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5 Jun 2023

Elizabeth Selig, Jess Sparks and Colette Wabnitz - China Dialogue Ocean

Fishing vessel flag and gear type are main factors indicating risks of labour abuse and illegal fishing, research finds

"Opinion: To tackle abuse of fishers and illegal fishing, consider the risk factors" 5 June 2023

Media reports of abuse of fishers and illegal fishing are making consumers wonder whether the seafood on their plate is associated with these unsustainable practices.

Our research suggests that there is reason to be concerned. We find that risks of labour abuses and IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing are prevalent worldwide, and with high-risk areas for both activities present in all oceans. In over 750 ports that we were able to assess globally, 57% were associated with labour abuses or IUU fishing, including in places generally thought to have strong governance and fisheries management. 

When tackling problems of this scale, governments and companies can use risk-based approaches to identify where to take action, collect additional data and work together to mitigate risks. We found the two main factors that determined risks are the flag the vessel flies, which indicates where it is registered, and what type of fishing gear it is carrying. [...]

The stakes are high. Labour abuses can be matters of life and death, but it is also critical to address less severe forms of abuse for fishers. Poor working conditions, for example, affect health and livelihoods and can be a gateway to more exploitative behaviours.

In fact, one of the most common forms of labour abuse is wage theft – underpayment or non-payment of agreed-on wages, withheld wages or unpaid overtime. It can lead to forced labour and inhibit economic growth and prosperity for fishers and family members financially supported by them. [...]

Using risk to inform actions

Although labour abuse and IUU fishing risks can occur on the same vessels, they have different drivers and solutions. [...] For IUU fishing, governments may initiate more robust monitoring of vessels with higher-risk flags or gear types when they come into port. [...] For labour abuse, transparency and traceability will be insufficient because they do not capture many of the dynamics that go ‘unseen’ like wage theft. [...] Working closely with fishers is critical to producing better data and developing a more attuned understanding of risks. [...]

Our findings suggest several pathways for governments and companies to make a difference through individual and coordinated actions. Governments can establish greater transparency and accountability at port. To address IUU fishing, they can ratify the Port State Measures Agreement, an international treaty that is designed to prevent IUU fishing vessels from using ports and landing their catches. It does this by implementing aligned measures, standardising inspection criteria, mandating information sharing, and refusing port entry to vessels known to be associated with IUU fishing.

For labour abuse, they can establish or strengthen legally binding measures that guarantee protections for workers, promote interventions that bring greater visibility to workers in port, and ensure sufficient time and immigration conditions that allow workers to access ports and their services. They can also develop capacity for quality labour inspections and create legal and regulatory frameworks that provide clear recourse for fishers who have complaints, including ratifying the Work in Fishing Convention (ILO 188), an international labour standards for fishers. [...]