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Fishermen say recent fines levied by the government are excessive. NGOs say they are not harsh enough.

Taiwan's Fishing Captains Protest in Defense of Embattled Industry

2018/11/07 , News
Nick Aspinwall
Credit: Nick Aspinwall
Nick Aspinwall
Nick Aspinwall is a journalist based in Taipei and an editor-at-large for The News Lens. He has also written for The Diplomat and News Deeply. When he’s not reporting, he can be found on a diving boat or perhaps stranded deep within a remote mountain range.

Taiwanese fishermen protested outside the Fisheries Agency (FA) on Tuesday afternoon before marching to the Legislative Yuan building, armed with airhorns and matching caps, after what they say is an unnecessarily harsh crackdown on their heavily scrutinized industry.

Media reports and nongovernmental organizations have criticized Taiwan's vessel owners and captains for repeated instances of illegal fishing and human rights abuses of crew members, most of whom are migrant workers from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Over a thousand vessel owners, captains and fishermen and their families bused to Taipei for the event. (Taiwan's foreign deep sea crew members usually do not set foot in Taiwan, instead disembarking from vessels in third countries and flying home.) Some came from the eastern port town of Su'ao and the northern Ryukyu Islands, but most traveled from Donggang, Taiwan's largest deep-sea port in southern Pingtung County.

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Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu
An onlooker walks past 'Wang Ye's Boat,' a 13-meter finely crafted ancient warship made of paper and wood before being set on fire to ward off evil, disease and bad luck during the Wang Ye Festival on the morning of Nov. 4, 2018.

Early in the morning of Sunday, Nov. 4, Donggang hosted Wang Ye, a religious festival held every three years. Many captains returned from the high seas for the festival, in which residents usher demons and troublesome spirits onto a wooden boat on the beach before setting it ablaze.

But captains and vessel owners in the port town have themselves run into trouble with the law in recent months. On Oct. 4, the FA, a subdivision of Taiwan's Council of Agriculture (CoA) which regulates the nation's fishing industry, found the Chin Chang 6 guilty of illegal shark finning. It fined the vessel's operator and its captain NT$9.5 million (US$307,861) and NT$1.6 million (US$51,850), respectively, and suspended each of their licenses for six months.

"I understand the need for sustainability, but government enforcement has been too tough and the fines too high," a fisherman at the protest who gave his surname as Tsai told AFP on Tuesday.

Members of local fishermen's unions and the larger Fishermen's Association, a fisheries trade group, have long been critical of large financial penalties in what is an increasingly competitive industry. Taiwanese captains also said they wanted a relaxation of labor laws preventing them from hiring migrant fishermen after they had escaped from their vessels.

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Credit: Taiwan Fisheries Agency
Shark fins which the FA says it found on board the Chin Chang 6 in Kaohsiung.

In a response posted on its website, the CoA said it had already cut the waiting period for employers after a migrant fishermen "escaped." It also said it would hold consultation meetings in Donggang, Ryukyu, and Su'ao within the next month to hash out their remaining disagreements.

The CoA also said it did not agree that political candidates appeared at the protest. The Kuomintang (KMT) supported the protest, and electoral candidates led chants while wearing KMT apparel. A banner was unfurled in support of the so-called "1992 Consensus," an agreement borne out of an "unofficial" 1992 meeting between Taiwanese and Chinese representatives in which both sides concur that there is only one "China" which encompasses both China and Taiwan but agree to disagree on what this means. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) do not recognize the consensus.

Beyond this, however, the protests could indicate the souring status of relations between the Fisheries Agency and the industry. NGOs such as Greenpeace have long accused the FA of being uncomfortably cozy with the vessels it regulates.

In addition to the Chin Chang 6, the FA on Oct. 4 fined the Fuh Sheng 11, which in May became the first vessel in the world to be penalized under a new International Labour Organization (ILO) standard while docked in Cape Town, South Africa. Titled the Work in Fishing Convention (also known as C188), it sets standards for the ethical treatment of workers at sea.

Workers aboard the Fuh Sheng 11 told investigators and NGOs they had been beaten by the ship's captain, made to work 22-hour days, and paid far less than they were owed. One crew member shared a letter with South African NGO Biblia, claiming that water had entered the vessel's engine room, there were no life boats or life jackets on board, and he was concerned about the quality of food as he was frequently sick.

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Credit: Taiwan Fisheries Agency
The Fuh Sheng 11 upon its return to Kaohsiung in Sept. 2018.

The FA fined that vessel a total of NT$3.75 million (US$121,546) after initially denying the claims of South African ILO investigators, claiming its own investigation had not found evidence of abuse on board. It later said the discrepancy was due to a language barrier with the ship's crew.

Out of the NT$3.75 million, a total of NT$250,000 (US$8,100) was levied by the FA for a crew salary below the minimum wage, the failure to uphold decent living standards, and the alleged beatings of crew members. The remaining amount was levied for charges of logbook discrepancies and improperly signed contracts.

The FA has forwarded the case to the Kaohsiung District Prosecutor's Office to investigate possible violations of Taiwan's Human Trafficking Prevention Act.

Max Schmid, Deputy Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), told The News Lens at the time the financial penalties were insufficient. He also said the FA had neglected evidence of shark finning aboard the Fuh Sheng 11.

"If they want to send a message, they need to prosecute the Fuh Sheng 11 for shark finning," said Schmid.

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Credit: EJF
An endangered hammerhead shark on board the Fuh Sheng 11, in a photo supplied to EJF by a crew member.

On Tuesday, captains were infuriated with the sudden regulatory attention being paid by the Taiwanese government to an industry which first drew the ire of forces beyond Taiwan.

In 2015, the European Commission gave Taiwan a "yellow card" warning, which is still in place today, for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. A "red card" would lead to a full ban on Taiwanese fishery exports to the European Union.

Earlier in 2018, EJF and Greenpeace released separate reports detailing illegal fishing and human rights abuses on board Taiwan's deep sea fishing fleet.

EJF and Greenpeace are part of a coalition of NGOs called Human Rights for Migrant Fishers. Launched in May 2018, the coalition has called for the FA to strengthen its Act for Distant Water Fisheries, passed in 2017, which stipulates acceptable working conditions and fishing practices at sea.

"The government's supervision and enforcement capabilities still must be strengthened," the coalition said in a statement released prior to the Nov. 6 protest. "If regulations are relaxed, it will not only open the door for unscrupulous behavior, but will also turn the yellow card into a red card."

Should Taiwan receive a "red card," the country's Council of Agriculture estimates it would cost the industry NT$7 billion (US$243.6 million) in annual losses – an outcome that would leave nobody happy.

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Credit: Nick Aspinwall
Taiwanese fishermen rally outside the Legislative Yuan on Nov. 6, 2018.

Below, an abridged timeline of what has been a rough 2018 for Taiwan's fishing industry:

Mar. 13 ►EJF releases a report, and corresponding video, condemning numerous instances of labor abuse and illegal fishing aboard Taiwanese vessels – just as European Commission investigators landed in Taiwan.
May 17 ►NGO coalition Human Rights for Migrant Fishers holds a joint rally in front of the Presidential Office Building, calling for the adoption of the Work in Fishing Convention and coverage for distant water migrant workers under the Labor Standards Act (LSA).
May 17 ►An Indonesian fisherman is stabbed and pushed overboard by a fellow crew member at sea on Taiwanese vessel Ming Man Hsiang 38; he was never found and a murder investigation was opened.
May 24 ►Greenpeace releases a report condemning instances of abuse at sea; The News Lens reports on the practice of dumping the bodies of deceased fishermen overboard.
May 25 ►Taiwanese seafood trader FCF, implicated in the Greenpeace report, says in a statement it is “disappointed that [Greenpeace is] implicating us in old incidents and cases.”
June 1 ►An Indonesian fisherman recalls tales of squalid working conditions and abuse at sea in a hearing at Taipei's Legislative Yuan.
July 17 ►The ILO announces the detention and subsequent release of Fuh Sheng No. 11 for violations of the Work in Fishing Convention.
July 25 ►Protesters gather outside the International Workshop to Combat Human Trafficking in Taipei, commissioning a truck to traverse the city displaying videos of labor abuse at sea.
Aug. 27 ►Taiwanese vessel Yi Rong No. 6 is accused of regulatory violations by New Zealand authorities.
Sept. 12 ►EJF releases a video documenting evidence of beatings of crew members, invalid contracts, underpayment, and poor living and working conditions on board the Fuh Sheng 11.
Oct. 1 ►The FA fines the Fuh Sheng 11 NT$3.75 million for work abuse and invalid contracts and the Chin Chang 6 NT$11.4 million for illegal shark finning.
Nov. 6 ►Vessel captains protest outside the Council of Agriculture over what they say are excessive fines and labor regulations applied to their industry by the Fisheries Agency.

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