Vessels engaged in illegal, unregulated fishing also prey on human...

Vessels engaged in illegal, unregulated fishing also prey on human beings, trapping workers on boats as slaves. Credit: iStock

If most people think human trafficking is all about sexual exploitation, the mistake is understandable. After all, last year's State Department report on trafficking noted that 85 percent of prosecutions for this crime worldwide -- and more than 89 percent of convictions -- were for sex-related offenses. But, as an International Labor Organization study found in 2012, more than three-quarters of trafficking victims in the global private economy are exploited for labor. And the world is just starting to learn how much of this is tied to fishing.

Yes, fishing.

Not some reality TV show about stouthearted seafarers, but the grim world of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Vessels engaged in illegal, unregulated fishing not only steal precious food resources off the coasts of poor countries, engage in drug smuggling and damage marine ecosystems -- they also prey on human beings, trapping workers on boats as slaves.

For purposes of indictment, it is hard to beat a conclusion in a 2011 paper by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime: "Perhaps the most disturbing finding of the study was the severity of the abuse of fishers trafficked for the purpose of forced labor on board fishing vessels. These practices can only be described as cruel and inhumane treatment in the extreme. ... A particularly disturbing facet of this form of exploitation is the frequency of trafficking in children in the fishing industry." As it happens, when it comes to IUU fishing, Congress has an opportunity to make a real difference in preventing this harsh treatment of workers who had no idea how they would be trapped at sea. And it need not cost any money. All legislators have to do is ratify and implement an international agreement.

Even considered only as an economic and environmental problem, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is serious business. A 2009 peer-reviewed scientific study estimated that the worldwide annual value of losses from illegal and unreported fishing could reach $23.5 billion. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that by "adversely impacting fisheries, marine ecosystems, food security and coastal communities around the world, IUU fishing undermines domestic and international conservation and management efforts."

Yet that is far from the whole story. Fishing boats are much less carefully regulated than other ships: Because fishing vessels are not required to have identification numbers, enormous ships are known to change names and flags of registration to stay a step ahead of authorities. Interpol issued two worldwide alerts last year for vessels that had done just that. Fishing vessels are not required to carry satellite transponders, which makes it easy for them to evade surveillance. Moreover, enforcement actions have traditionally been left to the states where the boats are registered, or "flagged," rather than the "port" states where they bring their cargo to shore, where they would be more likely to be caught doing something illegal.

The combination of lax enforcement and the ability to escape detection has proved irresistible to criminals, who use IUU fishing as cover for other illicit activities. For instance, a State Department report noted that drug smuggling is often aided by fishing boats moving drugs through the Bahamas, Jamaica and Florida.

But the human-trafficking dimension is worse, amounting to a form of modern slavery that traps laborers on the high seas, far from the reach of law enforcement. Fortunately, this is an issue that members of both political parties have shown they care about.

In 2000, with bipartisan support, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which defines trafficking for purposes of labor or sex and provides critical elements for the protection of victims, as well as prevention and prosecution. The law was reauthorized last March, again with broad bipartisan endorsement.

Meanwhile, in 2009 U.S. officials signed the Port States Measures Agreement. This pact, which the Senate has yet to ratify, could address IUU fishing by strengthening port inspection procedures. Only nine countries have ratified the agreement, and the United States could provide forceful leadership. Congress could also pass the Pirate Fishing Elimination Act, which was backed by members of both parties when it was first introduced in 2011 and which would implement the international agreement.

Steps should be taken toward ending every form of human trafficking. "Trafficking" may sound like it refers to crossing borders, but it means turning people into commodities, robbed of autonomy. Stopping illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing will do far more than save marine ecosystems; it will save human beings.

Mark P. Lagon is a professor at Georgetown University and an adjunct senior fellow for human rights at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was U.S. ambassador at large for human trafficking from 2007 to 2009.

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