Motherships, Slave Labor and the High Seas

Slavery, injustice, and smuggling. These are words that by the year 2017 should be nothing but remnants of past mistakes. We live in a highly developed world today, but as it turns out, these evils are still very real and happening at an alarming rate on our world’s oceans.

And it’s all fueled by our demand for fish.

Modern day anarchy on the high seas is carried out by fishing boats. Boats that spend years at sea thanks to the help of a sophisticated support system know as Motherships that operate to fuel the third-most lucrative illegal market in the world behind only drug and weapons smuggling: illegal seafood.

This is where shark finning runs rampant, and IUU (illegal, unreported, and unregulated) fishing is gradually depleting our world’s oceans. Neither humans nor fish seem to have rights or protection here.

Trans-shipping: What is it and why is it so bad?

In order to fish illegally, you need to play the system like a fiddle. Operating underneath the surface, avoiding proper governance, and staying in the shadows.

For fishing boats, the best place to do this is on the High Seas, and the best way to avoid being caught is by not coming back to shore.

Trans-shipping is what allows fishing vessels to do just that.

Out in the middle of the ocean, two or more boats can meet and exchange goods. These transactions are referred to as At Sea Trans-Shipments.

‘Goods’ can be fuel, people, fish or almost anything you can think of. One phenomenon that’s unfortunately common on our world’s oceans is the use of ‘Motherships’ as a means to transfer fish from smaller commercial boats to a larger cargo ship.

These Motherships (also known as ‘Reefers’ thanks to their massive refrigerated holding areas) allow commercial fishing boats to fish for months and even years on-end without ever having to return to shore. The fishing boats can replenish their fuel and supplies while at the same time offloading their most recent catch to be sold back on land.

Captains might argue that the use of Motherships saves time and money. But the reality is that they are valuable for other reasons: they allow fishermen to dodge regulations and transparency, overfish the oceans, and hold fishermen captive onboard as a cheap workforce.

Long-distance fishing boats from industrialized fishing fleets are given the power to exploit more of the world’s oceans than ever before, and supply highly illegal seafood markets around the world.

To cut costs further, vessels participating in this type of at-sea strategy are known to use slave labor. They provide horrible conditions to their crew members, who have no option of escape from these vessels while so far out at sea.

Where Are the Motherships and How Can We Stop Them?

A Mothership sounds like a ‘Death Star’ from the Star Wars movies. And if you are a fish in the ocean, it is.

These Motherships allow fishing fleets to fish 24 hours a day 365 days a year. No resource can withstand this intense fishing as it allows no time for the stock to replenish.

Increasing the transparency of the world’s fishing industry needs to be a top priority, and this starts with uncovering at-sea transshipments helping to facilitate illegal seafood markets so that we can put a stop to these massive illegal operations.

By using modern satellite imagery and tracking technologies, organizations have been able to uncover where the majority of these trans-shipping events are taking place in the ocean.

  1. Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk
  2. Outside Argentina’s EEZ (exclusive economic zone)
  3. Outside Peru’s EEZ
  4. Barents Sea Loophole (outside the EEZ of Norway and Russia)
  5. National waters of Guinea-Bissau

It’s clear that Russia is one of the world’s worst offenders.

And when it comes to the 60 percent of trans-shipping that occurs within national waters, guess where that’s happening? Off Russia’s coastline.

Coming Into Port

The next question to address is where do these Motherships or Reefers go to offload their holds? Where do you offload and sell thousands of tons of illegal fish? How do you ‘launder’ illegal catch and bring it into market.

There are ‘ports of convenience’ where standards and enforcement are lacking to properly handle/identify illegally caught fish. Ports of convenience, just like flags of convenience, are designed to facilitate illegal trade.

These are found in the countries that have not yet joined the Port State Measures Agreement to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (PSMA). Such countries that are associated with Motherships include: China, Ivory Coast and Taiwan.

What can be done to stop this from happening?

Well, clearly there are a few main players when it comes to feeding the world’s ability to illegally catch seafood. And they are operating heavily in international waters.

To combat this, the world’s nations need to join together and create a stronger system of governance around these operations.

All those who work on board these boats should be documented to avoid slavery at sea, and ports of convenience should not be allowed to accept cargos of fish until they join the port state measures agreement. Altogether, this would put a major dent into the illegal fishing trade.

This might seem like a daunting problem to tackle that requires high level politicians and international players to solve. But in reality these illegal fishing efforts are fueled by us. By people who create a market for these illegal fish by paying top dollar for them. If the demand ceases, then there’s no incentive to fish. We are simply fanning the flame of a dying fire.

So what YOU can do is be wary of how your fish are caught, and spread the word so that others understand the impacts of their purchases.

Sign up today for your own passport to the high seas, and let the world know that you care about the health of our world’s oceans. One simple action can amplify a wave of change.Motherships, Slave Labor and the High Seas

Photo: US Navy/Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

Sign up today and take the pledge to save our world's oceans by visiting us at: www.theterramarproject.org

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