Topic

Distant Water Fishing

“Distant water fishing is a lesser-known, lesser-scrutinized area by brands, investors, and consumers, and yet it engenders human rights risks across major global supply chains.” — Institute for Human Rights and Business, “Distant Water Fishing Fleets - Preventing Forced Labour and Trafficking” meeting report.

What Is Distant Water Fishing?

Distant Water Fishing (DWF) refers to fleets that operate outside their own countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), often traveling long distances and spending long periods of time at sea to fish. DWF allows countries to catch valuable or higher volumes of species than are typically found within their own EEZs. Historical data shows tuna to be the primary seafood group caught by DWFs, followed by mackerel, sardines, and cod. Distant water fishing is regulated, in part, by regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs). However, governance of these high seas areas is of concern, as regulation is left to the discretion of the flag State

Despite its prevalence, various critiques of DWF exist, including: 

  • Reliance on subsidies for profitability.
  • Illegal and destructive fishing practices.
  • Lack of supply chain transparency and oversight. 
  • Difficult monitoring and enforcement. 
  • Limited data availability.

At-sea transshipment, the practice of transferring fish and other supplies from vessels that catch fish to cargo vessels outside port area, may exacerbate the risks associated with DWF. When unmonitored and unregulated (or poorly monitored and regulated), transshipment may facilitate various practices — such as increased time at sea, mixing of fish, and misreported catch —  that limit traceability and may place workers at risk.

Learn more about at-sea transshipment from Pew Charitable Trusts’s Global Transshipment: Working to make transfers of catch transparent, legal, and safe.

Distant Water Fishing and Social Responsibility

Workers on vessels, particularly DWF fleets, face difficult and dangerous labor conditions due to the at-sea nature of the work. Accessing timely grievance mechanisms, improving living and working conditions, ensuring safety, and the ability to switch jobs are all complicated when working on a vessel. Two-tier work permit systems, in which national fishers receive greater protections than migrant fishers on a vessel at sea, also contribute to greater exploitation of migrant workers. Unchecked, these challenges can contribute to human trafficking and forced labor. 

The U.S. government’s focus on human rights abuses associated with DWF has increased in recent years, reflecting a growing awareness of this issue. Between 2019 and 2021, four detention orders were issued for imported products associated with forced labor and tuna vessels. Despite strong actions related to the import of foreign seafood products, the U.S. and other countries continue to utilize a two-tiered system.

Industry Actions to Improve Social Responsibility in Distant Water Fishing Fleets

“Not one company disclosed having found a single worker in modern slavery in their supply chains. This is despite recurrent reports of abuse.” — Out of Sight, Modern Slavery in Pacific Supply Chains of Canned Tuna

To improve human rights, companies need to first understand the problems that exist in DWF fleets. A few practices can improve transparency, oversight, and working conditions of DWF fleets. Businesses should utilize best practices for at-sea transhipment and time spent at sea and source from vessels subject to effective port inspections. In order to support worker welfare on vessels, companies should ensure adequate food and medical care are provided, operate and/or purchase from vessels that strictly comply with the safety provisions and standards of the 2012 Cape Town Agreement, and ensure all migrant fishers are treated equally as national fishers regardless of the applicable law in the flag State. 

In addition to the practices outlined above, companies must conduct comprehensive human rights due diligence. See the RISE Decent Work at Sea Foundation for step-by-step guidance for your company.

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