Long hours ahead to unload tons of tuna

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In much of the world it’s Labour Day, and we salute the workers who crew the tuna fishing vessels. These two fishers from a purse-seine crew are standing on between 700 and 1,700 tons of frozen tuna. It might be 35°C up here on deck, but once they are working deep in the hold, the temperature may be as low as –15°C. 

When catches are landed at port or transhipped to a carrier vessel, the crew will work long days on shifts of about 15 hours, with five breaks. Work is suspended if it rains, as the rain damages the tuna – and it gives the crew a welcome break.

In the industrial tuna industry, the issue of working conditions and workers’ rights are complex and it is very difficult to make sure the existing rules and regulations are upheld in a way that is fair for crew. Across the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, FFA members have harmonised the minimum terms and conditions for obtaining fishing licences in FFA waters. These conditions now include labour rights. It’s a step in the right direction.

Photo by Francisco Blaha.

Give a thought for the workers who put tuna on your plate

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Meet Salim. He works on a purse-seiner flagged to a distant-water fishing nation operating in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. 

You may be at home enjoying a leisurely weekend meal of tuna from a fish he helped catch, freeze and tranship during his current work stint. 

Salim is still working on that boat. His contract is for three years, and he has almost two years more to go before he can go home and sit down to dinner with his family.

There are no weekends or holidays on a fishing boat. The day is marked by mealtimes and the weeks and months by fishing, coming to port to tranship or unload, and going back fishing. 

When at sea, the vessels are either looking for fish or catching it. The catching requires a highly choregraphed and dangerous set of manoeuvres that, while completed in a rigorous order, depend a lot on the weather and sea conditions for their execution. And while the vessel is looking for fish, the crew are doing maintenance: moving fish from wells to dry lockers, repairing nets, cleaning, and a hundred more chores.

When in port, you have to unload (either tranship or land), and that means handling one by one all the tuna in a catch that may weigh in at anything from 700 tons to 1,700 tons. 

There are different jobs on board during the unloading, and crew get rotated among a few of them. Salim is wearing protective clothing because he is loading frozen tuna into a cargo net to move the catch to carrier during transhipment. On deck temperature may be 35°C, but where he is working is around –15°C. (On a longliner, the freezer may get down to –35°C.) On this kind of day, Salim starts at 7 am and finishes at 10 pm, and has five breaks during the day.

Man in clothing to protect him from icy environment in ship's hold with part of a tuna. Photo Francisco Blaha
Because of the restricted space on a fishing vessel, most of the work of handling tuna is hard manual labour. This crew member is working in the freezer of a longliner, where the temperature may be as low as –35°C. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

Crew members’ rights are protected when working in waters of FFA states

Salim’s rights as an employee are complex. In principle, they depend on the flag state of the vessel, but unfortunately there many loopholes that allow some operators to circumvent these. 

Until recently, fisheries authorities of coastal state and port states had very limited scope on what they could do when labour rights where abused, since they were considered labour issues and not fisheries offences. But in momentous move, FFA’s member states ruled that vessels allowed to fish in their waters must comply with labour standards as part of the regionally harmonised minimum terms and conditions (MTCs) for access by fishing vessels. The labour component of the MTCs are based on the International Labour Organisation’s standard C188, Working in Fishing Convention.

This is momentous because, since 1 January 2020, if a vessel does not uphold these labour rights and conditions as part of their licensing, its right to fish can be removed and the vessel would not be in good standing. This is the first time in the world that a direct link has been made between labour standards and the right to fish by a coalition of coastal states!

This is good for Salim, as his rights are protected as long as the vessel fishes in the waters of FFA members. 

While we can help protect what he earns, we do not influence how much he earns. Crew in Salim’s deckhand position earn around US$350 a month. A fisher doing the same work but from a country with a stronger labour set-up and unions or a flag state that applies its domestic laws to its vessels would earn four or five times that.

So why do people like Salim do this work? Simply, because the work opportunities in his home country are so limited that this actually a good deal for him. And although this fact can be used to justify his very limited earnings, one could argue strongly that it fits under the definition of exploitation of labour.

Four men on a tuna fishing vessel maintaining equipment. Photo Francisco Blaha.
While the fishing vessel is looking for the next catch of tuna, crew members attend to maintenance tasks. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

But international guidelines on working conditions remain voluntary

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is in the process of developing guidelines for social responsibility in the fishing industry. However, they are being watered down by some powerful countries that are bent on maintaining the status quo to keep labour costs low, so as to maximise profits from fishing. As with most of the UN instruments, unless signed by nations, they remain voluntary

Although people such as Salim are meant to be the main beneficiaries of these guidelines, it may be a long time before Salim sees working conditions similar to those of fishers from developed nations.

The issue of labour right in fisheries is very complex, multifaceted and political and, as with most difficult problems, there are never easy answers. Yet there are many good people trying to work it out. Initiatives like FFA’s MTCs are a solid start in what is a marathon and not a sprint.

My approach to the work ahead would be from two parallel angles. On one side are regulatory frameworks, and international agreements under flag, coastal, and port state jurisdiction. On the other are private sector due diligence, since at the end of the day consumers in rich market states would not be keen to buy if they have doubts about the human cost of their fish. 

So, the importers have the chance to influence the international supply chains to see labour conditions and earnings of crew raised. (Hopefully, this would be supported with a price difference.) 

For all this, it is important that you don’t pity Salim and many other thousands like him in many jobs in the world. Pity the circumstances they live in, and shame the operators that exploit those circumstances.People like Salim are some of the most resilient, positive, nicest, and most innovative and determined people Ihave ever met and worked with. Without these qualities, they wouldn’t be alive.

Three fishers stand among hundreds of tuna in a ship's hold. Photo Francisco Blaha.
Crew members of a purse-seiner will unload or tranship a tuna catch that weighs anything from 700 tons to 1,700 tons. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

Skilled fisheries officers a critical part of effective port state measures, as Marshall Islands charge shows

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There is a lot written by many fisheries organisations in the world about the port state measure (PSM), from the FAO PSM Agreement, to the WCPFC PSM CMM and IOTC PSM CMM, to FFA’s developing PSM framework.

Yet, operationally, for a country, the whole point of PSMs is to avoid the use of its ports for the unloading of fish caught in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing operations by vessels both foreign and domestic. 

One does not need to read every word in a document with a lawyer’s loupe or sign agreements to start operations. You just start working it out in your own time and at your own pace. There is no need to have all the papers lined up and all the standard operation procedures written before you start doing something.

‘Doing something’ may entail fisheries authorities changing the way the port operations are conducted. Training by doing takes time, resources will need to be mobilised, routines need to be created, and so on. Many aspects of the day-to-day work cannot be foreseen by doing a one-week workshop, attending some meetings, and expecting all things to be right. You need to start, and to learn by doing – and for that you do not need to sign any high-level document. 

Anyone working in compliance has learned that there is only one thing worse than not signing a piece of paper: it is to sign it and then not be able to comply with it. 

All countries do understand the importance of signing on to international commitments. Still, they are also aware, on a daily basis, of the limitations faced, particularly when small countries blessed with good natural ports are taking on the on the job of controlling vessels. 

This is a job that ought to be shared with the flag states, yet that is not always the case. For example, many port states in the western and central Pacific region inspect more vessels from distant water fishing nations (DWFN) than the vessel’s own flag state authorities do.

Routine PSM operations pay off

Yet, when you start doing PSM routinely, it pays off. The recent case of the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority (MIMRA) is the perfect example. In February, it charged a Korean longliner for fishing in Marshall Islands waters without a valid licence. The charge was based on best PSM practices.

MIMRA’s PSM strategy focuses on intelligence analysis around the identity, licensing and operations of arriving vessels before they are authorised to use the port.

image of newspaper story on charges laid in Marshall Islands against a Korean longline fishing vessel
The Marshall Islands Journal report on charges being laid against the Korean longliner

The operations part requires them to analyse the ship’s movement before it enters port. This is done by looking at its vessel monitoring system (VMS) track. Yet it is one thing is to look at VMS track, and another is to understand the behaviour of a particular type of vessel based on gear deployment and manoeuvring. 

While VMS may give you a good indication of what happened at a time and place, sometimes it does not suffice as evidence. So, once on board, the officer needs to know what to look for and where to find it, so they can collect definitive evidence that cannot be disputed. 

Accurate analysis of ship’s documents also needed

The types of supplementary evidence that make cases watertight include logbooks (captains’ and chief engineers’), temperature records, onboard GPS plotters, and buoy-recovery marks, among other types of vessel information. 

Furthermore, the active conduct of the boarding officers shows the captains that they know their job. In most cases, captains accept this, and accept the charges to cut their losses.

And this is exactly what my colleagues in Majuro have done with the FV Oryong 721. Officer Beau Bigler identified the offence during the manoeuvring analyses that are part of the routine intelligence report prepared for every vessel intending to enter Majuro. He took notes on time and place, and once on board went straight to the bridge and collected evidence from documentation written and instruments operated by the captain, making the evidence really hard to dispute.

Photo from above and behind of man checking documentation on ship. Photo Francisco Blaha.
Fisheries officer Beau Bigler crosschecks ship documentation with relevant findings in the arriving-vessels intelligence analysis for a purse seiner intending to gain authorisation to tranship in Majuro. This is done for every vessel intending to use the port. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

The charging of the vessels (the last one of four the past two years) is a total win for the PSM team in MIMRA. It is one you get by understanding how different fishing vessels operate, and what and where info is recorded and stored on board. 

Add to that the dedication of competent officers, and we have PSM that does work and produce results without having to sign – for now – any big documents … simple as that.