Transshipment Ban Needed to Stop Illegal Fishing and Human Trafficking


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GUEST AUTHOR: Mike Gaworeski | Environmental journalist and contributor for Mongabay | @mikeg2001

This story previously appeared on Mongabay. It appears here under a Creative Commons license.

New research concludes that a total ban on the practice of transshipment on the high seas is necessary to help stop illegal fishing and reduce the human trafficking and labor rights abuses that often accompany unlawful fishing activities.

“Transshipping enables fishing vessels to remain at sea for extended periods of time,” Washington D.C.-based oceans conservancy NGO Oceana explains. “Fishing vessels and refrigerated cargo vessels rendezvous at sea in order to transfer seafood, fuel or supplies. While this transshipping practice can be legal in many cases, it also can facilitate the laundering of illegally caught fish, especially on the high seas and in waters surrounding developing and small island nations with insufficient resources to police their waters.”

As detailed in a report released last month, Oceana found that close to 40 percent of suspected instances of transshipping occur on the high seas — areas outside of any national jurisdiction, which make up about two-thirds of Earth’s oceans. Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk, the high-seas regions of the Barents Sea, the national waters of Guinea-Bissau, and just outside the national waters of Argentina and Peru are reportedly the world’s chief transshipping hotspots.

Oceana’s report was based on an analysis of data collected by West Virginia-based environmental monitoring NGO SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch, a partnership between Google, Oceana, and SkyTruth, which documented more than 5,000 “likely” cases of illegal transshipment and over 86,000 “potential” cases between 2012 and 2016.

In a paper published in the journal Marine Policy last month, a team of researchers make the case that a global ban on the practice of transshipment on the high seas is necessary in order to curb illegal fishing and human rights abuses in the global fishing industry.

“This practice often occurs on the high seas and beyond the reach of any nation’s jurisdiction, allowing ships fishing illegally to evade most monitoring and enforcement measures, offload their cargo, and resume fishing without returning to port,” Jennifer Jacquet, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University (NYU) and a co-author of the paper, said in a statement.

Chris Ewell, the paper’s lead author, added: “More significantly, transshipment at-sea can facilitate trafficking and exploitation of workers who are trapped and abused on fishing vessels because there is simply no authority present to protect those being exploited.” Ewell was an undergraduate student at NYU at the time of the study.

Coastal waters are becoming increasingly overexploited, the researchers note in the paper, causing fishing vessels to travel further from shore in search of fish. Traveling to distant waters on the high seas is more expensive, of course, driving the fishing industry to seek government-sponsored subsidies, especially fuel subsidies, as well as cost-cutting measures like the use of forced labor and transshipments, which the industry defends on economic grounds, arguing that it improves efficiency by allowing a single cargo vessel to bring the catches of several fishing vessels to port and leads to better fuel efficiency.

Ewell and team looked at transshipment regulations adopted by 17 Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), the international bodies responsible for governing fisheries on the high seas, in order to determine how strictly regulated the practice is around the globe.

They found that while the majority of RFMOs have increasingly strengthened transshipment-at-sea regulations since the late 1990s, just five had mandated even a partial ban as of 2015, the year of study. Only one RFMO, the South East Atlantic Fisheries Organization, has adopted a total ban on transshipment.

Yet, according to Ewell and co-authors, banning the practice altogether is crucial if we’re to rein in illegal fishing, estimated to cause somewhere between $10 billion and $23.5 billion in annual global losses, and ensure the future sustainability of fisheries.

A global ban would also help cut down on the human trafficking, forced labor, and other human rights abuses that have become “unsettlingly common within the fishing industry,” Ewell and co-authors write. Transshipment helps make these human rights abuses possible because it allows fishing vessels to stay out to sea and thereby avoid shore-based regulatory and law enforcement agents.

“Workers are largely recruited by manning agencies in developing countries, where they are made false promises of compensation, asked to pay ‘agency fees’ later used as justification for indentured servitude, robbed of their documents, and sold into conditions that constitute slavery,” the researchers write. “These fishermen are drastically underpaid or unpaid, and often held captive at sea for several years as fishing vessels receive supplies of food and fuel via transshipments at-sea. Transshipments at-sea have also been linked to other forms of organized crime such as drug, weapon, and other wildlife trafficking.”

Ewel and his co-authors argue that “A total ban on transshipment at-sea on the high seas would support the ability of oversight and enforcement agencies to detect and prevent illegal fishing and also likely reduce human trafficking and forced labor on the high seas.”


  • Ewell, C., Cullis-Suzuki, S., Ediger, M., Hocevar, J., Miller, D., & Jacquet, J. (2017). Potential ecological and social benefits of a moratorium on transshipment on the high seas. Marine Policy, 81, 293-300. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2017.04.004

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