When a fishing vessel can pass off its catch to another boat, it creates a host of ethical and environmental problems.
Fish is enjoying a renaissance these days. It is embraced by growing numbers of Americans as a wholesome dietary choice, packed with desirable omega-3s, and as an ethical source of animal protein (at least, relative to farmed mammals with more developed neocortexes).
Unfortunately, though, fish doesn’t have as clean a backstory as many would like to think. The seafood industry is dark and dirty, fraught with corruption that is only just beginning to be revealed by persistent groups like Greenpeace, Global Fishing Watch, Oceana, and satellite imaging non-profit group called SkyTruth.
In a fascinating article for The New Food Economy, Katarina Zimmer explores one particularly distressing aspect of seafood fraud – transshipment. This is the act of transferring fish from smaller vessels to a large ‘mothership’ (or ‘factory’ ship), usually on the high seas far from shore. While transshipment is technically legal for many ships, it is not closely monitored and has many loopholes through which illegal and destructive practices can develop.
What is wrong with transshipment?
As Zimmer explains, the practice allows the deepest parts of the ocean to be plundered because distance from shore refrigeration ceases to be an issue. One GPS tracker revealed a Korean vessel that stayed out at sea for a year and four months. (Greenpeace tells of an appalling two-year record.)
“As coastal countries have drained the fish stocks close to their shores, it has become increasingly lucrative to send fishing fleets into remote waters of the globe. To keep them fishing there for as long as possible, large carrier ships are sent out to resupply them with fuel and provisions and to collect the catch, which is frozen on board and brought back to port.”
This leads to another major problem – horrific human rights abuses. When a ship does not have to dock for months on end, it can lead to cruel and inhumane confinement for countless poverty-stricken, illiterate workers who were forced into signing contracts that they did not understand. (This was revealed in an influential research piece done by the Associated Press in 2015.) As written in TreeHugger about the Thai shrimp industry, “There are reports of 20-hour shifts, beatings, torture, execution-style killings, and enforced methamphetamines to keep going.”
Transshipment allows for illegally caught fish to slip into the supply chain undetected. Part of this problem stems from the fact that records are still mostly paper-based, signed off by captains who could be lying about the amount of fish they’re catching and passing on.
“Of the 300,000 tons of tuna estimated to be illegally harvested in the Pacific annually, over 95 percent is thought to be taken by licensed—not unlicensed—ships. That’s enough to fully load a thousand Boeing 747s each year.”
The organization that supposedly oversees transshipments is called the West and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), made up of 33 countries and territories. It fails to provide adequate oversight, however, because every decision must be made by consensus and not all WCPFC member countries are interested in cooperating. Japan, for example, vetoed a proposal last year to improve port inspections.
Formal observers are supposed to oversee transshipments on carrier vessels, but they’re only required on 5 percent of boats. The job is dangerous, too, because of the potential for bribery and even violence; one American observer, Keith Davis, disappeared mysteriously in 2015).
Possible solutions include digitizing records and installing mandatory on-board cameras to monitor transshipments. Smaller ships should be required to have the same GPS transponders that bigger ones do. Pressure from activist groups like Greenpeace must continue, as it has seen great success with Thai Union’s recent agreement to stop transshipments altogether. Other groups, like Pew Charitable Trust, want all transshipments to be banned until the WCPFC is able to regulate it appropriately.
In the meantime, as shoppers and seafood eaters, it is important to avoid anything caught with a long-line, since these ships, bizarrely, are not subject to the same regulations as those that use purse-seine catching techniques. This includes “canned albacore, as well as most fish we find at the wet counter, like ‘sashimi-grade’ bigeye, yellowfin and Bluefin.” Graham Forbes of Greenpeace adds:
“If you’re buying albacore off Bumble Bee or Starkist, it’s likely that it was transshipped at sea and there wasn’t an adequate oversight there and you can’t be confident that they are good products.”
Valuable, too, are seafood activist Paul Greenberg's 3 easy rules for eating seafood: (1) eat American, (2) eat a greater variety than we currently do, and (3) eat mostly farmed filter feeders.
You can take a look at Zimmer’s entire piece and read Greenpeace's best tuna guide here. Alternatively, check out my argument for why we shouldn't even be eating tuna at all.