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A floating hospital conceals labor abuses in the distant-water squid fleet

The Chinese-flagged squid vessel ZHE PU YUAN 98 has operated as a floating hospital in the Southeast Pacific Ocean since 2021, providing medical assistance to injured and sick crew members from other fishing vessels. It only entered Peruvian ports when the fishermen on board were in critical condition and required urgent treatment. This floating hospital has been operating without regulations for the past three years during which around 37 crew members in severe condition and one deceased crew member were disembarked in the Peruvian port of Callao.

Eloy Aroni, Maritime consultant and distant water fisheries expert.

The Zhe Pu Yuan 98 is a fishing vessel renovated into a medical ship to treat crew suffering injuries or illness while working on the high seas. 9 July 2022. Credits: The Outlaw Ocean Project / Ben Blankenship

The 12th meeting of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO) head in Manta, Ecuador, concluded with the joint submission of two unprecedented proposals to address the growing number of human rights abuses within distant-water squid fleets, primarily composed of Chinese vessels. The unanimous approval of these proposals by all Estates represents the first step towards establishing minimum standards for regulating crew labor conditions in the squid fishery sector.

China is the leading country catching the giant squid (Dosidicus gigas) in the SPRFMO convention area. Over the past decade, the Chinese squid fleet has doubled its annual catch, reaching an all-time high of about half a million tons in 2022. This increase was driven by the operation of 462 active vessels,  which accommodated a total of about 12,000 crew, averaging approximately 25 per vessel.

The faster growth in China's distant-water fishing fleet is due to fuel subsidies and transshipment operations on the high seas, which eliminate the necessity for fishing vessels to return to Chinese ports. These operations encourage fishing vessels to continue fishing for squid for extended periods of up to three years without returning to port. Unfortunately, this operating model has led to increased human rights violations against crew members. The problem is aggravated by the enormous difficulty of effectively monitoring and controlling these operations on the high seas.

Squid with links to forced labor

Since 2019, several organizations, such as Greenpeace, C4ADS, and Financial Transparency Coalition, have been raising concerns about a rise in incidents related to wage withholding, excessive work hours, restriction of movement, physical violence, intimidation and threats, as well as insufficient food and water on Chinese squid vessels. These issues are all considered risk indicators of forced labor according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has long been an issue in distant-water squid fleets. Recent reports indicate that forced labor is also widespread in their fishing operations. Unfortunately, monitoring open waters has been an enormous challenge, which is why this problem has gone unnoticed for a long time.

The global seafood supply chain is longer, more opaque, and more tangled than most other product types. It has only received steady attention in the last decade. This is partially because much of the squid is processed through China, where it's tough for journalists to operate. The level of traceability for this product line and the confidence that consumers can eat seafood that is not tainted by forced labor or illegal fishing is limited so it's been very difficult to trace these supply chains,” said Ian Urbina, Executive Editor of The Outlaw Ocean Project

Crew members aboard an industrial squid vessel while waiting for the transshipment operation to start. Credit:© Simon Ager

Human rights abuses in the southeast Pacific Ocean have been confirmed through patrols carried out by the United States Coast Guard and other independent organizations. These patrols brought press teams from the  Associated Press (AP) and the Outlaw Ocean Project on board, who documented abusive working and living conditions aboard Chinese vessels. A crew member from vessel ZHEN FA 7 described the situation, stating, "It's like we're in a cage."

These testimonies suggest that crew members lose all their human rights upon stepping onto these vessels, becoming completely dependent on the captain. Through intimidation and threats, the captain prioritizes squid fishing over the safety and well-being of the crew.

This power imbalance between the captain and crew members often results in accidents or illnesses going untreated,  becoming leading causes of death for crews on the high seas. It appears that the rule on the high seas is to exploit fishermen until they are on the brink of death, at which point the captain may reluctantly head towards a nearby port, typically to the coast of Peru. But what happens when the fleet refuses to comply with the Peruvian port regulations?

In Peru, foreign squid vessels have been required to install a national vessel monitoring system (VMS) device since 2020 to use shipyard services. However, they failed to comply with this requirement until now. Instead, the shipowners started experimenting with operating the squid fleet on high seas without entering coastal ports. This experiment led to the transformation of the fishing vessel ZHE PU YUAN 98 into a floating hospital.

In July 2022, the Outlaw Ocean Project cameras confirmed the presence of a floating hospital operating alongside the squid fleet. The squid vessel ZHE PU YUAN 98 has been receiving injured or sick crew members from other vessels to be treated on board, and only the most severe cases were transferred to Peru. This coincided with a significant increase in the number of crew members arriving in critical health conditions at Peruvian ports, with 37 injured or sick individuals and one deceased person in the last three years.

ZHE PU YUAN 98: A fishing vessel or a floating hospital?

First voyage: Aug 2017 to July 2020 (1,055 days)

China has the world's largest distant-water fleet (DWF), with approximately 2,550 vessels with a combined capture capacity of about 2.3 million tons per year, primarily squid. The Zhoushan port serves as the central hub for all fishing operations and is the primary destination for squid caught in the Southeast Pacific.

Strategically located in the heart of the East China Sea, the Zhoushan port opened its doors to the Chinese vessel ZHE PU YUAN 98 on its first journey in August 2017, marking the beginning of its fishing operations in the high seas of Peru. The vessel remained there for almost three years, fishing for squid with a crew of 25 people. During its first voyage, it only visited the port of Callao in Peru once, returning to China in July 2020.

While transshipment operations and continuous tanker refueling in open seas allow fishing vessels to operate for extended periods, certain essential tasks, such as engine or hull maintenance and treating severely wounded or sick crew members, cannot be carried out in open waters. These activities demand mandatory entry into a port.

Second voyage: March 2021 to May 2023 (779 days)

After completing its first voyage and undergoing maintenance at Zhoushan shipyard for the remainder of 2020, the ZHE PU YUAN 98 embarked on another journey to the South Pacific on March 13, 2021. According to reports from Zhejiang province media, the vessel was transformed from a fishing ship to a comprehensive fishery support ship.

The ship was modified to provide medical assistance to fishermen who operate in the South Pacific. A small operation room was established, and a doctor was brought on board to attend to the sick or injured crew members. This was the first public announcement of a floating hospital joining the rest of China's distant water fleet.

It's easy to imagine the conditions on board the ZHE PU YUAN 98, fishermen working on deck catching squid while hearing the cries of pain from their fellow crew members who are being treated in the cabin for different illnesses, injuries or accidents. These crew members were transferred from other ships, where they were denied the essential human right to receive treatment on land. 

It is impossible for a single doctor to care for the nearly 12,000 crew members of the squid fleet. During the second voyage, the ship had to make up to ten emergency port entries to the Callao port in Peru and disembarked about 13 fishermen who were in critical condition. In some extreme cases, crew members arrived expelling blood from their mouths, as recorded in the port inspection document.

Why does the distant-water squid fleet choose to have a floating hospital instead of taking its injured or sick crew members to a nearby port? The answer lies in their voracious ambition to continue fishing for squid at all costs, which unfortunately puts the crew's safety and well-being at risk. 

Moreover, Peru has recently enforced a new regulation that requires the national VMS to be operational and broadcast six months before the entry into port. This rule has not been well-received by the squid fleet, which prefers to remain hidden in the shadows and now behind this floating hospital, sending its sick to this ship and thus avoiding complying with Peru's port regulations.

There is no precedent for a hospital-type ship operating in the SPRFMO convention area; even worse,  it lacks a regulatory framework establishing its correct operation in the squid fishery. An unregulated system can allow illegal ships to exploit the situation by using the floating hospital to evade port inspections. The ZHE PU YUAN 98 has been authorized to operate as a fishing vessel but not to function as a floating hospital. 

SPRFMO Port Inspection report (Annex 3) of the Chinese squid vessel ZHE PU YUAN 98, registered by a Peruvian inspector on October 29, 2022. Source: Ministry of Production (PRODUCE)
"The presence of this medical ship is likely beneficial for the workers, as medical personnel are nearby. However, it may also enable the fleet to avoid taking crews to land due to cost-saving or political motivations. Additionally, it allows the ships to stay at sea much longer, increasing the likelihood of mental and physical health hardships for the workers on the vessels," said Ian Urbina, Executive Editor of The Outlaw Ocean Project

Third voyage: July 2023 to present (298 days)

​​The ZHE PU YUAN 98 was even equipped with videoconferencing capabilities to allow for consultations with doctors in China. However, it was not the first floating hospital. In 2021, according to testimonies recorded by journalist Ian Urbina, ZHE PU YUAN 98 replaced the PU YUAN 801 in treating crew members. Both vessels belong to the company Zhoushan Putuo Ocean Fishery Co., Ltd, which owns a fleet of 25 squid vessels.

The PU YUAN 801 Chinese vessel, also operating as a floating hospital in the Southeast Pacific Ocean between 2016 and 2020. After 2021, the ship stopped operating in Peru’s high seas and began operations only around Japan's high seas. Source: The North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC)

​​Based on the testimonies, the PU YUAN 801 provided medical treatment to nearly 300 crew members and also escorted more than 20 critically ill crew members to the port of Peru during its operations in the Southeast Pacific. This aligns with the 34 recorded entries to Peruvian ports between 2016 and 2020. Currently, the ship is operating within the North Pacific Fisheries Commission (NPFC) convention area.

This evidence confirms the presence of a floating hospital alongside the distant-water squid fleet, operating without any regulations or appropriate protocols. Now, fishermen who experience health problems are transferred to the ZHE PU YUAN 98 for treatment, even when they plead to be taken ashore or returned home.

Since its third voyage on July 18, 2023, the ZHE PU YUAN 98 has already docked at Callao three times to disembark sick or injured crew members. However, there is no information available about these crew members, including their names, nationalities, or the ship they belong to. This is due to the port inspection format of the SPRFMO, which does not require the collection of such information, making it impossible to trace them once they disembark.

On the high seas, a meeting between a carrier and a fishing vessel to transship the catch is expected, but encounters between two fishing vessels are not typical. It is now evident that these ship-to-ship encounters are intended to transfer workers.

The tracking data of the ZHE PU YUAN 98  reveals four encounters with vessels of the PU YUAN fleet, each lasting less than two hours. Sometimes, it can be challenging for two fishing boats to remain stable during a rendezvous. Therefore, a system of pulleys and ropes is required to facilitate the transfer of workers from one boat to another.

Who is in charge of making sure fishermen on the high seas have respectable working conditions?

Crew member transferred from ship to ship using an artisanal system of zip lines. Source: Jiebriel83/The Outlaw Ocean Project

The New York Agreement (1995) established a framework for states to collaborate through Regional Fisheries Organizations (RFOs). Together with the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (FAO) and the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA), it enabled the implementation of a series of measures to address illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in both high-seas fishing areas and coastal ports. 

However, labor conditions on the high seas were neglected for an extended period due to a lack of information. Now, the scale of forced labor in various high-seas fisheries is being mapped every year across the oceans, revealing dramatic labor abuses that we cannot ignore.

Apparently, distant water fleets have been using forced labor since fishing operations on the high seas began. Due to the challenges associated with regulating crew conditions and controlling open waters, fishermen on the high seas often find themselves vulnerable and unprotected. Regional Fisheries Organizations (RFOs) must take responsibility and assume a leading role in establishing regulations to ensure healthy and fair working and living conditions for crew members.

In the case of the squid fishery, the SPRFMO's measures must extend beyond only "encouraging" the member states to establish measures to ensure decent living and working conditions on board their ships. Similarly, coastal States that receive foreign fishing ships, such as Peru, must extend their powers in port inspection.

In that sense, Artisonal would like to provide a set of recommendations for discussion within the new working group on labor standards established during the last SPRFMO meeting:

  • It is important to determine if a fishing vessel authorized to catch squid can also be used as a floating hospital and address the legal loophole with a proper legal framework.

  • It is recommended to consider setting a maximum operating time at sea for squid vessels. It is inhumane for some vessels to operate for nearly three years without entering any coastal port.  

  • It is crucial to modify SPRFMO's port inspection format to include a section for recording the data of crew members disembarked in ports. This information will be useful in ensuring crew members' traceability, fighting against cases of forced labor, and enhancing transparency in the squid fishery.

In the meantime, it is suggested that the Peruvian state consider ratifying the "Work in Fishing Convention" of the International Labor Organization (C188). This step would enhance the state's legal and punitive powers against cases of forced labor on foreign squid vessels arriving at Peruvian ports.

"In the distant-water squid fishing industry, holding those profiting from illegal fishing and human rights abuses accountable is essential. Additionally, shedding light on the financial and logistical support that enables fishing vessels to operate far from their home ports is imperative for a thorough understanding of the issue," said Samuel McGovern, IUU Portfolio Manager of C4ADS.

Artisonal has been closely monitoring the distant-water squid fleet in the southeast Pacific Ocean in the last few years. Now, in partnership with C4ADS, we are working toward a better understanding of the various actors involved in controlling the fleet, ranging from maritime agents to beneficial ownership. It is now clear that sustainable squid management must not only focus on preventing illegal fishing but also ensure that the squid reaching our table is not the product of forced labor.

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