The Current

Your seafood dinner could be tied to slavery on fishing vessels, says journalist

Investigative reporter Ian Urbina has spent years investigating human trafficking and slavery on fishing vessels on the world's oceans. His new book looks at these abuses and the obstacles to ending them.

Ian Urbina's new book looks at slavery and abuse in fishing industry around world

Barrels of fish sit on a dock after being unloaded from a boat at the port in Songkhla, Thailand on Feb. 2, 2016. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
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Desperate to escape a life of slavery on a fishing ship in the South China Sea, Cambodian Lang Long took his chances — and jumped overboard.

He was trying to swim to a nearby vessel, but his attempt was short-lived, said investigative journalist Ian Urbina. 

"They caught him, brought him back, and from then forward he was shackled by the neck when he was not working," Urbina told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

He added that after his escape attempt, Long was also routinely beaten.

Urbina interviewed Long for a 2015 New York Times investigation into human trafficking and slavery on fishing vessels, which he described as roach- and rat-infested and men and boys are worked 20 hours a day, six days a week.

His new book, The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across The Last Untamed Frontier, returns to the topic of human trafficking and slavery on the high seas, which Urbina said is driven in part by the economics of the fishing industry.

Ian Urbina's new book The Outlaw Ocean draws on his years spent investigating human trafficking and slavery on the world's oceans. (Jabin Botsford, Knopf)

Profit margins are low, he said, but have worsened as near-shore stocks have been depleted, forcing ships to travel further for their catch.

"Captains and companies generally are finding other ways to save money," he said, such as hiring cheaper migrant workers, or deciding not to pay workers at all.

In 2011, Long accepted what he believed was an on-land construction job, in the hopes of sending money home to support his family.

Instead, he was brought to Thailand and trafficked to the coast, where he was forced out to sea, and sold from ship to ship over three years. 

He was eventually rescued in 2014 by a humanitarian group who raised the funds to buy him from his captain.

But Urbina said his story is not unique.

He said that if captains find themselves short on crew and need to get back on the high seas quickly, they might even resort to kidnappers who operate in bars and brothels.

"That's usually the scenario in which you have people ... drugged at a bar, and essentially kidnapped and put on the ship," he said.

WATCH: Asorasak Thamma describes how he was enslaved on a fishing boat in 2011

Urbina said that some people do take these jobs willingly — they may be recruited by agencies who handle the logistics of getting them out to sea, and wiring their wages back home to their families.

But workers sometimes arrive to find terrible conditions, and a list of hidden deductions that sap their wages. 

"When things go awry — a guy gets hurt, he gets killed — these manning agencies often do not help the family figure out what happened, or get the body back," he said.

Karsten von Hoesslin, a B.C.-based detective who investigates crimes at sea, said the abuses are all "connected to the seafood on our plates."

Criminals "are effectively utilizing the fishing sector" for their own profit, he said.

"They're utilizing the grey areas, the lack of regulations … and that's allowing them to to accomplish their goals."

Urbina aboard a vessel during an inspections by Thai authorities. He said the checks can fail when there are no translators on hand to speak directly with the workers who might be suffering abuse. (Fabio Nascimento)

'Challenge' of enforcing law at sea

There are laws to protect fishery workers, but "the challenge with the offshore realm is enforcement," Urbina said.

Thailand has tried to implement inspections, he explained — but with limited success.

"They don't have this sort of experience with doing proper interviews when they board these ships — they don't have the translators, for example, that they need on hand."

The government of China would say, 'This didn't happen on our soil, so we're not interested.'- Karsten von Hoesslin

Without someone who can speak to the workers directly, inspectors rely on the word of the captain or his officers, who may be complicit in the abuse.

According to Von Hoesslin, conutries rarely feel obliged to take action on abuses that take place in international waters.

"I've investigated Chinese suspects, for example — even though they were on Chinese-flagged vessels, or Taiwanese-flagged vessels. The state or the government of China would say, 'This didn't happen on our soil, so we're not interested.'" 

Despite the obstacles to justice, both Urbina and von Hoesslin remain dedicated to investigating the abuses they've witnessed at sea.

"When you see what people are enduring and the fact that that is their repetitive life, almost like Groundhog Day, it's very hard to give up on that," said von Hoesslin.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Jessica Linzey.

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