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How to get away with murder on the high seas

Crimes like this don’t happen very often in the country. A 10 minutes of slow-motion slaughter captured by a mobile phone camera shows a group of unarmed men at sea, swinging in the water, shot and killed one by one, then the perpetrators pose for celebratory selfies. The only thing more shocking than the images was the government’s inaction that followed.

The case demonstrates the challenge of prosecuting crimes on the high seas and why offshore violence often goes with impunity. At least four ships were on the scene that day, but no law required any of the dozen witnesses to report the murders—and none did. Authorities only learned of the killings when the video surfaced on a mobile phone left in a taxi in Fiji in 2014.

It is still unclear who the victims were and why they were shot. An unknown number of similar murders take place each year – sailors on the ship videotaped later said they had witnessed a similar massacre a week earlier.

The number of violent homicides – and deaths at sea in general – remains extremely difficult to estimate. The typical estimate is about 32,000 casualties per year, making commercial fishing one of the most dangerous professions in the world. The new estimate is more than 100,000 fatalities per year — more than 300 per day — according to research from the FISH Safety Foundation and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Reasons for this significant loss of life include the lack of a comprehensive safety legislative framework and coordinated approaches to promote maritime safety in the fisheries sector,” a September report according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But the United Nations, which tracks fatalities by occupation, does not specify how many of these deaths are the result of preventable accidents, neglect or violence.

Brutality in distant fishing fleets – and the connection to forced labor on these vessels – has been an open secret for some time. For example, a report released in May by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab found that migrant workers on British fishing vessels were systematically overworked and underpaid, with more than a third of workers saying they had experienced severe physical violence.

In 2020, a team of researchers used satellite data from about 16,000 fishing vessels to estimate that up to 100,000 people — a quarter of those who sailed on those vessels — were at high risk of forced labor.

The Environmental Justice Foundation interviewed 116 Indonesian crew members who worked on fishing vessels from China, which has the world’s largest long-distance fishing fleet. Comfortably more than half had seen or experienced physical violence, the organization found.

Addressing such violence and other brutal conditions in commercial fishing is difficult in large part because so little data is recorded or provided to the public. That research deficit is a major impediment to regulating the industry.

The case of the murders caught on cell phone was unusual in that the perpetrator and ship were eventually identified. Trygg Mat Tracking, a Norwegian maritime crime investigation company, determined that the vessel was the Taiwanese-flagged Ping Shin 101 by comparing video footage to images in a maritime database. Former sailors on the Ping Shin were found through posts on Facebook and other social media platforms where they discussed their time on board. Interviews with these former sailors, some of whom said they witnessed the murders captured in the video, revealed the captain’s name and details of the murders.

Taiwanese officials, who were given the names of the men and ships in 2015 and 2016, said the victims appeared to be part of a botched pirate attack. However, maritime security analysts noted that the allegation of piracy has been used to justify violence for a range of crimes, real and false. The victims, they said, may have been crewmen who rebelled, thieves caught stealing, or simply rival fishermen.

After several years of public and journalistic pressure, the Taiwanese government issued an arrest warrant for Wang Feng Yu, the captain of the Ping Shin 101, who ordered the killings. In 2021, he was found guilty and sentenced to 26 years in prison, although a court reduced that to 13 years in June this year.

Such killings will go unchecked and unpunished without better detection of violence at sea, more transparency of flag registrations and fishing companies, and more efforts by governments to prosecute the perpetrators. And that matters, because what happens at sea affects everyone. By some estimates, more than 90 percent of world trade is transported by sea, and seafood is an important source of protein for much of the world.

What can be done? Lawyers, law enforcement and investigators suggest four steps.

First, human rights researchers suggest that shipowners and crews should be legally required to report crimes at sea. The resulting data should not be kept private by insurance companies or ship flag registers, but should be made public.

Second, registers must be regulated. Ships on the high seas obey the rules of the countries whose flag they fly. Flags of convenience often cover illegal conduct, including violence against or between crew members. Fishing companies should require fishing vessels that supply them to operate under only the highest standards of accountability and transparency.

Subsequently, transhipment should be prohibited. Forced labor and violent crime are more common on fishing vessels that stay at sea longer, made possible by transhipment, where supply ships bring the catch back to shore so that fishing boats can continue to operate. By forcing ships back to shore sooner, forced labor or trafficked labor is limited and companies and governments can check on site for violence or appalling working conditions.

Finally, it is essential to monitor employment agencies. Seafood buyers and fishing companies must clean up their supply chains by requiring agencies that recruit, pay and transport crews to make digital copies of contracts that specify wages and prohibit common trade tactics such as debt bondage, prepaid recruiting fees or passport confiscation.

There are reasons for hope. Satellites make it harder for ships to go after dark and cover up their crimes. Cell phones make it easier for crew members to document violence. Growing use of open-source imagery by journalists has increased public awareness of human rights and labor violations offshore. Now it is really up to companies and governments to do their part.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.

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Merry

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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