Taiwan’s fishing industry faces claims of ‘hell’ on the high seas

For sailors aboard the rickety fishing vessel Fuh Sheng 11, life on the waters off South Africa, 10,000km from the boat’s home port in Taiwan, was a living “hell”.

The captain was alleged to have handed down beatings and forced the crew to work up to 22 hours a day while insects infested their cramped sleeping and eating quarters. Out on the high seas, the men said, protected sharks were caught and stripped of their fins.

The 27-man, mostly-Indonesian crew’s ordeal — documented in a probe by Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a British non-governmental organisation — not only suggests that labour abuse and environmental pillage still plague the global fisheries business, it also signals that an overhaul of Taiwan’s laws and closer international monitoring have failed to rein in the industry’s darker side, environmental experts said.

“For all Indonesian fishermen, I hope they don’t experience what I’ve experienced,” one crew member told the EJF, which on Thursday published its investigation into the episode.

The Fuh Sheng No 11 is one of an estimated 1,100 Taiwan-flagged distant-water fishing vessels that comprise the world’s second-largest long-distance fishing fleet, behind China .

While much of Taiwan’s industry by value is concentrated in the Pacific, where Taiwanese longline boats target tuna, hundreds of boats spread across waters from Fiji to the Falklands.

The vessels are manned by tens of thousands of south-east Asian workers. Government estimates put the number of migrant fishermen at 30,000 while NGOs estimate that the figure tops 100,000.

Crew members stripping sharks of their fins on board the Fuh Sheng 11

Taiwan in 2017 overhauled its fishing laws, beefed up funding of the industry regulator and increased penalties for breaches following years of international pressure to curtail human rights abuses and overfishing.

Lin Ding-rong, director of deep sea fisheries at Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency, which manages the country’s fishing practices, said that new electronic systems monitored vessels’ positions every hour and logged daily catch reports.

Authorities are now exceeding international standards for the frequency of inspections and have boosted worker support.

“I believe Taiwan’s fishing fleet is more transparent than before,” Mr Lin said. “The new regulations have done a lot to enhance and protect the right of fishing vessels’ crews.”

The European Commission, which has threatened to sanction Taiwan’s fishing industry, has acknowledged “great efforts done by the Taiwanese authorities to reform their fisheries policy”.

However, the testimonials from the Fuh Sheng No 11 crew given to EJF and complaints made to South African officials suggest a sharp divide between what authorities say and what is happening at sea.

When the ship arrived in Cape Town in May, it was sharply listing, lifebuoys were rotten and anchors did not work, according to a South African Maritime Authority report. It was declared unseaworthy and the crew was temporarily removed.

Yang Yen-rong, proprietor of Fuh Sheng Fishery that owned the Fuh Sheng No 11, confirmed that the vessel had caught and finned sharks on board — stripping sharks on vessels is illegal in Taiwan — but denied allegations of physical abuse and excessive working hours, and blamed the poor hygienic conditions on the workers.

“The Indonesian workers are making things up,” Mr Yang said, adding that he had since sold the Fuh Sheng No 11.

Poor treatment of fishermen and illegal contracting arrangements is still widespread, said Allison Lee, founder of the only union representing migrant fishermen in Taiwan.

“The new law is useless,” said Ms Lee. “They don’t care about the people.”

The Fuh Sheng No 11 crew was promised pay of $300 a month, less than Taiwan’s minimum wage of $450 a month, according to contracts obtained by EJF. They also had to make deductions to pay back a guarantee to an employment broker.

A fisherman displays a de-finned shark on the Fuh Sheng 11 © Environmental Justice Foundation

“The use of significant salary deductions creates bonded labour conditions, making it difficult or impossible for crew to leave and therefore vulnerable to physical and other abuse,” the EJF said in its report.

Contracts for migrant workers on other Taiwanese-owned vessels, seen by the Financial Times, similarly reveal pay below the minimum wage, brokers deducting employment guarantee fees, and clauses specifying that the bodies of deceased workers may not be repatriated, which in practice means bodies are dumped into the ocean.

Low-cost, high-volume operations were driven by “the relentless pressure of constant global demand for huge quantities of cheap seafood”, Greenpeace said of the long-distance fishing model.

EJF urged Taiwan to review the measures in place by the Fisheries Agency to detect and counter human rights transgressions.

“The abuses suffered on this vessel are appalling and completely unacceptable,” said Max Schmid, EJF deputy director.

Mr Lin, from Taiwan’s fishing regulator, said that investigations into the Fu Sheng 11 were continuing but conceded that oversight of the industry remained problematic.

“You cannot prevent bad guys doing bad things,” he said. “The role of the government is to use every effort to control or monitor our fishing vessels, it doesn’t mean that wrongdoing won’t happen any more.”

Low-cost labour keeps Taiwan’s boats sailing

Cheap labour, coupled with insufficient monitoring and patchy fisheries data, helps not only Taiwan’s fishing industry stay afloat but also fuels overfishing globally, said critics including Greenpeace.

Taiwan’s far-seas fleet had revenue of $980m in 2016 from a catch of 545,000 metric tonnes, second only in value and size of catch to China, which had $1.6bn from 1.5m tonnes, according to a report in June in Science Advances, a research journal.

However, researchers said that fishing by Taiwanese boats in many locations around the world was not profitable without labour costs being sharply reduced.

The percentage of global stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels has jumped from 10 per cent in 1974 to 33 per cent in 2015, according to a report in July from the UN.

For the world’s main tuna species, the primary target of Taiwan’s fleet, 43 per cent of stocks were still fished at unsustainable levels in 2015, up from 41 per cent two years earlier.

The UN data understated damage to the broader ocean ecosystem, researchers warned.

“They are only talking about the stocks that they have actually got assessments for . . . it doesn’t count for all of the others,” said Cat Dorey an Australia-based fisheries scientist.

“You don’t have any idea on what is going on with the shark fisheries, [and] really bad data on the other by-catch species which are hugely important [including turtles and seabirds].”

Source: https://www.ft.com/content/de849e6e-b5ae-11e8-b3ef-799c8613f4a1

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