About 100 miles off the coast of Thailand, three dozen Cambodian boys and men worked barefoot all day and into the night on the deck of a purse seiner fishing ship. Fifteen-foot swells climbed the sides of the vessel, clipping the crew below the knees. Ocean spray and fish innards made the floor skating-rink slippery.
Seesawing erratically from the rough seas and gale winds, the deck was an obstacle course of jagged tackle, spinning winches and tall stacks of 500-pound nets. Rain or shine, shifts ran 18 to 20 hours. At night, the crew cast their nets when the small silver fish they target — mostly jack mackerel and herring — were more reflective and easier to spot in darker waters.
This was a brutal place, one that I’ve spent the past several years exploring. Fishing boats on the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fleet, had for years been notorious for using so-called sea slaves, mostly migrants forced offshore by debt or duress.
Two-thirds of the planet is covered by water and much of that space is ungoverned. Human rights, labor and environmental crimes occur often and with impunity because the oceans are vast. What laws exist are difficult to enforce.
Arguably the most important factor, though, is that the global public is woefully unaware of what happens offshore. Reporting about and from this realm is rare. As a result, landlubbers have little idea of how reliant they are on the sea or the more than 50 million people who work out there.
Forced labor on fishing ships is not the only human rights concern. Hundreds of stowaways and migrants are killed at sea annually. A multibillion-dollar private security industry operates at sea, and when these mercenary forces kill, governments rarely respond because no country holds jurisdiction in international waters. Somewhere in the world, at least one ship sinks every three days, which is part of the reason that fishing is routinely ranked as among the deadliest professions.
And then there’s the environmental crisis. Oil spills aren’t the worst of it. Every three years, ships intentionally dump more oil and sludge into the oceans than the Exxon Valdez and BP spills combined. Acidification is damaging most of the world’s coral reefs.