"Six Indonesian fishermen get imprisoned for killing their Chinese captain" / by Francisco Blaha

In general terms, it takes a lot to piss me off. Yet this one really guts me… is easy to read "Six Indonesian fishermen get imprisoned in Vanuatu for killing their Chinese captain" without knowing much of what is the complex reality of these vessels and not mentioning till later that it was a Vanuatuan flagged longliner, the Tunago 61.

Bored crew hanging out on a Taiwanese longliner (not the one involved in this story)

Bored crew hanging out on a Taiwanese longliner (not the one involved in this story)

Of course, I don't advocate violence, much less killing anyone, let's be clear on that.

I’ve boarded over the years dozens (of the 3000 fishing in the Pacific) of Chinese and Taiwanese longliners that are flagged in quite a few nations besides their own, and the living conditions on board are appalling to me. Yet, I' aware to see this also as a cultural misperception, I grew up in different fishing culture with different boats. I worked a lot in Asia and is not hard to see parallels in between the crowded and limited conditions people conduct their normal lives there and the conditions on board, so fair enough till there.

Typically in these vessels, the skipper and sometimes the chief engineer is Chinese or Taiwanese and everyone else is either Indonesian, Philipino, Nepalese, Myanmarian, Laotian, or Cambodian.

But, it is by definition the responsibility of the flag state to regulate on anything that happens on board of its vessels, including labour and human rights conditions, irrelevant of the nationality of owners and crew. If I want to work in Vanuatu (or any country) I need a working permit, return tickets, etc. How come working in one of their flagged vessels is different?

Now, is well known that a lot of Asian DWFN vessels are also flagged to countries with "open registries" (such as Vanuatu or the Marshall Islands) for lesser regulation in terms of taxes, safety, labour standards, etc. (Now if this outrages you, is no different to the practice of offshoring by companies for tax purposes). 

Taiwanese and Chinese boat owners do this reflagging business very well, and also flag their vessels in Pacific Island countries without “open registry” as a way to get over their own countries vessel number caps and obtain cheap access to fishing rights under the supposed benefits of supporting the local industry. Yet you get on board, and there is not even one Pacific Islander since the salary, working conditions and cramped space on board are not good.

These hard living conditions are part of the reason why we have less than 5% observer coverage on these vessels (there is no space and people just don’t wanna go) hence we are putting a lot of hope on electronic monitoring (video cameras) across the fleet.

In general terms (and speaking for my self) fishers are not at the apex of the educated and tolerant members of their respective societies. When you do the most dangerous job in the world, chances are you did not have many options to choose from.

Personally, I found in fishing a way up and out of a reality I wasn't comfortable with. I was (still are) socially awkward and wasn’t much a "law abiding" citizen, yet I got into fishing at the time where your earnings were good, and you could make a decent living. And in my case, pay for my education (other colleagues who didn't have the thrive of education in their family backgrounds did the usual stuff fisherman are well known for).

One also has to understand that a fishing boat is a really small place, and like a jail, you are "locked" for a good amount of time in hard labour, hence getting your place in the ranks and the respect (or fear) of others is key to making it safe out of there.

I’ve met very nice skippers on the longliners, but also some real assholes… If I was treated by someone, the way I’ve seen skippers treating their crew, I would have reacted badly. 

Yet, I had the chance to step off the boat and move on, the crew of these vessels don't. They are mostly uneducated, don't speak any English, they don't always have access to their passports, don't know anything about the rules and legal support structures of the flag state of the vessel (if they even exist). 

In the best case, they were recruited cheaply by agents that keep a retainer of their miserable wages under the condition of at least 2 years of a contract without getting back home, in the worst case are fully forced labour or modern slaves.

I have no idea what went on board this vessel, but not to be paid for a year plus ill treatment is as bad as it can get for a fisherman (but unfortunately not unusual). 

So now, where was the Vanuatu flag state responsibility for the rights of the crew who were “literally” working in a piece of Vanuatuan territory that happens to float around the Pacific? 

If you as a country choose to milk the economic benefits of having lax flag registration rules, they should be aware that regardless the arrangement, the flagging comes with unavoidable responsibilities that obviously weren't being upheld in this case.

So for the judge to say that these six guys were lucky to be prosecuted in Vanuatu as it did not have the death penalty is VERY rich and frankly upsetting... because they were VERY unlucky to have ever been sent to work in one of the 27 longliners flagged there or on any open registry/flag of convenience, in the first place

Furthermore, I suspect that if the captain had been Indonesian or Philippino, for example, the result would have been different, taking into account that China provides up to 30% of the Overseas Developing Assistance to Vanuatu, and has been promising to upgrade the decrepit SinoVan fish processing plant they build in the 90s

So, while these issues are a primary responsibility of the flag state, can coastal states (the countries with responsibility for the EEZ where these vessels fish) do something about this? 

Yes to a point… NZ manage to do it after being embarrassed internationally in the news. We had Korean flagged vessels fishing under joint ventures in NZ waters, their ill treatment and forced labour conditions of their Indonesian crews made the media, yet was little that could legally be done at the time. This brought into law the Fisheries (Foreign Charter Vessels and Other Matters) Amendment Bill, requiring labour conditions similar to those expected for NZ nationals were imposed. (As a result, many vessels didn't come back)

So, potentially something similar could be done via the regional licensing and bilateral arrangements in between DWFN and countries in the Pacific. Yet this will require a close collaboration in between the fisheries and labour administrations in each country and no doubt, a serious upgrade on the employment laws and systems in each country that may not be up to date with the minimal stands by ILO (wrote about this here). 

Furthermore, a substantial strengthening of the monitoring control and surveillance capacities of the labour rules enforcement organisations in the Port States would be needed as well. Since as fisheries officer, I have no powers in that area. All this besides time will cost massive amounts of money. 

But then, it will be another area (just like in fisheries) where PICs are required to put costly enforcement and control measure over a problem that is “imported” and thrown upon them (even if some of this vessel are bogusly flagged to their jurisdiction), while most profits goes to the beneficial owners in Asia. 

I’m sure that we in the Pacific inspect more Taiwanese and Chinese vessels that their own fisheries inspectors… it would become the same for labour issues. 

And where is the support of the labour organization of the country of origin of these crew members?

And even if we managed to control this from a coastal perspective, we will have no jurisdiction over what happens in the High Seas… Hence all comes back to Flag State responsibility, which is the key issue in the IUU, Forced labour and transnational crime debate.

However what REALLY piss me off , is that the vessels owners say that is they pay more, fish would be more expensive and that is not good for business... yet their fleets get obscene amounts of subsidies by their countries… so f*ck you! 

Maybe fish should be more expensive then, and perhaps we should be out of business if that means that the fish I love and the sector that allows my family to have a dignified life is built on the miseries of other people who weren’t lucky to be born in countries with better protection systems.

The vessels owners from the DWFN in the aim to maximize profits are employing people from the most desperate backgrounds and nations to pay them less every year... this is for me the real “race to bottom” in fishing. If we are failing to look at the sustainability of our own at this really basic level, what hopes do we have for anything else, including our fishery? 

I don't know even the names of these guys in jail in Vanuatu, nor the circumstances the lead to their extreme action… Yet as a fellow fisher I like to apologise to them. Beyond your own collective responsibilities for what you have done, we as the fishing sector in the Pacific have failed you all, by allowing stuff like not being paid for a year to happen, without providing you with any support structure as to avoid shit like this.