the blue hole (Blue Hole) is an area of great diversity 200 miles from the Argentine coast where squid and hake abound. It is also the favorite place for iconic species in the region, such as whales, sea lions, petrels or albatrosses. According to Greenpeace, poor governance and the lack of protection of these international waters means that every year the world’s fishing fleets dedicate themselves to the looting of their funds. Ships often take advantage of enrolled slave laborers with fictitious promises of good wages. “Last year, my colleagues from Greenpeace in Argentina witnessed that there were crew members from Asian ships that had not set foot on dry land for two years,” says Celia Ojeda, spokesperson for the environmental organization in Spain. “They didn’t even know there had been a pandemic. Their passports had been taken away, they were cut off from their families.”
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that, like them, there are 128,000 seamen trapped on fishing boats, often on the high seas, a place characterized by extreme isolation, unequal relations between crew and skipper and lack of government supervision. Only about twenty countries have ratified Convention 188 to guarantee a minimum age, medical examinations, contracts, salaries, rest hours, free time between campaigns, repatriation, occupational risk prevention and social security at sea. Now, in addition, the collapse of catches in many areas due to overfishing and the increase in the price of fuel mean that the cost pressure is passed on to fishermen through greater exploitation.
“In fishing, there are a series of circumstances that make it easier for forced labor to occur,” says Felix Peinado, director of the ILO in Spain, from Madrid. “Migrants are often used by making them acquire debts and withholding their wages. The physical distance that occurs at sea means that they cannot contact the authorities, make claims, etc. The regulation, moreover, is complicated, because that of the coastal countries comes into play, that of the flag of the boats, the country of origin of the fishermen ”, he narrates.
The journalist from The New York Times Ian Urbina compiled that violent reality over four years and recounted it in the book The Outlaw Oceans (Lawless Oceans; Captain Swing). In it he describes a system designed to foster impunity: sailors raped, tortured, locked in refrigerators, forced to fish until exhaustion, and completely unprotected, because when coastal states tighten controls, ships turn their heads elsewhere. He also portrays crime in many other businesses that do not have to do with fishing, but do with the oceans, from smuggling to clandestine oil dumps to performing abortions at sea. The LPN association, of Thai activist and Nobel Peace Prize candidate Patima Tungpuchayakul, has lifted more than 2,000 fishermen out of slavery who were tricked into working in Indonesia. Her story is told in an acclaimed documentary Ghost Fleet, and her NGO denounces that poverty, coupled with the insatiable demand for cheap labor and corruption create the perfect storm for human rights abuse between the waves .
Meanwhile, world fish production continues to rise, supported by aquaculture and by a demand that does not stop growing. For this year, the FAO expects it to increase on the planet by 1.5% to 184.6 million tons. Wild catch will remain stable or grow slightly. Income from fishing exports will reach 178,000 million dollars driven by the increase in aquaculture harvests of shrimp in Asia, tilapia in Brazil or Chilean salmon.
The European example
Europe is perhaps an island when it comes to applying better conditions in the global fishing industry. Ignacio Fresco, an advisor to Oceana, explains that the 2016 regulation on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing was exemplary for the rest of the world. And that thanks to him and the catch certificates it is possible to have some control over producing countries through a system of sanctions and warnings. “In a can of tuna, for example, different types are mixed, and a good part usually comes from Asian fleets, specifically Chinese, where we don’t know what is happening because traceability requirements are not applied,” explains Fresco. When it is identified that a producing country does not fight against black fish, a system of cards (yellow or red, as in soccer) comes into operation that activate dialogue tables and can even exclude all fishery products from a State from the community market . “Taiwan received a warning that was lifted because progress was detected. Ecuador, Cameroon, Panama, the Grenadines had cards”, he compiles from memory.
China, he says, is the big black hole in this whole story in terms of illegal fishing. “With them the EU does not dare for fear of a trade war,” he laments. With products suspected of being made by slave labor, NGOs are calling on the EU to toughen up regulation. In their place there are seals, such as Responsible Fishing Tuna or Friends of the Sea, which monitor the working conditions applied by shipowners. But in the middle there is a great void of intermediaries that import fish: “The EU focuses on specific products, but it should broaden the focus to companies, vessels and regions,” argue the NGOs. For that, a robust information exchange system between States would be needed. A chimera, as Urbina’s chilling articles portray.
It may be true that there is no clear solution to ocean problems, “because our entire world, our economic system, our geography, are the cause.”
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