Illegal Fishing and Human Rights Abuses on The Outlaw Ocean

Created on Thursday, 08 October 2015

In his four part series The Outlaw Ocean, Ian Urbina of The New York Times dives into the complicated world of fishing on the high seas. While many governments, seafood stakeholders, and industry are pushing for sustainable fishing and fair labor laws and regulations, the race to catch valuable seafood at the cheapest price can lead to crimes that include slavery, murder, and illegal fishing. Laws and regulations are difficult to enforce in international waters, as witnesses and regulatory oversight are scarce.

Throughout this series, Urbina uncovers the atrocious human rights violations happening aboard fishing vessels within global seafood supply chains. Many of these illegally operating vessels remain invisible as they fish with little oversight and contain a crew of, largely, undocumented workers. Some workers are refugees and migrants who, in their search for work and a better life, find themselves living in inhumane conditions on fishing vessels, constantly fearing for their safety. Nowhere is this currently more prominent than in the Thai fishing fleet. Thailand is one of the world’s top seafood exporters and also has a low unemployment rate (generally less than one percent), leaving migrants to fill the shortage of around 50,000 mariners in their fishing industry. In a 2009 United Nations survey of 49 Cambodian men and boys sold to Thai fishing vessels, 29 admitted to witnessing the murder of a fellow worker by a captain or other officer.

The hundreds of high seas rules and guidelines implemented by the shipping industry and United Nations maritime agency provide little protection. Illegal fishing vessels exploit loopholes in maritime laws that allow them to bypass these rules and guidelines, and continue operating with impunity at sea. For instance, the modern flagging system allows ships to purchase the right to fly the flag of their choosing, provided they abide by the maritime laws of the associated country. This provides a guise to illegally operating ships that have purchased flags from countries with lax maritime laws such as the landlocked countries Mongolia and Bolivia, who offer their flags at a cheap price. Illegal fishing vessels can also skirt port measures and regulations through “transshipment”, where ‘mother’ ships bring the catch from fishing vessels to port, keeping the illegal vessel and their operations hidden at sea. When vessels are found to be fishing illegally and using forced labor, national and international agencies often lack the resources to take action and prosecute.

Major seafood buyers in the U.S. should ensure that their supply chains are free from illegal fishing practices and labor abuses by:

  • Demanding 100% traceability throughout their supply chains.
  • Supporting unannounced labor audits in every step of their supply chains.
  • Ensuring that recruitment companies and individuals that place workers within all levels of the seafood sector exceed basic compliance with local labor laws and can provide evidence that workers are free from debt bondage and are aware of their legal rights.
  • Providing clear, robust information to consumers on the origin of seafood products (such as production location and method), and the actions they have taken to guarantee products are not connected to human rights abuses, labor violations, or environmental damage.
  • Requesting that fishing vessels supplying product to their supply chains possess International Maritime Organization (IMO) numbers as unique vessel identifiers (UVIs), and checking those IMO numbers against Flag State fishing authorizations and IUU blacklists.


To learn more about the issues featured in The Outlaw Oceans, listen to the NPR interview featuring FishWis’s Traceability Division Director, Mariah Boyle and The New York Times series’ journalist, Ian Urbina.

More information about how consumers and companies can help prevent human trafficking and forced labor in seafood supply chains can be found on our human rights page and in our Q & A document.

Additional information on combatting IUU fishing and IMO numbers can be found in our briefing document, Bringing Vessels out of the Shadows.