Berkley student, Kyralai Duppel, has completed a pertinent thesis covering a topical work focus: "The Intersection of Labor Abuses and Environmental Degradation in the Global Fishing Industry" which has been reviewed by Human Rights at Sea for authorised publication and includes a personal insight from the author.


The global fishing industry has grown to a scale that is reliant on damaging the environment and violating human rights using forced labor and slavery in order to meet seafood demand. Both of these issues have been separately addressed in policy at the international, national, and corporate levels. NGOs and the media have also contributed to bringing more attention to these subjects recently. However, the combination of these efforts has not made a great enough change to prevent human rights abuses or environmental degradation within the global fishing industry to a sufficient scale. Upon analysis of current efforts and solution routes at the international, national, and corporate levels, the best mitigation strategies for both labor abuses and environmental degradation in the global fishing industry were identified. A treaty limiting subsidies allowing fishing on the high seas, the acceptance of the ILO 2007Work in Fishing Convention, and the expansion of the Maritime Labour Convention to cover the fishing industry were found to be the most promising first step solutions as well as support for socially and environmentally ethical national fisheries management through ecosystem-based management and improved enforcement of stricter environmental and labor laws. Acceptance of such legislation would allow existing human rights, labor, and environmental laws to be better enforced. Such international action would trickle down into national and regional legislation. Corporations are also recommended to improve due diligence practices and supply chain transparency. Ecosystem based fisheries management within national EEZ fisheries will allow ecosystem rebound, increasing food security while providing other local economic opportunities as well as preventing labor abuses due to the closer proximity to national laws and authorities.

 Author's perspective

 "What if you could trace the supply chain of your canned tuna, your cat’s food, or the fertilizer in your garden? If it was possible to do so, you might find one or more of those products is tainted with slavery or poor environmental practices. During my final year at the University of California, Berkeley, while completing my undergraduate honors thesis titled "The Intersection of Labor Abuses and Environmental Degradation in the Global Fishing Industry: Extent and Potential Solutions", I was able to explore a topic that had long been a source of curiosity to me: Human rights at sea. 

"In previous courses, human rights at sea had been briefly mentioned as problematic and non-existent. Throughout my research, which seeks to connect environmental degradation and human rights violations within the fishing industry, I uncovered why human rights are seemingly non-existent at sea, especially labor abuses on the high seas and particularly within the fishing industry. 

"Human rights at sea exist. They are extensively supported by multiple bodies of international human rights law, including a universal ban on slavery and migrant protections. It is not the legitimacy of human rights at sea that causes them to fail; it is the lack of enforcement throughout the recruitment, labor, and return to port that a deckhand experiences. Abuse can begin on land with deceptive manning agencies or kidnapping. At sea, working conditions have been reported as unsafe and severe punishments have been documented. Upon return to port, some workers are never paid their wages, and others are abandoned on islands. 

"Through interviews with experts and reading journalism, I was able to link human rights abuses and environmental violations at sea. The sea is isolated, making it difficult to monitor and enforcement of laws. The high seas add another layer of complexity by increasing isolation and creating jurisdictional confusion, as well as allowing loopholes in standards through flags of convenience, permitting ships to register in countries with lax environmental and human rights laws. Such conditions create an ideal environment to break the law in general, making it easier for fishing vessels to participate in both human rights and environmental violations in order to meet the growing seafood demand. 

"The solutions that I found to have the most potential begin internationally. A treaty must bind countries to cut subsidies toward fishing on the high seas. Without such subsidies, many high seas fisheries would not be profitable or barely profitable. The isolation of high seas fishing is integral to the conditions that perpetuate human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Money should be diverted from these subsidies towards national fisheries in order to create better management to boost ecosystem health, increase wages, and create more economic opportunities that healthy coastal ecosystems provide. 

"The ILO Work in Fishing Convention should be widely adopted, and the Maritime Labour Convention should be expanded to include the fishing industry, ensuring protections for deckhands from recruitment to return to port. These international actions can trickle down into national and corporate policies, which I detail in my thesis. Consumers also play a significant role. The harmful aspects of industrial seafood are driven by the growing demand for cheap imported seafood. Therefore, consumers should strive to purchase locally caught seafood from a small scale or artisanal fishers and consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood for environmentally friendly purchasing choices."

Human Rights at Sea CEO David Hammond commented: "We are pleased to have had the requisite permission to reproduce this well-thought through undergraduate thesis in support of the next generation of thinkers and prospective leaders in the field of human and labour rights, especially noting the importance of encouraging the global debate and international narrative on all matters relating to human rights at sea."

Download and read the full thesis

Kyralai Duppel holds a BS in Society and Environment from the University of California, Berkeley, USA.