Human Rights at Sea congratulates The Outlaw Ocean Project for another round of newly released in-depth investigative reporting into abuses both at sea and on land. Today, we review the Project’s latest exposé work and the common links with ongoing seafood certification reviews. 

An extensive four-year investigation conducted by US-based The Outlaw Ocean Project has again exposed harrowing details of human rights abuses, forced labour, and tragic incidents of abuse aboard Chinese-flagged fishing vessels. This impactful reporting publicly unveils the grim reality of abuses in the global seafood industry, where crew members face exploitation, deprivation, dangerous conditions and worse, death. 

China's Fishing Fleet Dominance and Concerns

China's distant water fishing fleet, consisting of approximately 6,500 ships, has emerged as a dominant force in the global seafood industry. However, concerns have been raised in the report regarding the fleet's size, behaviour, and the potential for human rights violations, environmental crimes, and wider geopolitical implications.

Abuses Aboard 

Part of the investigation reveals shocking details concerning over 100 Chinese-flagged squid ships implicated in human rights abuses. These include debt bondage, wage withholding, excessive working hours, crew abandonment, forced labour, and physical abuse. Disturbingly, seafood from these vessels has reached supermarkets in more than 36 countries, including prominent European importers.

A Deadly Profession

Fishing already holds the grim distinction of being the world's most dangerous profession, with an estimated 100,000 fatalities annually, as recently reported by The Fish Safety Foundation.

However, the exact breakdown of these deaths, whether due to violence, deprivation, or avoidable accidents, remains unclear.

The investigation highlights the dangerous nature of squid fishing and reports that between 2013 and 2022, 43 crew members lost their lives on 37 Chinese-flagged squid jiggers. 

Forced Labour Epidemic

The investigation identifies cases of forced labour on 29 squid fishing vessels, with 59 additional ships at risk of similar exploitation. These cases involve wage theft, physical violence, confiscation of passports, and the denial of food and water.

According to the report, foreign workers, primarily from Indonesia, have been prime targets of exploitation on Chinese-flagged fishing vessels. They are allegedly hired through employment agencies that impose hidden costs and recruitment fees, leading to debt bondage. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the investigation documents that China shifted its focus away from foreign labour, targeting vulnerable rural and inland workers, as well as individuals dealing with divorce, debt, or desperation. 

A Hidden Danger

According to satellite data obtained by The Outlaw Ocean Project, Chinese-flagged fishing vessels lead to the extensive use of transhipment. This practice keeps crew members at sea for extended and treacherous stretches, facilitates rogue vessels in evading oversight, and obscures the origins of seafood, making it challenging for companies to trace the source of their products.

Prolonged voyages and harsh working conditions also exacerbate the risk of diseases onboard, including beriberi – a deficiency of vitamin B1. Symptoms of the illness include increased heart rate, shortness of breath, swelling, and confusion. 

The investigation records 24 workers on 14 Chinese fishing vessels who suffered from beriberi-related symptoms between 2013 and 2021, with at least 15 fatalities. The true number of deaths is believed to be higher due to underreporting of at-sea deaths. 

Complex Seafood Supply Chains

Seafood supply chains are complex and characterised by significant gaps in traceability and transparency, allowing illegal practices to persist. Both governments and companies have grappled with the regulation of seafood supply chains, and certifications often fail to ensure ethical practices, leading to products tainted by human rights abuses and environmental crimes finding their way into the global seafood market. The Project further highlights the integral issue of the credibility of voluntary social auditing and opens the door to the $ multi-million seafood certification industry which relies on corporate assurance providers.

Seafood Certifications Under Scrutiny

In a separate but complimentary initiative, Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) conducted a three-year desk-level investigation of international certifications, standards, and ratings in the fisheries and aquaculture sectors. 

In February this year, after three years of desk-level investigation, Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) published "Does it Do What it Says on the Tin?" - an independent review of voluntary international certifications, standards and ratings across the fisheries and aquaculture sectors. 

This report was supported by NGO Freedom United and is part of the wider work our charity has been undertaking in reviewing the entire maritime supply chain. 

HRAS took the position that with the significant number of existing and emerging certifications in the wider seafood sector globally and consumers' reliance on them, there is an urgent need to assess them against international legal instruments.

Consumers want to know the seafood they consume is not harming the environment and that the workers involved in the supply chain are not being mistreated.

As a result, we launched a dedicated website to make public the first set of data results in March 2023. 

We continue to engage with certifiers, and an updated report will be released imminently. 

Any separate allegations concerning the conduct and awards of certifications, standards or rating schemes currently covered by HRAS will be investigated and considered as necessary.

About: The Outlaw Ocean Project is a non-profit journalism organisation based in Washington D.C. that produces investigative stories about human rights, labour, and environmental concerns on the two thirds of the planet covered by water.

Contact: If you have any questions, please write to us at

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Photo Credit: Fábio Nascimento.