Death, Drugs, and Fish - The Shadow Industry Behind Your Seafood Special

The world's fishing fleets are rife with heinous activity delivering illegal fish, harvested by abused crews, to a store near you.
Kevin Edes | DECEMBER 12, 2023
Death, Drugs, and Fish - The Shadow Industry Behind Your Seafood Special

Kevin Edes

Maritime Security Analyst



Darkness tosses around in no direction and every direction all at once. Raw carnage sloshes on deck. A putrid stench covers everything. There’s no escape. This life is embedded in your eyes, mouth, hair and clothes.

The 60-mile long-line--full of hooks--drags onto the ship. The deck lights reflect off all the glass-eyed tuna hooked on the line. You don’t know where you are because you haven’t seen land in two weeks, but you know the GPS tracker is turned off. Someone is closely watching the radar. The long-line is still coming in after two hours. A crude wedge detaches the hook from the catch— a shark loses an eye; a dolphin’s skull is ripped open as brains seep out; an aged sea turtle loses its lower jaw. They drop at your feet--simply, “bycatch.” The shark’s fins are sawed off and the crew casually tosses these dying animals overboard.

You used to throw up. The fear, the smell, the relentless tossing in the darkness, the slaughter. But that was six years ago. At 13 years old, you answered an ad to work on a fishing boat. It was an escape from the impoverished village--a chance to make money and see the world. You haven’t been home since. You are barely permitted to step foot on land. You’ve seen your share of horrors — amputations, murders, rapes, and drugs. All for the fish. It may never end, but there is some solace in the money you are told goes to your family. You know the tuna will eventually make it to a rice bowl or plate in China, America, Japan, or anywhere but here. 

— Welcome to the world of illegal fishing —

The ocean is a vast, mostly lawless space. It has been a hub of criminal activity since humans began taking to the sea. It is no different today. The global fishing industry, necessary for food and economic security, has a dark side that thrives in the endless expanses of the world’s oceans. Thin profit margins and depleted fish stocks have pushed fleets away from their home waters into the business of illegal fishing, a conduit for further illicit activity — drug, human, and sex trafficking. 

No maritime entity is more successful in this gray zone of unmonitored ocean space. Fishing fleets rake in $36.4 billion per year for their illegal catch and $80 billion per year in illegal drug trade, while perpetuating human trafficking and forced-labor conditions.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is an existential threat to the marine environment and fishing industry. This state-sanctioned maritime theft destroys ecosystems and ravages fisheries, crushing the economic prospects for generations of local fishermen. Local maritime agencies lack enough ships and aircraft to effectively monitor and protect their exclusive economic zones. Seven nations were identified by NOAA Fisheries in a 2023 report as engaging in IUU fishing.

Japanese fishing enforcement interdicts an illegal Chinese fishing boat in 2013. Image: USNI News

Fishing fleets, isolated in remote waters, are a hotbed for traffickers seeking to exploit vulnerable people and ecosystems. Other commercial vessels (container ships, tankers, etc.) are inspected at various ports of entry, tracked by the Automatic Identification System (AIS), and operate out of large, secure commercial ports. Fishing vessels, by contrast, are often not inspected by law enforcement authorities, operate from remote locations, and “go dark” during at-sea smuggling events. These masters of the gray zone travel great distances under the pretense of legitimate fishing to offload humans and drugs (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and chemicals to produce fentanyl) to smaller craft for transfer to land.

Working conditions on these boats are essentially forced labor. People, including children, from impoverished areas are lured with the promise of substantial contracts only to be paid pennies on the dollar. More than 100,000 people die each year in this business of round-the-clock, hazardous work with no opportunity to escape

China's 6,500-vessel Distant Water Fishing Fleet, a leading abuser of people and ecosystems, was recently highlighted in the New Yorker for its at-sea crimes and infestation of global fish markets. But China is not alone in its human rights abuses. Twenty-nine countries were identified in a 2020 NOAA Fisheries report as being at risk for human trafficking in their seafood sector. 

The U.S. is not absolved. In 2016, a ‘legal’ form of human trafficking of foreign crews on board Hawaii’s fishing fleet was brought to light. Crew members, predominantly from Southeast Asia, had no visas, were unable to ever leave the fishing boats, and received well below U.S. minimum wage. This situation has yet to be resolved.

The entanglement of illegal fishing with human, drug and sex trafficking stinks. It seeps into every country, restaurant, and fish market. Remember, the smell and taste of that fish on your plate begins on that teetering, humid, and acrid fish deck where there is no escape.


Kevin Edes

Kevin is a Maritime Security Analyst for Project Myoushu at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He is a Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard with advanced degrees from the School of Global Policy and Strategy at U.C. San Diego and the U.S. Naval War College. Opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of any of the above institutions.

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