CAPE TOWN, Dec 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was after nightfall when the folded sheet of paper was slipped under the door of the Mission to Seafarers building in South Africa’s Cape Town harbour.
“We are fishermen workers of the ship Fuh Sheng 11,” stated the letter written by the mostly Indonesian crew. “We have a problem in our ship.”
The letter helped to trigger an investigation which saw the Taiwanese trawler held in port in May. Over the following weeks, the crew showed photographs and video of squalid conditions on board - which they described as “hell”.
The multi-billion-dollar seafood industry has come under scrutiny after investigations showed widespread slavery, human trafficking and violence on fishing boats and in onshore processing facilities.
Part of the problem stems from a lack of oversight on fishermen’s working conditions on the high seas, said Brandt Wagner, head of the transport and maritime unit at the International Labour Organization (ILO), a U.N. agency.
The fishermen on the Fuh Sheng told of beatings, being forced to work up to 22 hours a day, eating food with cockroaches floating in it, and spending nights itching from insect bites.
The ship, they said, was not safe: seawater seeped into the engine room, and the lifebuoys were rotten.
The letter ended up in the hands of colleagues of Dane du Plessis, who works for Biblia, a Christian charity that seeks to identify and help exploited fishermen.
“They were too scared to speak out as the boatswain was present,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates there were 4.6 million fishing vessels worldwide in 2016 - from large industrial ships to small boats without decks or motors.
Merchant ships, which carry cargo or commercial passengers, are governed by a range of international conventions that are widely implemented worldwide, said Wagner.
But when it comes to fishing vessels, “it’s a different story”, he added.
“The problem with fishing vessels is that there’s a great focus on the fish ... But there’s been less focus on the people on board the vessels,” Wagner said.
The main convention regulating crew safety and conditions on fishing vessels - the Cape Town Agreement - was adopted in 2012 by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a U.N. agency.
But it is not yet in force as it needs to be signed by 22 states that have at least 3,600 fishing vessels longer than 24 metres between them. As of October just 10 had signed, said the Pew Charitable Trusts, a non-profit.
“The international law which is most needed to make sure the fishing vessels are safe is not yet in force,” Wagner said.
Activists in Cape Town said that meant it was crucial to monitor ships when they docked in ports.
Du Plessis said exploitation of migrant fishermen amounting to modern-day slavery is “rife and rampant” on vessels at Cape Town’s harbour, just a few hundred yards from its upscale shops and luxury hotels.
“People are being abused economically, physically – they’re being taken advantage of,” said du Plessis, adding that their plight was ignored because “they’re poor, they’re uneducated”.
Cape Town, located where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet, is well placed for boats going in either direction, and for those coming from more southerly fisheries, du Plessis said.
For the past six years, du Plessis and workers from other NGOs have boarded vessels there, inspecting them and asking about wages, work conditions and life at sea.
“Almost once every eight weeks we have a case,” he said.
Recent crimes and abuses include murder, being choked as punishment for dropping a baiting line, beatings and low or unpaid wages, he said. Other fishermen said they were in debt-bondage, because captains docked their wages to pay for drinking water at sea.
Many migrant fishermen lack local legal knowledge or the language skills necessary to raise complaints, which perpetuates the problem, said Max Schmid of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a British charity.
Overfishing and other threats to the sea like climate change also play a role, he said, with unprecedented warming of oceans threatening marine life.
“There’s fewer and fewer fish, but the cost of vessels and fuel is the same or increasing,” said Schmid, whose organisation campaigned about the case of the Fuh Sheng.
The result was that some captains cut corners by abusing their workers or by fishing illegally - or both. He said nations should work together to protect “a very vulnerable segment of the workforce”.
“They’re working far from sight from people for most of the time, so anyone who has a chance to get an insight of what’s happening in a vessel needs to really seize that,” he said.
After the fishermen’s letter was passed on to authorities, the Fuh Sheng was detained under the ILO’s Work in Fishing Convention. It was a world-first.
But in mid-June, after the owner paid a fine and the vessel underwent repairs, it was allowed to leave.
Only in October, following campaigns by NGOs and the media, did Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency announce a five-month suspension of its fishing licence, among other measures.
Since the incident, the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA), which inspects vessels and interviews crew when ships arrive in port, said it had inspected five other foreign-flagged fishing vessels.
“We have not found serious abuse of fishers,” Selwyn Bailey, SAMSA’s fishing safety specialist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.
“We have noticed a marked improvement in compliance now that operators are aware of our inspections,” Bailey said.
Du Plessis and his colleagues have uncovered abuses on three more fishing vessels since May, including of two Tanzanians who said they were abused during nine months on board a Chinese vessel.
“It was humiliating,” fisherman Omari Nghahara, 29, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
In accounts confirmed by other crew, the two men were forced to drink dirty water as the Chinese captain and first mate punched and slapped them, and called them “monkeys”.
Nghahara showed photos of frostbite he contracted from working in the cold-room without gloves or protective clothing.
After hearing the accounts, du Plessis and colleagues sat down with the shipping agent and vessel-owner and secured the men $2,000 each and a flight home.
“It was a lengthy debate, a huge fight ... but we got it done,” he said.
On his daily rounds to the trawlers in port, du Plessis said he worried about fishermen on boats who were not being reached.
"I believe there's worse things happening and that we only scratch the surface. The ocean is so vast - and what happens there, none of us will know." (Reporting by Inna Lazareva; Editing by Robert Carmichael and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)