More deaths on fishing vessels highlight lax approach by operators

Categories FeaturesPosted on

Recent deaths on tuna-fishing vessels operating in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO) have again signalled the need to improve safety and working conditions on vessels, and to introduce and enforce meaningful penalties for vessel owners that flout regulations.

FFA’s Trade and Industry News for May and June 2020 reported on the death of a Kiribati observer from “unnatural” injuries in March 2020. It also reported on the deaths of four Indonesian crew on a Chinese vessel in the WCPO. They died in 2019, but their deaths did not come to light until April 2020. 

Existing rules have been criticised for not going far enough to protect observers or crew, Trade and Industry News reported.

It said that at least one well-known voice in the region, Bubba Cook, of WWF-New Zealand, had called for a new approach to keep observers safe, since current rules and penalties were failing observers. Mr Cook said that using more electronic surveillance technology on ships might help. So might banning a ship from ever fishing in WCPO waters if an observer disappeared or died in suspicious circumstances. 

Trade and Industry News said that “the death of an observer must be reported immediately and can shine a spotlight on the situation, some incidents relating to crew death or welfare can go unnoticed for months or even years”.

Two men stand in open hatch on frozen tuna. Photo Francisco Blaha.
Two members of the crew of a purse seiner prepare to unload a load of frozen tuna. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

In 2016, FFA adopted harmonised minimum terms and conditions for access by fishing vessels (HMTCs). They are used to regulate fishing in the waters of the 17 countries that are members of FFA. The HMTCs make getting and keeping a licence to fish for tuna contingent on maintaining a safe work environment for observers. They give instructions on how to do this, and on what to do if an observer is assaulted, harassed, dies, goes missing, or is believed to have fallen overboard. 

The HMTCs were updated in 2019 to state that the operator of the fishing vessel was also responsible for the health, welfare and safety of the crew while they are on board, and for the duration of their contract. Crew members must also be given a contract they understand (for example, in their own language).

The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) introduced a rule in 2017 that requires vessel operators and captains to immediately undertake the emergency action specified if an “observer dies, is missing or presumed fallen overboard” or “suffers from a serious illness or injury that threatens his or her health or safety”. It builds on older rules on how to help observers do their job properly

Trade and Industry News said the Indonesian Government tabled its concerns about “labour abuse” in a paper to the 16th annual meeting of the WCPFC in December 2019.

Under WCPFC resolution 2018-01, the countries of the region, and other countries that fish in the region are expected to enact laws that require fishing operators to provide crews of fishing vessels with fair working conditions, fair pay, and a safe environment to work in. 

The rules of both organisations reiterate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Two fisheries observers monitor tuna catch on purse-seine vessel. Photo: Hilary Hosia.
Fisheries observers monitor tuna catches on board purse seiners as well as during transhipment in port. Their work provides important data for fisheries managers. Photo: Hilary Hosia.

Electronic monitoring may help improve working conditions

Trade and Industry News said the use of electronic monitoring and surveillance technology and artificial intelligence may make working conditions safer for observers and crew. 

It reported increased interest in electronic compliance and observance as a result of suspending the observer program as part of COVID-19 restrictions. Observers are a lynchpin in keeping reporting of fishing effort accurate, and in the prevention of bycatch and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. 

The countries in the region have been working out how to make electronic monitoring feasible, especially for the small island developing states (SIDS). It is expensive, and much of it is not fully developed yet, Trade and Industry News reports.

The FFA newsletter also reported that Thai Union was looking at using artificial intelligence to detect IUU fishing and abuses of human rights on tuna fishing vessels. 

Bank of electronic monitors used to monitor tuna fishing. Photo: AFMA.
Electronic monitoring installed on fishing vessel. Photo: AFMA.

Long hours ahead to unload tons of tuna

Categories Photography, The tuna picturePosted on

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

Categories FeaturesPosted on

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.