Protecting Human Rights at Sea Starts with Access to Information

New collaboration between Global Fishing Watch and Human Rights at Sea aims to ensure policy and satellite technology solutions are aligned and information is available to all stakeholders

The International Labour Organization of the United Nations estimates that 16 million people were in forced labor in the private economy in 2016, with 11 percent across agriculture and fishing. Technology no doubt has a role to play in addressing forced labor, human trafficking and other human rights abuses, but technological solutions must be aligned with policy measures, and accessible to those that need them.

Human rights abuses in the fishing sector, which have historically gone undetected and often unaddressed, are increasingly coming to light. Recent reports detail harrowing experiences of fishers and fisheries observers across the ocean. More and more frequently we read about people being trafficked onto fishing vessels where they are held against their will, forced to work off assumed debts for hours every day, underpaid (or not paid at all) for their labor and are subject to verbal abuse and physical beatings, which, in some cases, has even cost them their lives

Many conclude that not enough is being done to tackle these issues. Increasing transparency in the fishing sector would allow stakeholders to better understand vessel activity and patterns of behavior that may indicate risk of such abuse. Although not the only solution, it is a simple and cost-effective place to start.

Credit: Jean Jacques Schwenzfeier

Global Fishing Watch creates and publicly shares knowledge about human activity at sea to enable fair and sustainable use of our ocean. We believe increasing fisheries transparency – that is, publicly available information on fishing vessels and capture fisheries – will shed light on what happens on deck and below water. 

Elizabeth Mavropoulou, program manager, Human Rights at Sea

To better understand how visibility of fishing activity can help inform human rights initiatives, we are partnering with Human Rights at Sea—a U.K. based organization that aims to raise global awareness of human rights abuses at sea—to share knowledge, and undertake joint research and outreach in support of tackling this serious issue. We spoke with Elizabeth Mavropoulou, program manager at Human Rights at Sea.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: What is Human Rights at Sea doing to end abuses throughout the maritime environment?

Human Rights at Sea is an independent human rights organization with a mission to promote awareness, application and implementation of human rights provisions throughout the maritime environment, particularly when those are absent, ignored or being abused. We undertake independent research, advocacy, investigation and lobbying through the publication of case studies, development of maritime human rights projects, investigation of alleged abuses and input on national and international human rights legislation, policies and best practices. 

Q: What impact has Human Rights at Sea had since its inception, and what are you most proud of? 

I would begin with these four words, “human rights at sea.” This phrase—the collection of these words—is an emerging academic and policy concept which has been receiving more attention the last seven years since the establishment of our organization. We are a small group, but our traction and impact is steadily growing, and we have successfully managed to effect policy and legislative change in 20 jurisdictions around the world. We have delivered over 80 publications, nearly 50 case studies, established the only global Missing Seafarer and Fishers Reporting Programme and recently attained observer status at the Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. Another key delivery has been the development of the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea, a soft law instrument detailing all applicable international law which applies in the maritime space in defense of fundamental human rights at sea. We are also working to utilize international arbitration as a means for providing justice for victims. We seek to establish a victim-led and victim-focused process for effective remedy. 

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges global fisheries face today with respect to human rights?

Approximately 30 million individuals are currently living and working at sea as fishers, and of them an estimated 20,000 are children that are working at sea or in coastal fishing industries. Human Rights at Sea highlighted a wide range of human rights challenges with respect to global fisheries, encompassing forced labor and slavery, poor working conditions on board fishing vessels, and even murder at sea. One of the biggest challenges global fisheries faces today is the lack of effective monitoring and rigorous enforcement of human rights protections through existing legislation on board vessels, both alongside port State measures and out at sea beyond territorial water boundaries. 

Q: In what ways will the new partnership between Human Rights at Sea and Global Fishing Watch assist in strengthening human rights provisions and protections in the global fishing industry? 

With our shared values and focus on the gathering and publishing corroborated facts and evidence of human and labor rights abuses in the maritime environment, the partnership between Human Rights at Sea and Global Fishing Watch will bring together two sets of complementary information. The scientific and research perspective will now be linked to an established international civil-society human rights platform whose day-to-day activities involve investigating, recording and exposing abuses at sea.

Q: How can increased transparency support efforts to prevent human rights abuses in the fisheries sector? 

The headline word is ‘impunity’. At present, entities and individuals who wish to hide behind the ‘out at sea, out of mind’ approach are increasingly finding their hiding places reduced as corporate and flag State actions are challenged by civil society organizations. The opportunities for being able to use impunity as an excuse for covering up abuses at sea and hiding behind corporate veils is slowly being eroded. Transparency of fishing operations and supply chains will reduce risks for businesses and flag States, protect commercial reputations and provide less opportunity for abuse. Transparency leads to accountability. This in turn leads to exposure, a deterrent effect through public knowledge of incidents, which in turn increasingly leads to effective routes to remediation for victims.  

Q: How can access to fishing vessel information address potential issues on board? 

Abuses occur when perpetrators consider themselves immune from being discovered; their sense of impunity is reinforced as their illegal behaviors are neither prevented nor punished. If a vessel’s history is transparent, it allows public accountability to serve as a strong deterrent for unscrupulous vessel operations and should lead to a decreased likelihood of abuse. In addition, the opportunity to cover up incidents is markedly reduced. 

Global Fishing Watch continues to provide cost-effective technological tools that advance the sustainability of fishing. This new partnership with Human Rights at Sea will better position us to focus our efforts to promote, address, and enable advancements for the protection of fundamental human rights of fishers.

Courtney Farthing manages the transparency program at Global Fishing Watch.

You might also like...

Scroll to Top