ILLEGAL FISHING IS PUSHING OCEAN ECOSYSTEMS TOWARD COLLAPSE
As fishing vessels scour the oceans for fewer and fewer fish, the trail of each one can be tracked via satellite. Each ship crosses and recrosses the paths left by others until the seas of the world start to resemble the fishing nets they play host to. Within this tangled web, the paths of two vessels caught the attention of the investigative team at my organization, the Environmental Justice Foundation — their strange, parallel movements didn’t look right.
This chance observation, unremarkable to most, was the start of a year-long investigation to expose the Israr fleet — three vessels illegally fishing for tuna, damaging our already over-exploited ocean ecosystems, threatening the food security and livelihoods of coastal communities, and using every means possible to evade detection. These vessels, and others like them, fish illegally and often indiscriminately, outcompeting local fishers and putting at risk the food security and livelihoods of over 100 million people who rely on small-scale fishing.
The operator controlling this fleet knew how to work the system. They knew the chronic lack of transparency, communication and accountability across the global fishing sector could be used to their advantage to keep the fleet’s illegal and destructive activities off the radar.
They are by no means the first to notice and exploit this weakness — the systemic lack of transparency across global fisheries is one of the most significant enablers of illegal fishing around the world. Crucial information on vessel ownership, records of illegal activity and fishing authorization are not publicly available, forcing authorities to make uninformed decisions on which vessels are allowed to fish their waters. The lack of data flow hinders collaboration between NGOs, governments and regional fishing authorities working to apprehend illicit operators and makes it far too easy for illegal fishing to thrive. It also creates a lawless environment ripe for human rights abuses to flourish, with no oversight and no escape.
There is a proverbial playbook of tried-and-tested tactics that exploit the flaws in the system. The owner of the Israr fleet knew them all.
All fishing vessels are required to sail under the flag of a nation, and, in theory, abide by the laws of that state. The Israr fleet not only went “stateless” for a time, illegally sailing under no flag, the sailors repeatedly changed their flags. Swapping flags may not be illegal, but it is used by illegal operators to create confusion around who is responsible for monitoring and sanctioning the vessel, or to adopt a flag of a state they know simply can’t or won’t monitor their operations and enforce laws and regulations. Under cover of this uncertainty, they can continue their criminal activity uninterrupted, damaging our oceans and decimating fish populations.
To add to this confusion, the owners changed the names of the vessels, with crew switching digital ID codes mid-voyage and physically painting over the name on the side of each vessel with bright white paint. This tactic is only effective because of our disjointed system. Universal vessel identification systems do not apply to all fishing vessels, not all nations have national vessels identification schemes for non-eligible vessels, and many of these registries are not publicly available to check vessels committing illegal acts against. There is currently no truly universal, openly available system of vessel identification — a unique number or code, a so-called unique vessel identifier (UVI) — that stays with each vessel from shipyard to scrapyard, regardless of name or flag changes. Without such records, it is almost impossible to uncover the illegal history of a vessel, and to hold the owners and operators accountable.
The Israr fleet also engaged in trans-shipment, meeting other vessels at sea to transfer catch, supplies or crew. While this can occur legally, it has become a characteristic tactic of illegal operators trying to cover their tracks. It allows them to “launder” fish caught illegally and perpetuate the abuse and enslavement of crew by enabling vessels to stay away from port for months or even years.
For example, migrant workers in Korea’s distant water fishing fleet reported being forced to work 18-hour days; a quarter of the crew we spoke to had experienced physical abuse and over 60 percent had witnessed verbal abuse. Almost all had their passports confiscated by their captain and several months’ wages deducted at the start of contracts to discourage them from escaping these abusive environments. These vessels regularly remained at sea for over a year, and in some cases over 18 months, without calling at port.
A LUCKY OBSERVATION
It took over a year of investigation to build a case against the Israr fleet, but it paid off. In December 2021, the fleet was blacklisted by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, a significant blow to this illicit network. If properly implemented, this will prevent the fleet from selling any of the fish they catch.
We cheered this small victory the Environmental Justice Foundation — one less fleet abusing the system and damaging our oceans. But what about the next vessel, and the one after that?
The Israr fleet was caught by chance by an observant, determined NGO. Up against global illegal fishing operations catching 26 million tonnes of fish each year, this approach will barely scratch the surface. We cannot afford to continue in this hit-or-miss manner.
We need a system that works for us, not for them — a system built on transparency. By opening data flow between nations and bringing vessel license lists, history of offenses and full ownership details into the public realm, we can start to protect our ocean from these damaging fleets and hold the owners of these vessels accountable.
This systemic change is needed on an international level. In the Israr investigation alone, we worked with fishing authorities in Belize, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Brazil, Senegal, Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S., France and Oman, all tuna regional fisheries management organizations, the European Commission, INTERPOL and crew members in Mauritius. This is the level of international data-sharing and collaboration we need to achieve.
This may sound daunting, but bringing fisheries out of the shadows does not require new, sophisticated technology, or unrealistic expense. It can be achieved by any country through a combination of public data-sharing, enforcement of sustainable fisheries laws, and the use of existing technology to understand, map and disclose supply chains.
If we fail to enact this change, millions of people will suffer, especially coastal communities that rely on thriving fisheries to survive. We are already seeing the consequences of apathy in Ghana, where the fundamental human rights of Ghanaian fishing communities are being threatened by the government’s failure to tackle overfishing and illegal fishing by industrial trawlers. Over half the 215 small-scale fishers, processors and traders we spoke to reported going without sufficient food over the past year, and over 70 percent reported a deterioration in their living conditions over the past five years. The vast majority of industrial trawlers in Ghana, although operating under the Ghanaian flag, are controlled and financed by distant water fishing companies based in China.
Illegal fishing is pushing ocean ecosystems toward total collapse and stripping millions of people of their food security and livelihoods. It is cause for international shame that the chronic lack of transparency can still be used get away with these crimes. Only through international collaboration can we bring fishing out of the shadows and return our oceans to their rightful glory.
Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission
GLOBAL IMPACT OF ILLEGAL FISHING AND HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSE IN CHINA’S VAST DISTANT WATER FLEET REVEALED
China’s distant water fleet – by far the world’s largest – is rife with human rights abuses and illegal fishing, and targets endangered and protected marine life across the world’s ocean, our new report reveals. In the most comprehensive analysis of the fleet to date, we show that China’s state subsidies have allowed the grossly overcapacity fleet to exploit the waters of developing nations that rely on marine resources for livelihoods and food security.
This destruction is enabled by the often total lack of transparency across global fisheries, says EJF, and to prevent it, all nations must implement freely available, cost-effective measures that would give all stakeholders much greater control over their seafood supply chains.
China’s distant water fleet operates across the entire globe with consequences that impact almost every nation, shows our report – which cross-references data from the Chinese government with illegal fishing records and testimony from crew.
Illegal fishing is rife among the fleet. Testimony from over a hundred crew aboard 88 vessels showed that 95% reported witnessing some form of illegal fishing.
Almost all the crew interviewed said that sharks were illegally finned on their vessels, a cruel and wasteful process where the more valuable fins are removed, and the shark is thrown overboard to die. Smartphone footage also shows seals being clubbed to death and beheaded, with over a third of the interviewees reporting that protected species such as turtles and seals were caught and killed on their vessels. Around a fifth of the crew also said dolphins were routinely slaughtered as bait for sharks.
“It did not matter whether the shark was big or small, even babies inside the sharks' belly - we took them all. I guess you could call it a ‘devil vessel’ because it really took everything," said one crew member.
Human rights abuse
These destructive practices are enabled not only by harmful state subsidies – amounting to around US$ 1.8 billion – but also by gross human rights abuses of migrant crew. These workers spoke of physical and verbal abuse, gruelling hours, inadequate food and water, and forced labour at the hands of Chinese captains and senior crew.
The testimony and footage we received revealed Indonesian crew being beaten with metal pipes and threatened with knives by senior Chinese crew. Overall, 58% of the crew we interviewed said they had witnessed or experienced physical violence and 85% reported abusive working and living conditions. “I was being restrained and hit. They beat every part of my body,” said one Indonesian man. In addition, almost all the crew (97%) interviewed said they had experienced some form of debt bondage or had documents such as passports confiscated.
As well as offenses carried out at sea, the report examines the corporations involved in these infringements – mapping the complex onshore corporate structures of the fleet. In Ghana, for instance, at least 90% of the nation’s industrial trawl fleet is suspected to be owned by Chinese corporations who use local ‘front’ companies to register as Ghanaian and circumvent the law. Many of these vessels have been repeatedly associated with illegal fishing.
Where the fish caught by the fleet ends up is also shrouded by opacity, making it difficult or impossible to trace supply chains. However, what is known is that a number of Chinese distant-water vessels are licensed to export to Europe, and China is the US’s largest seafood trading partner.
Exploitation of developing nations’ waters
The Chinese fleet has become a substantial presence in many developing countries and regions that have limited capacity for monitoring fishing vessels yet are heavily dependent on fishing for local food security and livelihoods, the report shows.
Africa stands out, accounting for 78.5% of the Chinese government-approved fisheries projects in other countries' waters. In West Africa, an area known to be rife with illegal fishing, the Chinese bottom trawl fleet catches an estimated 2.35 million tonnes of seafood every year – by some estimates, around half of China's total distant-water catch – valued at over US$ 5 billion. Many fish populations in Africa are heavily exploited, to the point of possible collapse, which would spell disaster for impoverished coastal communities.
These state-subsidised vessels are ravaging the ocean, committing human rights abuses and driving environmental injustice, all while hiding behind complex onshore corporate structures preventing those responsible from being held to account. These findings highlight the overarching failure of the Chinese government to effectively control and regulate its distant-water fleet, but also reveal a wider international problem: the shocking lack of transparency across the sector. As well as China controlling its fleet, any nation importing fish caught by Chinese vessels should be demanding full transparency along the whole supply chain. That is the only way we can be sure that we, as consumers, don’t end up eating slave-caught fish and driving the destruction of our ocean.
TREESPIRACY: THE SHADY DEALS, LEGAL LOOPHOLES AND CERTIFICATION FAILURES WIPING OUT FORESTS
The world’s forests are being destroyed against a background of corruption, illegality and apathy.
In 2016, the release of the Panama Papers exposed a complex web of financial instruments allowing crime, corruption and wrong-doing, hidden behind shell corporations and offshore companies. These same tools are used by individuals and companies behind the destruction of our planet’s forests.
Indonesia has lost vast amounts of primary rainforest, behind only Brazil in scale for these losses. Some of the largest palm oil and timber companies operating in the country have disguised the extent of their operations through “shadow companies”. This means that who truly benefits from their activities is deliberately made harder or impossible to trace.
The Indonesian part of the island of Papua is a “new frontier” of palm oil deforestation in the country. This is against the express wishes of local Indigenous peoples. Previous deforestation went ahead despite Indonesian government officials claiming that the permits to do so in the region were falsified.
Companies were then given permission to continue clearing the forest as long as they “fix their permits”. In other words, as long as they retrospectively got the permits they needed from the start. However, the forests of Papua may have been handed a lifeline: the Indonesian government has just cancelled 192 deforestation permits. For the sake of people, wildlife and the climate, they need to stay cancelled.
The “clear forests first, apply for permits later” approach is not limited to Indonesia. In Paraguay, a government whistleblower provided evidence that the same problem was happening there. In that case, the deforestation included the lands of the Ayoreo Totobiegosode Indigenous peoples.
Where voluntary pledges have led to environmental successes they have been partial. The Amazon soy moratorium was designed to stop companies clearing Amazonia for the crop, and it has had some impact. The rate of soy-related deforestation in Amazonia fell by 84% between 2004 and 2012, as a result of the moratorium and connected policy efforts. However, this is arguably because companies have simply been able to shift to another, less protected biome; the neighbouring Cerrado, a precious ecosystem in its own right, which is now the frontier of deforestation in South America.
Data on corporate deforestation from the supply chain mapping initiative Trase show that companies who have pledged not to cause deforestation for soy cause as much as those who have made no such commitment. The New York Declaration on Forests from 2014 pledged to halve deforestation by 2020 and end it by 2030, yet rates of forest loss have been 41% higher in the years since the agreement was signed. The impact of pledges made at COP26 to reverse and end deforestation in a decade is yet to be seen, but it is noteworthy that the Brazilian Amazon started 2022 with the fastest rate of deforestation in 14 years.
Certification and greenwashing
Certification schemes purporting to ensure wood and timber products also have weaknesses. The assessment bodies responsible for conferring prized sustainability certification like the Forest Stewardship Council ecolabel are paid for by the companies they audit, competing with one another for this income. This creates a “race to the bottom” as it incentivises weak auditing in order to win more business.
These certification schemes have also been found to accredit illegally felled wood, including trees from protected forests in Siberia, some of which ended up in childrens’ furniture from IKEA. No wonder, then, that many timber firms are lobbying to be exempt from upcoming EU laws to keep the products of environmental destruction and human rights abuses out of European supply chains. They claim that certified status – demonstrated to be flawed – should be enough to allow them this exemption.
While a great deal of forestry is not connected to crime, corruption, human rights abuses and the destruction of irreplaceable nature, far too much is. All our most basic human rights depend on a sustainable environment. We cannot let it be destroyed for a handful of people to profit.
Without financial transparency, accountability, and enforcement of strong laws to protect forests, they will keep being cleared with impunity. States must step in and pass legislation which requires robust, transparent and time-bound reductions in deforestation for companies wishing to be part of their supply chains. The future of people and the planet depends on it.
This piece was originally published by The Ecologist and is shared here with permission.