Image: Lucas Aderbache (Unsplash)


Presently, there is an ongoing human rights crisis on the high seas. The scarcely monitored regions of the sea provide an area in which gross human rights abuses are perpetuated on fishing vessels against those working aboard them. Moreover, the activities of said vessels, namely overfishing not only constitute unethical fishing practices which adversely affect marine ecosystems, but also economically hamper local fisheries. Thus, it is the intention of this article to assess the extent of forced labour in the fisheries sector and in doing so, highlight the link between forced labour, human trafficking and fisheries’ crime. Furthermore, the article will highlight the economic and environmental implications of illegal fishing. Finally, the article will provide recommendations on how best to tackle this ever-growing threat.

In recent years international media has shone a light on forced labour aboard fishing vessels, however the extent of these activities is largely unknown. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines forced labour as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which said person has not offered themselves voluntarily”. Within the fisheries sector, forced labour (slavery), debt bondage, poor working conditions and restriction of movement are increasingly recognised as human rights violations. Fishing vessels suspected of transporting victims of forced labour are classified as high-risk vessels, these vessels manifest certain key behaviours. These indicators include, vessels which travel further from ports, vessels which log more fishing hours per day, those which spend more time fishing on the high seas as well as take fewer fishing voyages annually, in comparison to other vessels. The areas of open ocean (international waters) beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any nation, provide high-risk vessels with a way to work in the shadows and obscure from view, the inhumane treatment occurring on the high seas. It is economic migrants, refugees and desperate individuals in need of money who fall prey to modern day slavery. Fishers are particularly vulnerable to human traffickers and forced labour. Many of these workers face an even greater danger out on the open seas without access to functioning means of communication with those on land, nor the ability to disembark and return to shore. These workers, the victims of slavery, remain trapped on the high seas at the mercy of their ‘employers’. They are subjected to poor working conditions, little to no pay as well as physical and sometimes sexual abuse. Human traffickers cater to the demands of illegal fishers by providing them an unwilling labour force, many of whom are constrained by the lack of alternatives available to them. This continuous cycle of abuse facilitates the growth of illegal fishing and further endangers the livelihoods of individuals and communities.

The unchecked growth of slave labour in the fisheries sector has fuelled not only human trafficking, but also fraud, corruption, money laundering, tax and customs evasion as well as illegal fishing and the extraction of marine resources. Fishing vessels often engage in other maritime crimes such as smuggling drugs, firearms, as well as conducting piracy or terrorist attacks. Much of the illegal global multi-crime activity within the fisheries sector takes place on the east coast of Africa as well as off the coast of South Africa and Namibia. Fishing vessels operating in these regions need not dock in the respective harbours, rather they carry out their transhipments offshore. Drastic fluctuations in global fish stocks are not only attributed to the loss of biodiversity, but also illegal fishing. The multi-crimes affect not only the global fisheries sector, but also local fisheries, small-scale fishers and small island developing states (SIDS). Small fishing communities rely on fish for commerce, trade as well as for consumption. Furthermore, these communities are dependent on the marine economy and environment for sustenance and other resources. Illegal, unregulated and uncontrolled (IUU) fishing adversely impacts small island developing economies, as it deprives them of taxes and marine exports. Overfishing and the illegal extraction of marine resources in particular, adversely affect the sea ecology, thus causing further harm to marine life already at risk due to coastal degradation, continuous oil spills and other forms of marine pollution. Furthermore, unchecked, the practice of overfishing not only threatens food security, but also hampers efforts to improve conservation and environmental sustainability.

The crisis on the high seas consists of several interrelated challenges, each one feeding into the next. The major task remains the protection of the oceans and seas as well as the protection of habitats below the surface and the livelihoods of those living and working above the surface. That is, so long the push-conditions of poverty behind those forced into these circumstances persist. There is an urgent/pressing need to improve fisheries regulation and management in order to ensure ethical practices and sustainable harvests. In addressing the multi-crimes occurring on the high seas, greater cooperation among states and equitable burden-sharing is necessary. Moreover, an improvement of ocean monitoring and policing would serve to deter illicit economic activity, harmful environmental practices as well as gross human rights violations. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides the framework for the governance of the ocean. It creates obligations to protect and preserve the marine environment, while also encouraging cooperation among states. Given that IUU fishing is transboundary in nature, it is the responsibility of all states as well as international organisations to cooperate in ensuring the sustainable use of the oceans, but also in addressing the continued exploitation of labourers in the fisheries sectors.


The oceans connect people to each other, whether geographically, historically or commercially, and the rapidly accumulating challenges pose risks to the international community at different levels and across several sectors. Thus, a coordinated effort through multilateralism is necessary to address the barriers to ensuring maritime safety and security. There is an urgent need for increased maritime surveillance, enforcement, and intelligence sharing through coordinated efforts of national navies, coastguards and private maritime security agencies. Given that human trafficking, forced labour and fisheries crimes are cross-cutting (interrelated) issues, they require concerted efforts by states, international organisations and non-governmental organisations. Collaboration across several sectors at the national, sub-regional, regional and global levels is essential to combatting gross human right violations and environmentally harmful practices. Furthermore, significant considerations must be given to vulnerable communities plagued by persisting socio-economic issues and the effects of climate change. Those living and working under such conditions are easy targets for human traffickers, thus it is crucial to address these environmental and socioeconomic issues as the starting point in tackling the much larger issues. What is needed, is a three-pronged strategy, with an immediate plan of action of deterrence, an intermediate strategy of enforcement and finally a long-term strategy comprised of preventative measures to remove push factors which drive individuals into the clutches of human traffickers. This is not to say the strategy should be implemented sequentially, but rather simultaneously through a sustainable and developmental framework. 

Tshegofatso Ramachela is a certified paralegal and has an undergraduate degree in International Studies, Political Sciences and History from the University of Pretoria. She is a humanitarian, an intersectional postcolonial feminist and an aspiring international development and peace worker, who hopes to one day be a Doctoral student. Tshegofatso is a permanent member of The Art of Politics writing staff.

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