The quantity of fish caught from the sea globally has declined at a rate of 1.2 million tonnes per year since the mid-1990s. This is despite technological advancements enabling the identification of remaining marine life with menacing and destructive efficiency.
As a result, many fishing fleets have struggled to remain profitable and some unscrupulous operators have subsidised their activities by using forced labour in order to remain afloat.
New research published in Nature Communications today finds a vicious cycle between overfishing and modern slavery.
The research, an international, collaborative effort between my family’s Minderoo Foundation, The University of Western Australia and the University of British Columbia, shows that slave labour subsidises economically-unsustainable fishing activities, and overfishing promotes the use of slave labour. Nearly 40 per cent of the global industrial seafood catch comes from fleets at a high risk of exploiting workers through modern slavery practices, according to the research.
Our paper shifts the evidence base for this problem from anecdotal reports to a global risk assessment and, for Australians, it reaffirms that slave-caught seafood makes it way on to our plates.
About 70 per cent of seafood consumed in Australia is imported, mostly from Asia, one of the major regions where we know crews on vessels are at particularly high risk.
The shocking lack of regulatory oversight of distant-water fleets allows these exploitative labour practices to prosper, facilitated by transhipment at sea. The use of transhipping means crews are stranded at sea, with little recourse when labour abuse occurs.
Transhipping also enables catches of multiple fishing vessels to be combined before landing, mixing seafood caught illegally or under conditions of modern slavery with legally-caught seafood. This makes supply chain transparency exceptionally difficult.
This is one example of why we need a better understanding of fishing globally and why a Global Fishing Index is part of the solution. Minderoo Foundation is funding the development of this new data-driven project to improve transparency in the global fishing industry.
One of the most effective ways to stamp out opaque, illegal behaviour is to measure the problem, make it public and then present those facilitating that bad behaviour with options to remedy their bad actor status.
Minderoo has done this in modern slavery through our Global Slavery Index, and countries have responded by progressing Modern Slavery Acts to ensure transparency and change in global supply chains.
We must facilitate the same transparency in the fishing industry to rebuild flourishing oceans, safeguard the future of fishing and stop the terrible breaches of human rights suffered by workers trapped on fishing boats around the world.
The slavery problem and the fishing problem overlap significantly. They are both ways for people to profit illegally from a lack of policing and information.
Combining and unlocking data on both global challenges is the key.
There is no effective, easily comprehensible global index for fisheries that ranks nations so that performance can be monitored. Of the platforms that do exist, none target fisheries globally, with only a few translating their data into global rankings.
A Global Fishing Index would plug this gap and encourage national laws to be strengthened so consumers and governments have more transparency on the challenges of sustainability and human rights that exist in seafood supply chains.
None of us want to buy seafood caught by slaves. But unless we sustainably manage global fisheries through better monitoring and improved transparency, it’s difficult for us to have confidence we’re not supporting these hideous crimes to people, and the environment.