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Forced Labor and Support Fleets

Support Fleets and Forced Labor 

Support Fleets and Forced Labor in IUU Fishing

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing  is a growing problem that occurs around the world, and is used to assert regional dominance. Vessels, crews, and companies use support fleets to bring over fishermen, often migrant workers, and coerce them into assisting with illegal fishing under harsh conditions. These support fleets enable crews to stay offshore for extended periods of time, which puts additional pressure on fisheries.

Support fleets offer a number of services to the IUU fishing boats, including:

  • Delivering supplies to ships
  • Delivering workers (many of whom are forced labor) to ships
  • Offloading the catch via ship-to-ship (STS) unloading
  • Enabling IUU ships to avoid ports and registering their catch

IUU fishing and support fleets are often highly dependent on forced labor, which r can be a form of modern slavery, with victims reporting being forced to work grueling hours for little to no pay, and often suffering physical and even sometimes sexual abuse, among other human rights violations.

What is Illegal Fishing?

IUU fishing activities violate fishing regulations at both national and international levels, posing a global problem with far-reaching consequences. IUU fishing has a negative effect on the health of ocean ecosystems and the sustainability of fisheries worldwide. It also undermines economic security and jeopardizes the natural resources that are essential for global food security.

Examples of illegal fishing, which is a sanctionable offense, include several different practices:

  • Fishing without proper license 
  • Ignoring catch size limits or size restrictions 
  • The use of banned equipment 
  • Destructive fishing methods
  • Fishing in another country’s territorial waters without permission 
  • Using IUU fishing fleets to establish territorial dominance (aka “the great power competition”)

These practices pose significant risks to the forced laborers, the environment, the economy, and legitimate fishing operations.

Forced Labor and Support Fleets 1

Using Forced Labor for IUU Fishing

Forced labor has been associated with IUU fishing operations for several years. Individuals have been subjected to unsafe labor conditions and forced to work under duress on fishing vessels without proper equipment, conditions, and pay. These illegal fishing ships have been known to use tactics such as human trafficking, debt bondage, and unfair recruitment practices to coerce people into forced labor. Since the victims are often migrants or illegal workers, most of the abuses go unreported to the authorities. 

The link between forced labor and IUU fishing highlights the need for a smarter approach to address both issues. Efforts to combat forced labor and IUU fishing involve collaboration among governments and international organizations. While strengthening laws and regulations is important, the right tools to detect and monitor ships that are involved in IUU fishing practices are required, so they can be reported and stopped.  

International agreements, such as the International Labour Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention (ILO C188), aim to address labor conditions in the fishing industry, including combating forced labor. Furthermore, increased transparency in the seafood supply chain and consumer awareness play crucial roles in promoting sustainable and ethical practices in the fishing industry.

How Support Fleets Aid in IUU Fishing 

In an attempt to avoid detection and support their long journeys at sea, illegal fishing boats have started bringing fishermen through a chain of smaller ships, or support ships. This serves four main purposes.  

  1. It’s harder for the authorities to monitor the support ships and detect where they’re going, or what they are doing
  2. It makes it difficult for the fishermen, or workers, to remember which vessel they were on while the illegal and abusive actions were taking place
  3. When trying to assert territorial dominance, fleets must remain in an area for long periods of time with many ships. This requires a support fleet to bring supplies 
  4. Support fleets are necessary for offloading illegal catches 

Manually tracking the movements or identifying support fleets based on the AIS transmitter and coordinating it with other vessels in the same area is a time-consuming and difficult process. Using Maritime AI™ technology, governmental and maritime organizations can track ships and identify patterns indicating illegal activity. These indications of illegal activity include STS transfers, stopping near other ships for extended periods of time, hiding their flags, or turning off the AIS transmitter

Bad Actors Participating in Support Fleet and Forced Labor Practices

In a recent whitepaper, Windward identified several support hubs, which are used to optimize operations. These hubs remove seasonal and geographical constraints, and allow year-round IUU fishing. 

Ships bearing Chinese and Taiwanese flags make up 75% of the world’s IUU fleet. Support hubs from as far away as Uruguay and Mauritius support IUU activities. 

According to Windward research, of the 2,000+ fishing ships in the Pacific Ocean, 50% were involved in STS operations. This includes cargo ships that bring the catch to shore and tanker ships that help refuel the IUU shipping vessels. Nearly 40% of support vessels fly a Panamanian flag of convenience

AI Can Provide Enhanced Due Diligence to Prevent Forced Labor Practices

Enhanced due diligence is necessary when it comes to avoiding, preventing, or stopping IUU fishing and forced labor. Leveraging the power of AI, organizations can strengthen their efforts by utilizing advanced technologies to analyze data, track support fleet behavior, and detect potential indicators of illicit activities. This combination of enhanced due diligence and AI-driven insights can help curtail these practices.  

  • Vessel of Interest (VOI) profiles: AI algorithms create customized profiles for fishing fleets that are flagged for IUU risk. These profiles can include information about the vessels, their ownership, licensing, and historical activities. By analyzing various data sources, such as vessel registries, fishing permits, and catch records, AI can build profiles and assess the risk associated with each fleet.
  • Port call and operational behavior tracking: monitor and track the behavior of fishing fleets that are flagged as high risk for IUU fishing and labor abuses. The tracking algorithm analyzes vessel movements, patterns, and how long a vessel docks at a port. This data is then used to identify suspicious activities, such as prolonged stays at sea without appropriate reasons or operating in regions known for labor abuses.
  • Anomaly detection: detecting anomalies in the behavior of fishing fleets can raise red flags for potential labor abuses. For instance, if a vessel is operating at sea for unusually long periods, when compared to similar ships, it will be marked as suspicious. By investigating these anomalies, an organization will be able to focus its resources on addressing potential violations.
  • Real-time monitoring and alerts: employing real-time monitoring enables prompt detection of suspicious activities or prolonged periods at sea. Automated alerts can be generated when vessels exhibit behavior aligning with IUU fishing or labor abuses. This proactive approach ensures timely intervention by relevant authorities.