Fishers are exploited by criminals, including the drugs trade, and coerced into other illegal practices, such as laundering of money and marketing of stolen fish.The dangerous nature of their work combined with long periods at sea often brings isolation and depression. All too often, they face violence and death, especially if they stand up for their rights. Desperation among abused fishers has been known to lead to mutiny or even murder.
Moreover, it is fishers who are paying the price for the growing economic and environmental pressures in today’s fishing industry. Over the past three decades liberalization, unfair competition and inadequate regulation have led to a squeeze on the wages and working conditions of fishers.
Given that the cost of vessels, technology and insurance continues to rise, the drive to achieve economies has focused on labour. Especially in deep-sea fishing, large conglomerates recruit fishers from some of the poorest countries in the world, which has led to the growth of a migrant workforce often earning low wages with vague or non-existent contracts.
Environmental factors also come into play. Overcapacity of fishing fleets, destructive fishing practices and environmental degradation have depleted fish stocks, in turn increasing economic pressure on the industry at a time when consumer demand for fish is growing. Again, this has accelerated the race to the bottom in wages and conditions for fishers.
The expansion of fish farming has created additional pressures.To be sure, it has helped to meet burgeoning consumer demand for fish by increasing the availability of a small number of mostly high-value species. However, 1 kilogram of farmed fish requires 5 kilograms of fishmeal, typically small fish that are caught industrially.This has impact on ecological systems and raises demand for industrial fishing.
Meanwhile, small fishing communities, especially in developing countries, are struggling to cope with competition from large fishing vessels and those fishing illegally in local waters. Scarcity of fish and stricter regulation in European, North American and Asian waters has led fleets from developed countries to head further from home, with the coast off Africa a prime destination.
The production chain that starts with fishers and ends with retailers – and ultimately on our plates – includes processing plants often located in countries with low wage costs.Whereas in the past catches were unloaded in the ports nearest to fishing grounds, proximity is no longer the determining factor. Fishing vessels, ports and processors are now connected in a chain determined by least cost and highest added value for each link in the chain. Due to cheap transport and relative labour costs, this chain can seem nonsensical, as when Atlantic prawns are frozen, air freighted to Asia, peeled by hand and then air freighted back to Europe for sale.