Can Tech Tame the Outlaw Ocean?

Boys on fishing platform, Indonesia

Thanks to a series of media and human rights reports, many of us are now aware that vast numbers of young men and boys are lured onto fishing boats and held in slavery at sea — sometimes for years without touching land. Attention to the dramatic extent of crimes at sea spiked a few years ago with incredible journalistic investigations by reporters at the Associated Press and The Guardian as well as by respected human rights organizations. Lately Ian Urbina of the New York Times has renewed attention to the problem with his book, The Outlaw Ocean. It’s time for a close review of what has been learned through an early round of interventions intended to end slavery at sea.

Extreme human rights abuses thrive at sea because crew are invisible to the rest of us and beyond the reach of traditional labor inspection regimes. As a development professional working on human trafficking, this challenge kept me awake at nights. How could we even see these trafficked workers, let alone intervene and end the abuses they were facing?

My colleagues converged on this issue from different vantage points. Colleagues working in ocean biodiversity were concerned with the rapid depletion of fish stock, with its implications not only for biodiversity but also global food security. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing represents a loss to economies of between $10 and $30 billion annually — and plays a major role in the rapid depletion of fish stocks worldwide. Because IUU fishing vessels inherently operate for illicit financial gain they have no scruples about using trafficked labor. Looking at the ways in which the problems were interconnected, we found unique opportunities to apply a systems approach to tackling overfishing and human trafficking together.

Advocates for better governance at sea have been frustrated by the practical and policy hurdles involved with getting eyes and ears onto boats. Yet many of us felt technology could be an important part of the approach needed to rein in crimes at sea. We believed that where human observers were scarce, surveillance technologies could contribute in a positive way. Many of those working on addressing IUU are already supporting systems to strengthen electronic catch documentation and traceability (eCDT). Could we use technology to pinpoint areas where trafficking AND illegal fishing might occur?

We found a number of promising initiatives. The Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) applied their approach mining a wide variety of data sources to develop dossiers on financial enablers of fisheries crimes. Issara Institute developed a social media tool for migrant workers, Golden Dreams, enabling them to share information about risks with one another. Another initiative, the Independent Monitoring at Sea (IM@Sea) project sought to make workers at sea visible and keep them connected with on-shore advocates through use of satellite-based, vessel-tracking technology. And as pressure on the Thai government has mounted, it has agreed to work with iRespond, a group that creates digital identities, to create electronic identities for every fisher leaving from or returning to a Thai port. The combination of these initiatives could make it possible to continuously track workers on vessels, enable them to communicate with trusted advocates before, after and during their voyages, and begin to amass a large enough data pool to begin to predict risks and enable more effective and targeted legal interventions, where needed.

This is not to say tech alone is the answer. However, there is promise in doing more to combine approaches tracking fish and people to build better data sets. While we were encouraged by the results of early initiatives, we continued to observe a siloed approach to the two problem sets, diminishing the potential impact of any new investments. This was predictable, given that many of the seed investments on both the labor and environmental sides were small and only intended to catalyze pilot approaches to the problems.

What more could we do? Technology-based systems to address labor and environmental issues in fishing share many characteristics and requirements. For example, both may rely on Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), improved connectivity at sea, documentation of fishing activities, and information on vessel ownership and licensing. More integrated development will improve overall function and cost. Where different data elements are required by these systems, creating data sharing and interoperability protocols at the outset is likely to reduce costs and improve the quality of data available to all of us.

Collaboration with strong, trusted worker organizations is essential to ensuring that tech tools and enhanced data collection work. Technology can help reduce fisher isolation at sea, improve documentation of working conditions on fishing vessels, confirm appropriate wages are paid, and enable workers to act as eyes and ears to verify catch levels, but only if these systems link fishers with trusted organizations that are able to represent and protect victims and achieve remediation when issues are identified.

But remember, the best tech won’t fix political will. Governments must establish, incentivize, implement, and enforce changes in norms and standards that address illegal fishing and labor protection. To convince more governments to act, we need other stakeholders to come together. Industry has been a weak link, and lack of data has not been the problem. As Oxfam notes, the root problem is industry’s intense downward pressure on price. This drives overfishing, illegal fishing and labor exploitation.

Correcting for the resource-depleting price pressures requires much greater political will, but data can play a role. As fish stocks become depleted, scarcity will inevitably drive up price. Global buyers, and ultimately consumers, must pay the price for fairly and sustainably caught fish. Rather than expecting individual companies, or even industry, to determine what a fair price is, stakeholders might collaborate with international bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and through it, invest in industry-wide forecasting on different stocks of catch. Affected governments and industry stakeholders could agree in principle on fair market value of fish stock.

In the right enabling environment, technology can be the tool we need to better harness and use data to drive business practices that actually capture the true cost of fish AND labor, make invisible workers visible, and tame the outlaw ocean.

*A longer version of this piece appeared in Journal of Modern Slavery Vol 5 Issue 1 2020

Expert on labor, gender equity and workplace social inclusion, labor migration and trafficking. Interested in the intersection of tech and social movements.