China catches, processes and exports much of the planet’s fish. But its distant-water fishing fleet has been tied to violence, wage theft, severe neglect and human trafficking of crew members
This story was published in co-ordination with The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization in Washington. Reporting and writing was contributed by Ian Urbina, Joe Galvin, Maya Martin, Susan Ryan, Daniel Murphy and Austin Brush. This reporting was partly supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Roughly 350 miles west of the Galapagos Islands, on a Chinese squid-fishing ship, a worker opened the freezers several floors below deck to reveal stacks of frozen catch in white bags. He explained that the ship’s crew members leave the ship’s name off these bags because doing so allows them to transfer cargo more easily to other ships owned by the same company.
On the bridge of another ship, a Chinese captain opened his fishing logbook, which is supposed to show what was caught, as well as where and when catches were made. The first two pages had writing on them, but the rest were blank. “No one keeps those,” he said about the logs, noting that company officials on land fill in the information later.
These instances, and countless others like them that occur out of public sight on distant-water fishing vessels, highlight the opaque nature of the world’s seafood supply chains.
Off the coast of West Africa, reporters boarded Chinese distant-water fishing ships to inspect their fishing logs, some of which were empty. When log books are empty and ships transponders are turned off, the vessel is considered a dark ship, which makes enforcement and traceability of their catch nearly impossible.
With ships so far from shore, constantly in transit and typically operating on the high seas, where national governments have limited jurisdiction, the movement of seafood is distinctly tough to trace.
Because seafood often isn’t tracked, importers frequently don’t know where the fish they sell is actually caught. This in turn makes it difficult for retailers and consumers to know whether seafood on store shelves is tied to environmental crimes, human rights violations on fishing boats, or violations of sanctions on “pariah” states, such as North Korea and Iran.
But the biggest source of worry for advocates concerned about these issues is China, which catches, processes and exports much of the planet’s fish.
China has a distant-water fishing fleet that is more than double the size of its next competitor, Taiwan. This fleet has been tied to myriad crimes, including cases of raiding Argentinian waters, routinely turning off transponders in violation of Chinese law, illegally fishing in North Korean waters in violation of UN sanctions, and engaging in violence and wage theft, as well as severe neglect and human trafficking of foreign and Chinese crew members.
Reporters from The Outlaw Ocean Project spent four years documenting the nature of traceability gaps as seafood catch moves from bait to plate. To do this, the project’s reporters followed – and, in some instances, boarded for inspection – Chinese fishing ships at sea in several locations, including in the waters close to North Korea, Gambia, the Falkland Islands and the Galapagos Islands.
The reporters followed the fishing ships by satellite, and then, to pin down who was cleaning, processing and freezing the catch for eventual export, the team tracked the vessels as they moved their catch to refrigeration ships that carried it to ports in China, where investigators filmed and followed the trucks to processing plants. The investigation revealed examples of gaps in tracking at each hand-off.
The reporters then used export records to track the seafood to grocery stores, restaurants and food service companies in the European Union and United States.
The investigation found that even companies that claim environmental and labour stewardship have ties to Chinese ships associated with human rights abuses, environmental crimes and other concerns.
Ruggiero Seafood, a U.S.-based company that says on its website that it does not sell illegally caught seafood, is tied through an importer to a squid ship that was found violating UN sanctions by fishing in North Korean waters in 2019. Kroger, one of the largest supermarket chains in the U.S., which says on its website that it “never knowingly” buys illegally caught seafood, has been linked to a Chinese ship that fished without a license in Indonesian waters in 2020.
Lidl, the largest supermarket in Europe, cites its commitment to responsible sourcing under the slogan “A Better Tomorrow.” But Eridanous, Lidl’s own brand of squid, is processed at a plant linked to at least three Chinese fishing companies whose vessels have a history of fishing offences, including illegal fishing in Peru, shark finning, and lengthy periods in which they turned off their locational transponders while in key squid fisheries in the North and South Pacific. Ships often turn off their transponders to evade scrutiny while engaging in crimes.
Ruggiero and Kroger did not reply to requests for comment. Lidl said in a statement that it is opposed to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and that it had raised the findings of this investigation with its supplier, Zhoushan Xifeng, which provided a statement saying that it is not involved in fishing offences. Lidl has since said it has stopped working with this supplier.
The Chinese vessel Lu Rong Yuan Yu 177, a refrigeration ship, docks in Shidao Port in China after transshipping catch from the Chinese squid-fishing ship called the Zhen Fa 7.
Some U.S. seafood companies that import from China say they know their seafood is untainted by crimes because they are provided with “catch certificates” by Chinese processors that indicate the provenance of the catch, detailed down to the level of which ship caught it, and where. But these documents are far from foolproof, because they are self-reported, often unverifiable, and filled out at processing plants, not on the ships themselves, said Sara Lewis from FishWise, a non-profit organization that does seafood sustainability consulting. The catch certificates also say nothing about labour conditions.
In news releases, on their websites and in U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings, many seafood retailers claim to enforce standards that ensure their supply chains are free of illegality or abuse. But John Hocevar, the oceans campaign manager at Greenpeace USA, said so-called corporate responsibility programs tend to be ineffective, because they are largely self-policing, lack third-party oversight or verification, focus on environmental concerns rather than human-rights concerns, and typically reach only as far as the processing plants, not the ships, where crimes are most likely to occur.
Many larger seafood companies have joined an industry program called the Marine Stewardship Council, which offers assurance on traceability and sustainability. But Jackie Marks, an MSC spokesperson, said the program exists primarily to prevent environmental crimes and track where fish came from, not to address labour concerns on ships.
A catch certificate from the Shandong Shuangdu Ocean Food Co. processing plant. These documents are self-reported, often unverifiable, and filled out at processing plants, not on the ships themselves.The Outlaw Ocean Project
The program does not assess labour conditions or perform inspections on fishing ships to check for crimes such as wage theft, beatings, debt bondage or human trafficking. Instead, MSC focuses on determining whether processing plants are hygienic, labelling is accurate and all ships and plants in supply chains are identifiable.
To be certified under MSC, fishing and seafood companies have to submit paperwork indicating they have not been prosecuted for forced labour or related crimes in the past two years, and fishing companies must report what steps they take to prevent such crimes.
Separately from these efforts by the fishing industry, Canada and the U.S. have passed laws aimed at preventing imports of goods associated with crimes. But these measures have been unevenly applied, and they are often particularly ineffective with seafood because there is limited information about what happens on fishing vessels.
In 2019, Canada ratified the Agreement on Port State Measures, an international treaty whose signatories have pledged to block ports to vessels with histories of environmental crimes.
The Outlaw Ocean Project team share some examples of workers pleas for help from Chinese fishing ships during their four year investigation into a wide variety of human rights, labour and environmental concerns associated with the world’s seafood supply chains.
The Outlaw Ocean Project
Canada amended its Customs Tariff Act in 2020 to prohibit imports of goods made with forced labour. But as of August the Canada Border Services Agency had impounded only one shipment for this reason. The seizure was successfully challenged by the importer, and the goods were later released.
Earlier this year, Ottawa passed legislation that requires companies and government bodies to report publicly on steps they have taken to keep forced labour out of their supply chains. But critics have argued the law will be ineffective, because it does not actually compel companies to root out human rights abuses. In April, Seamus O’Regan, who was federal labour minister at the time, told The Globe and Mail that the government would be introducing additional anti-forced-labour legislation next year.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a federal department responsible for the conservation and sustainable use of Canada’s fisheries resources, launched a program in February, 2021, to detect vessels engaged in fishing that violates laws intended to protect territorial waters and the marine environment. This initiative, known as the Dark Vessel Detection program, uses satellite technology to find ships that have turned off their transmitting devices. Canada has expanded this program to aid smaller countries, such as Ecuador, in monitoring these “dark” vessels and preventing overfishing in their waters.
The government has taken action in isolated cases. Canadian authorities seized a Chinese vessel in 2014 for fishing for salmon in the North Pacific, where the practice is banned. The vessel was also caught violating international fishing laws by using a drift-net, a banned type of fishing gear made of fine mesh that indiscriminately sweeps up marine life in its path.
China's seafood fishing fleet is more than double that of its next competitor. How did they become so big and should the world care? The Outlaw Ocean Project produced a four-year investigation of forced labour and other crimes tied to the Chinese fleet and the world’s seafood supply.
The Globe and Mail
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