OPINION: Taiwan Must Address Abuse, Illegal Fishing Aboard Its Vessels

OPINION: Taiwan Must Address Abuse, Illegal Fishing Aboard Its Vessels
Fuh Sheng 11, docked in Cape Town, South Africa. | Credit: EJF
Why you need to know

Failure to tackle illegal fishing and human rights abuse in the Taiwanese fleet harms the country’s reputation and jeopardizes millions of dollars in seafood trade.

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Taiwan's fishing industry, and the agency in charge of monitoring it, are once again on the receiving end of harsh international criticism.

In July, the International Labour Organization (ILO) announced that the Taiwanese vessel Fuh Sheng 11 had become the first ship cited for violating the Work in Fishing Convention (also known as C188), which sets standards for the fair treatment of fishermen at sea. The ship was inspected in Cape Town, South Africa, which is one of 10 countries to ratify the Work in Fishing Convention to date.

Today, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), after interviewing multiple crew members in Indonesia, is revealing that the situation was graver than initial reports made it out to be. EJF also says Taiwan's Fisheries Agency, which regulates the industry, missed several opportunities to hold the vessel to account. Crew members told EJF they were beaten and made to work up to 22 hours a day. EJF also received evidence of the illegal finning of sharks, including endangered hammerhead sharks.

The report is the latest in a series of nongovernmental organization (NGO) and media revelations that suggest a pattern of work abuse, salary withholding, and illegal fishing by Taiwanese vessels.

In an editorial, published below, EJF Deputy Director Max Schmid says the time has come for Taiwan's Fisheries Agency to take immediate action.


By Max Schmid, Deputy Director, Environmental Justice Foundation

This week, the fishing vessel Fuh Sheng 11 is scheduled to return to Kaohsiung, bringing home the spectre of human rights abuse and illegal fishing that has long haunted Taiwan’s fishing industry.

In May, the Fuh Sheng 11 became the first vessel in the world to be detained for violating the new international standards of decent work in the fishing industry. South African officials who impounded the ship in Cape Town identified a range of problems, including lack of work agreements and crew lists, long working hours, rotten lifebuoys, missing anchors, and generally poor health and safety conditions.

But an investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) found the situation was even graver than first thought.

Crew members told EJF of beatings from the captain, 22-hour working days, and serious injuries to crew working in dangerous conditions. They also reported that the vessel had illegally finned sharks, including endangered hammerheads.

This ship and its story are symptomatic of the deep-set problems in Taiwan’s fleet, and the continued failure to deal with them.

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Credit: Greenpeace
Read More: Welcome to Taiwan: Beatings, Bodies Dumped at Sea and a Culture of Maritime Abuse

At the time of its detention, a Taiwanese Fisheries Agency (FA) official visited the ship. This was a priceless opportunity to establish the truth and send a message to the world that abuse and illegal fishing must stop. Instead, a botched inspection resulted in a series of basic errors that led to the release of the vessel.

The official reportedly issued questionnaires to crew in the presence of the captain – who allegedly beat crew regularly – and the crew said afterwards that they did not know who was giving them the questionnaires or what protections they would have if they reported the true conditions on the vessel. In addition, despite some crew being unable to read the questionnaires, no interpreter was present.

Crew members told EJF of beatings from the captain, 22-hour working days, and serious injuries to crew working in dangerous conditions. They also reported that the vessel had illegally finned sharks, including endangered hammerheads.

Following this deeply flawed process, and despite the detailed findings of South African authorities and the International Labour Organization (ILO), Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency issued a statement on July 18 saying that their investigation had determined that the vessel only needed a few repairs, and it was allowed to leave Cape Town without facing any sanctions relating to human rights abuses.

EJF traced it to Mauritius in August, where, despite the Taiwan government having access to sophisticated vessel monitoring systems tracking the vessel and a trained fisheries official based in the Indian Ocean port, there was no further effort made to inspect the vessel or protect its crew.

At this point, amidst growing attention from NGOs and the media, most of the crew were sent to their home countries, where EJF made contact with them with the help of local partners. Along with the beatings, the crew said medical supplies were lacking and safety equipment was insufficient or broken. The men reported several serious injuries on the vessel and told EJF interviewers that they were “lucky” if they got six hours rest a day.

“We sometimes slept only three hours. It was like slavery. There were many cockroaches in the food […] and insects in the bedroom. I had a small boil on my leg which became so swollen that my trousers didn’t fit, and my tendon became taut. I shouldn’t have been working, but I was forced to,” said one man.

Another crew member described seeing his crewmate hit by the captain. “We felt angry, but could do nothing while at sea. […] We don’t dare because we are not … because Indonesian crew are only laborers, not people with standing.”

FS11_finned_shark
Credit: EJF
An unidentified man holding a finned shark. Shark finning is illegal under Taiwanese law.

Salaries were below the Taiwanese minimum wage, and even then, deductions were made; one crew member reported that because of deductions he only received a monthly salary of only US$50 for the first five months. There were also further problems with the standards of the contracts and insurance the men received.

Human rights abuse was not the only factor: the crew were able to provide photographic evidence of hammerhead sharks – several species of which are endangered – and other vulnerable shark species being caught. They also had photos of sharks being finned, which is against Taiwanese law.

FS11_shark
Credit: EJF
An endangered hammerhead shark, pictured on board the Fuh Sheng 11.

Taiwan is currently under a ‘yellow card’ from the European Union – a formal warning for not combating illegal fishing, which could lead to a ‘red card’ and import bans of seafood to the EU and wider reputational damage to the sector.

Taiwan made extensive reforms to its fisheries laws in 2017, but these will only be effective if properly enforced, which appears not to have happened during the inspection in Cape Town.

From the USA, the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report has emphasized the human rights abuse in Taiwan’s distant water fisheries over several years, highlighting cases such as the 81 migrant fishers who were locked in a cramped basement while their vessel was in port, and the behavior of Taiwanese company Giant Oceans, which trafficked Cambodian fishers without being sanctioned.

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Photo: Greenpeace
A dead tuna pictured on a Pacific Ocean longline fishing vessel.

The case of Fuh Sheng 11 shows a series of missed opportunities on the part of the Taiwan government to support ethical and legal practices in its fisheries. And while it is shocking, it is far from isolated. Previous investigations by EJF have revealed similar problems.

The government must act quickly to sanction offenders and provide a level playing field.

Abused migrant fishers and the marine environment are not the only victims of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and associated abuses. Those in the Taiwanese distant water fleet who fish legally and treat their workers with respect also suffer, as illegal operators undercut them on price and harm their reputation by association.

To prevent this, the government must act quickly to sanction offenders and provide a level playing field. They must urgently review the measures being put in place by the Fisheries Agency to detect and react to human rights abuses, immediately implement fit-for-purpose, standardized procedures and ensure they are robustly implemented in Taiwan and overseas.

To support this process, the Taiwanese government should commit to bring its law in line with the ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention (C188), which is designed to protect the rights of workers in the fishing sector.

Truly eradicating illegal fishing and bringing an end to human rights abuse will require root-and-branch reform, backed up by a strong will of relevant agencies to identify and sanction offences. To ensure that workers are protected and illegal fishing does not threaten marine resources a deep-seated change of culture, especially within the Fisheries Agency, is needed. The time for that is now.

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Credit: Greenpeace
Read Next: New Zealand Accuses Taiwanese Fishing Vessel of Regulatory Breaches

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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