Supri, an Indonesian worker, has searing memories of his three and a half months aboard a Taiwan-based tuna fishing vessel in 2019: “I prayed to God that I would survive,” he says, describing how he was singled out for abuse by the ship’s captain, presumably because Supri was new to the crew.
Supri, who like many Indonesians has only one name, says in a phone interview with National Geographic that the captain attacked him five times. The assaults, Supri says, included his being locked in a freezer when he was still wet from having taken a shower, and being beaten, sprayed in the face with a hose, and shocked with an electric stun gun.
He recalls that after about 15 minutes of begging to be let out of the freezer, he heard another crew member tell the captain that Surpri could die. Supri says the captain’s response was: “Let him die.”
“I think he enjoyed torturing me,” Supri says. “I was afraid all the time.”
The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a U.K.-based nonprofit that investigates environmental and human rights abuses, says that Supri’s account is a window into what the group calls widespread human rights, environmental, and fishing violations among many Taiwanese fishing vessels.
In a recent report, the EJF said that abuse of crew members—along with illegal fishing for sharks and dolphins, among other species—is common in Taiwan’s distant-water fishing fleet, one of the world’s largest with more than a thousand vessels. China and Taiwan represent nearly 60 percent of the world’s distant-water fishing vessels.
The extent and persistence of these problems point to Taiwan’s lack of effective enforcement of international human rights protections and wildlife laws, EJF said in the report. Its findings were based on interviews with former crew members from dozens of Taiwanese vessels, most of which focus on catching tuna. But the EJF says the vessels also catch protected species illegally, citing evidence that includes photographs of dolphin and shark carcasses and reports from satellite monitoring of fishing practices.
Fishing vessels that ply the high seas often are away for many months at a time. That makes crews especially vulnerable to mistreatment, says Irina Bukharin, senior analyst at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that analyzes transnational security matters.
Bukharin is the author of an August 2020 report about forced labor in the fishing industry. “It really ends up being the discretion of the vessel owner how to treat them, how to pay them,” she says.
Supri says that after the vessel he was on left Singapore, it didn’t return for three and a half months. He says he asked to go home, afraid that if he didn’t leave, he’d die. He says he was paid only $300 of his $500 monthly salary. He’s still traumatized—he says he screams in his sleep, has developed a stutter, and has trouble hearing, which he attributes to the abuse. He says he’ll never work on a foreign fishing vessel again.
EJF said that of the 62 Taiwanese vessels it reviewed for its report, 92 percent withheld wages from crew members, and 82 percent forced crew members to work excessively long shifts—up to 20 hours a day. The report said that crew members on nearly a quarter of the vessels detailed incidents of physical abuse.
Such abuse is “very difficult to document,” Max Schmid, EJF’s deputy director, says, echoing Bukharin. “It’s the middle of the ocean.”
According to C4ADS, Taiwanese (and Chinese) fishing fleets have the highest rates of forced labor in the world. They rely primarily on migrant workers—often from Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia—who may enter work contracts they don’t understand and are vulnerable to violence and abuse from ship captains. Of 228 cases of forced labor identified by C4ADS, Taiwanese vessels accounted for 53, and Chinese for 57.
Meanwhile, this year, the U.S. Department of Labor added fish caught by Taiwanese and Chinese vessels to its report listing goods produced by child labor or forced labor.
Chih-Sheng Chang, director general of Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency, says they’re investigating many of the cases reported by EJF. Representatives from China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, the agency responsible for fishery supervision, did not respond to requests for comment.
Crew member abuse isn’t the only thing distant-water fleets are able to hide, the EJF says. The group informed Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency about vessels allegedly fishing for dolphins and other cetaceans illegally and using their meat and carcasses as bait to catch sharks illegally—blue, shortfin mako, thresher, hammerhead, whitetip, and blacktip, among others. Some of those sharks are endangered. Sharks are particularly attracted to dolphin meat because of its high blood and fat content.
Many of the cases EJF reported to the Fisheries Agency are still pending, but in the past, prosecutions have been rare.
Half the Taiwanese crew members EJF spoke with reported rampant shark finning, which is illegal under Taiwan’s Wildlife Conservation Act. The fins are sliced off live sharks, and the animals are tossed back into the ocean, where they sink to the bottom and suffocate, die of blood loss, or get eaten by other predators.
Shark meat is less valuable than shark fins, which are used in shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy commonly served at wedding banquets. The majority of fins in the trade come from sharks in territorial waters, and dozens of countries have enacted full or partial bans on shark finning, shark fishing, or shark fin soup.
Schmid estimates that more than 90 percent of dolphins documented on Taiwanese ships were caught unintentionally as bycatch. Those dolphins also have been used, illegally, as shark bait—bycatch of protected species is supposed to be reported and thrown overboard.
It’s “ridiculous from an environmental perspective,” Schmid says, that “to get some shark fins used for a bit of soup at a ceremony, you’re killing two major keystone predators that are critical to the ecosystem.”
According to EJF, the crew on one Taiwanese vessel was ordered to harpoon dolphins, drag them alongside the boat until they were exhausted, then haul them aboard. If the animals were still alive, they were electrocuted using a car battery.
An Indonesian worker who spent two years on a Taiwanese tuna vessel told National Geographic by phone that he refused to harpoon and electrocute dolphins, although other crew members did. He says they’d kill more than a dozen dolphins in 90 minutes. (EJF asked that the worker not be named for his safety and future employment prospects.)
A worker on another vessel reported to EJF that more than a hundred dolphins were caught and killed on two trips. Much of the dolphin meat was thrown overboard—“about six sacks with each containing about 500 pieces of dolphin meat,” another crew member said.
Ula Yu, executive director of the Taiwan Cetacean Society, a nonprofit that raises awareness about whale and dolphin conservation, says these reports from crew members prove what she’s long suspected: that Taiwanese fishing fleets are committing wildlife crimes. But, she says, Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency doesn’t “want to face this problem. The Fisheries Agency says, No, there is no illegal hunting.”
Chih-Sheng, of the Fisheries Agency, says that since receiving reports from EJF, the agency has “initiated investigations on such cases” through port inspections and interviews. “As all the accusations in the EJF’s report are made based on hearsay information collected from the foreign crew, we believe that most of them need more evidence to clarify these vessels are non-compliant or not,” he wrote in an email. “Once the infringement is confirmed, sanctions will be imposed without doubt.”
So far, Chih-Sheng says, the agency has forwarded 14 instances of alleged dolphin hunting and one alleged case of human rights abuse by EJF to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation.
‘Broken enforcement regime’
EJF describes a “broken enforcement regime” in Taiwan that results in few prosecutions. Taiwanese vessels land fish at 32 overseas ports, but Taiwanese fisheries inspectors check ships at only seven. “We’re really held back by this lack of eyes on the ocean,” Schmid says.
And when inspections are done, he says, they aren’t always a reliable indicator a vessel has “behaved.” Because dolphins are used for bait, carcasses aren’t brought to port, crew members said. Shark fins, meanwhile, often are loaded onto cargo ships at sea, many of them bound for China, where inspections may be infrequent or careless, according to EJF.
Vessel owners or captains may hide shark fin shipments by mislabeling them, according to C4ADS. “You see it being identified as something a little bit more general, like fish maw,” says Austin Brush, senior analyst at C4ADS and a contributor to the report on forced labor. That way they “obfuscate what’s actually in a container.” (Fish maw are swim bladders.)
Testimony from ships’ crews alone may not be enough to indict a captain or owner. In 2018, EJF interviewed three crew members from one vessel, and all claimed that dolphins were hunted illegally. When EJF reported this vessel to Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency, the response was that the captain had denied hunting dolphins.
Also in 2018, EJF documented human rights abuses and shark finning aboard a Taiwanese vessel named Fuh Sheng No. 11. The crew had reported beatings, 22-hour workdays, and cockroaches in their food. EJF also collected photographic evidence of shark finning, including the fins of endangered hammerhead sharks. South African officials detained the ship in Cape Town for violating new decent work standards under the International Labour Organization, which sets just labor standards for 187 member countries.
EFJ says that when a Taiwan Fisheries Agency official visited Fuh Sheng No. 11, he made “a series of basic errors” that quashed the possibility of a prosecution. The official issued a questionnaire to the crew in front of the captain—the man accused of being responsible for the alleged beatings—and some crew members were unable to read the questionnaire because no interpreters were available.
The vessel’s operator and captain were later fined, and the ship’s license was suspended for five months, but no sanctions were brought for the alleged shark finning.
The botched inspection is a “prime example” of the Taiwan Fisheries Agency’s failings, EJF alleges. “The abuses suffered on this vessel are appalling and completely unacceptable,” Schmid said at the time. “This case shows a series of missed opportunities on the part of the Taiwan government to take action to support ethical and legal practices in its fleet.”
Chih-Sheng, of the Fisheries Agency, wrote in an email that the agency assigned an overseas officer to survey the foreign crew members. Because he didn’t know when the ship would leave, he had to conduct the surveys on “short notice” and couldn’t immediately find translators immediately for the 24 foreign crew members, who he says were from the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Ultimately, the crew members “did the questionnaire survey without the interference from captain,” Chih-Sheng said. “Taiwan did the best to deal with this case.”
Eyes on the ocean
Bukharin, of C4ADS, says countries should require vessels to come to port more often, and ports should hire more inspectors, especially ones who speak the languages of crew members.
Greater transparency is needed too, Brush says. That’s because ships guilty of wildlife crimes that lose their license or are added to a list of vessels linked to illegal fishing—which should deter countries from conducting business with them—can continue operating by changing their name, repainting the vessel, reassigning ownership or hiding ownership behind shell companies. Requiring more information about vessel owners will give countries “better visibility on who’s actually fishing in their waters,” Brush says.
Technology can help, Schmid says. Much like police body cams, cameras filming ships’ activities would allow authorities to see what fish vessels are catching. That way, “the Taiwanese government would immediately know that the vessel had caught X number of sharks,” he says. In addition, mandatory round-the-clock GPS tracking would provide a record of where vessels are fishing.
He says vessels should be required to have internet connectivity, so crews can communicate with their families and send word to the outside world about any mistreatment. “If you’ve got a connected workforce, it’s much less likely that they could all be abused or made to do illegal things.”
The Indonesian worker who spent two years aboard a Taiwanese fishing vessel, says he pitied the dolphins his crew members caught. “I didn’t know previously that this fishing vessel will catch dolphin,” he says, adding that he hoped to find a job “with a good salary” aboard a vessel “not doing illegal things.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.