Slavery is happening in the world’s fishing fleet

Up to 26 percent of the approximately 16,000 industrial fishing vessels analyzed were at high risk of using forced labor.

Vessels known to have crew that are subject to forced labor behave in systematically different ways to the rest of the global fishing fleet, reveals a new report by the University of California, Santa Barbara and Global Fishing Watch. The discovery was used to build a first-of-its-kind model to identify and predict vessels at high risk of engaging in these abuses.  

Up to 26 percent of the approximately 16,000 industrial fishing vessels analyzed were at high risk of using forced labor, a type of modern slavery. As many as 100,000 individuals are estimated to work on these high-risk vessels, many of whom are potential victims of forced labor.

The study found the most important indicators for distinguishing high-risk vessels include traveling farther from ports, higher engine power, more fishing hours per day, more time spent fishing on the high seas, and fewer fishing voyages in a given year than other boats.

Longliners had the largest total number of high-risk vessels. But when looking at the prevalence of high-risk vessels within fleets – squid jiggers had the highest percentage of high-risk vessels, followed closely by longline fishing vessels and then, to a far lesser extent, trawlers. 

High-risk longliners were found to be operating globally, whereas areas to the west and southeast of South America, the southeast of Russia and to the west of India were found to be hotspots for high-risk squid jiggers.

High-risk vessels visited ports predominantly in Africa, Asia and South America, although exceptions include Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and several European countries. 

These high-risk vessels visited ports in 79 countries in 2018, including 39 countries that are Parties to the FAO Port State Measures Agreement, a treaty aimed at tackling illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing through the enhancement of port State control. These ports are both potential sources of forced labor as well as transfer points for seafood caught using forced labor.

Squid jiggers and longliners flagged to China, and longliners flagged to the Republic of Korea, Japan and the fishing entity of Taiwan were most frequently found to be high risk.

University of California, Santa Barbara and Global Fishing Watch aim to further develop this model to provide governments, enforcement bodies, and international agencies with a robust tool that can be used to assess risk of forced labor on vessels and support targeted inspections through relevant policy mechanisms. 

A forced labor risk tool may also be useful to the seafood sector and market-based programs when they conduct supply chain risk assessments, helping to incentivize improved working conditions.

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