By Siddharth Chakravarty

On the 6th of April, 2015, I watched the Thunder, a fishing vessel, slip under the surface of the ocean in the South Atlantic Ocean. The Thunder was not a regular fishing vessel; for the past 13 years it had illegally fished for Chilean Seabass from the depths of Antarctica and by regularly changing names, hopping flags and running on shell companies, the vessel had been engaging in acts that deliberately subverted international law. It had been so audaciously successful, that in a bid to use international police cooperation to catch the vessel INTERPOL had even issued it with a Purple Notice. By the time it had put out its mayday alert it had become one of the most high-profile, widely covered and avidly watched fishing vessel in the world.

The Thunder was a target of Operation Icefish, a Sea Shepherd Global campaign to tackle illegal fishing in Antarctica. This campaign had been launched in December, 2014 using two conservation vessels- the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon. The aim of the campaign was to patrol the high seas pockets-the shadowlands-of Antarctica in search of these rogue fishing vessels. Once these vessels had been found, the role of the Bob Barker was to chase the vessel, reporting its location to authorities across the world, while the role of the Sam Simon, which I was in command of, was to confiscate the vessel’s illegal fishing gear and begin an investigation into its crimes. For the last 110 days, the Thunder had been chased from the ice-floes of Antarctica to the muggy heat of West Africa. So when the VHF receiver had beeped with a mayday message, followed by the frantic “I am sinking” calls of the captain of the Thunder, I knew that I was responding to the most unusual call of my life! Five hours later as the Thunder disappeared from view, slowly at first and gaining momentum as its vast freezer spaces filled with the incoming sea water, the first liferaft with its crew came alongside my vessel. I began by bringing the captain of the Thunder on board, explaining my course of action for this extraordinary rescue operation and letting him know that I would be taking his crew and him to São Tomé and Príncipe, about seven hours of steaming to my east. He was then escorted to a cabin and I began to bring the other 39 crew on board, a mix of nationalities with a largely Asian crew.

It was during this rescue operation that an immediate disparity between the officers and the crew became evident. With my own at-sea experience, I knew of the hierarchy that existed at sea, including an officer-crew divide. I still remember my first days at sea, even the days leading up to them. I was 18, had grown up in the interior of India and was on my first trip abroad. It was thrilling to be in an airplane, to hold a dollar note and to leave home without the promise of a deadline. Without internet on board, I wasn’t going to see the faces of my friends for a whole year and I would be writing to my girlfriend through letters, guaranteed to reach her months after they had been penned. By the time the ship sailed out of Durban, I felt overwhelmed. My daily routine started at 4 AM and ended at 8 PM, with an hour’s break for lunch and another for dinner. When the vessel was in port, I worked even longer than the regular 16 hours. Since I was an apprentice, I was engaged for US dollars 260/month and in addition was told to never say no, to never be late and to never complain. Because this was my training, I was told doing it tirelessly would make me a good officer and ultimately, a good captain. In that setting I had very little choice, so I undertook this routine for two years. In fact, almost everyone who goes to sea does. Compared to the officers, the crew definitely has it harder with the added combination of longer contracts and lower wages. Being at sea means there are few alternatives to working under a rigid hierarchy and putting in long hours.

Even though I had this perspective, observing the authoritarian conduct of the Thunder’s captain and his complete control over the crew was disconcerting.

Following the rescue incident I was drawn into the world of labour supply chains for industrial fisheries. Having witnessed a range of fisheries transnational crimes on campaigns, questions about the crew began to occur to me. I kept asking myself, “How do Indonesian fishermen on a Taiwanese fishing vessel in the Pacific Ocean access their rights when they have a job grievance?” Looking for answers, I began to research labour-supply chains, specific to the cross-border movement of labour and the laws which pertain to this movement. Through accompanying researchers I learnt that trafficking of crew on to fishing vessels can take place under multiple different means. In most of my interviews over the last 2 years, it was evident that the act of trafficking begins when the fishermen are deceived into paying huge commission fees to agents thereby leading to debt bondage. To cover the fees they either mortgage their houses and/or their family lands after which they usually wait for months, their passport and national identity documents held by the agents, before boarding a fishing vessel. The elation at landing a job meant to guarantee a decent wage and an outlet to their vulnerable everyday realities quickly dissipates and by the time it is time to bait the first hook, they realise that they have been ruthlessly engaged in a floating world of forced labour. Most would have signed a work contract, heavily worded in favour of the employer, in a foreign language which leaves no avenues for the fishermen to extract themselves from their abusive workspaces. Contracts will usually be vague about working hours, meaning most crew will end up working up to 21 hours a day. Abuse, both physical and emotional, is the method to force them into working those inhumane hours. Contract durations are never mentioned, meaning fishermen are at sea for a minimum voyage of 6 months, and with repeated voyages on the same vessel they are often away from their families for up to 3 years. Wages are generally in the range of USD 100/month for the first year, with small increases thereafter. The sense of powerlessness at sea stems from the absence of knowledge of their rights, no mechanisms to access them and the inability to escape from their abusive workspaces. These issues, with the added socio-economic factors of poverty and vulnerability, form the basis of why fishermen can do very little about their abuses at sea.

Operators that are looking to reduce costs will often use forced labour to increase their profits in an ever more competitive industry. This issue has been widely covered in the global media and various state and non-state actors are engaged internationally on the matter. Recent steps, specific to the fishing industry, such as the Port State Measures Agreement and the Work in Fishing Convention, put labour conditions at their fore. The world’s biggest fishing corporations are now making commitments to eliminate overfishing and forced labour from their supply chains. Today is the Day of the Seafarer which is a day to dedicate and celebrate the people who spend their lives at sea to makes ours on land better. I urge you all to listen to them today. The migrant fishermen do not want our pity. They do not want us to be their saviours. They do not want us to rescue them. What they want is for us to examine our seafood choices that directly result in supporting these cycles of abuse. We must work towards empowering them so that their basic rights as human beings are upheld and respected.

Siddharth Chakravarty is currently pursuing a certificate course in public policy. He independently researches industrial, distant-water fishing fleets from the perspective of labour-supply chains. In a highly globalised, transnational industry, he believes that empowering migrant crew to be the primary caretakers of the oceans provides a human rights-based approach in restoring ocean health. He is on social media as @OceanBanter.

This article is the first of a series produced by Stop Illegal Fishing to draw attention to the issue of human trafficking in industrial fishing operations. The article has been produced to coincide with The Day of the Seafarer (June 25) which aims to recognise the unique contribution made by seafarers from all over the world to international seaborne trade, the world economy and civil society as a whole.