch. Marine life and those forced into labor on illegal fishing vessels ultimately suffer the most from this lack of accountability. Solving the […]