Is the world’s deadliest profession also the most violent?

The following story is based on material from the first episode of The Outlaw Ocean, a new podcast series released by CBC and the Los Angeles Times. listen hereeither Wherever you find your podcasts.


Such crimes often don’t happen on the ground. A 10-minute, slow-motion slaughter captured by a cellphone camera A group of unarmed men at sea are shown floating in the water, shot one by one, after the criminals take selfies to celebrate.

For human rights lawyers and ocean advocates, what was more shocking than the footage was the government’s inaction.

The case reflects the challenge of prosecuting crimes on the high seas and is because violence offshore often accompanies impunity. There were at least four ships at the scene that day, but none of the dozens of witnesses were required by law to report murders – and none did.

Authorities only became aware of the killings when video appeared on a cellphone left in a taxi in Fiji in 2014. It is still unclear who the victims were or why they were shot.

There are an unknown number of similar murders each year – deckhands on the ship, from where the video was later shot, said they had witnessed a similar killing a week earlier.

Deaths at sea are difficult to track

The number of deaths at sea – including homicides – is extremely difficult to estimate. specific estimate has been made about 32,000 Casualties per year, commercial fishing among the most dangerous occupations on the planet. A new estimate is more than 100,000 deaths per year – or more than 300 a day, according to research produced by the Fish Safety Foundation and funded by the Pew Charitable Trust.

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“The reasons for this significant loss of life include the lack of a comprehensive security legislative framework and a coordinated approach to promoting safety at sea in the fishing sector,” a recent report good United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said.

But the United Nations, which tracks deaths from the profession, does not indicate how many of these deaths were due to avoidable accidents, neglect or violence.

In this June 2015 file photo, a fisherman drops his catch in the port of Suao, Taiwan. Taiwan is one of the largest seafood exporters in the world. (Wally Santana/Associated Press)

Cruelty to far-flung fishing fleets – and the relationship to forced labor on these ships – has been an open secret for some time. A report released in May by University of Nottingham Rights Lab For example, it has been shown that migrant workers on British fishing vessels were systematically overworked and underpaid; More than a third of workers said they had experienced severe physical violence.

In 2020, a team of researchers used satellite data tracking of nearly 16,000 fishing vessels to estimate how many people were at risk of being subjected to forced labor, based on criteria defined by the United Nations International Labor Organization. did. Up to a quarter, or about 100,000 people, were at high risk, according to the studyPublished in the journal PNAS.

Environmental Justice Foundation director Steve Trent said his staff interviewed 116 Indonesian crew members who worked on fishing vessels off China, which has the world’s largest off-water fishing fleet. tentative 58 percent The organization found that they had seen or experienced physical violence.

listen | Ian Urbina spoke to The Current about crimes committed on the high seas:

the current23:37Ian Urbina on crimes committed on the high seas

Investigative journalist Ian Urbina unearths crimes committed on the world’s chaotic seas and oceans – many of which are difficult to prove, let alone prosecute. He tells us about his new podcast, The Outlaw Ocean.

Addressing such violence and other brutal conditions in commercial fishing is difficult in large part because so little data is captured or provided to the public. And since problems are often only noticed and counted when they are seen and counted, this lack of research is a major obstacle to regulating the industry.

Murders caught on cellphones prosecuted

The case of cellphone-captured murders was unusual as the perpetrator and the ship were eventually identified.

Norwegian research firm Trig Mat Tracking, which focused on maritime crime, determined that the ship was the Taiwanese-flagged Ping Shin 101 by comparing video footage with images in a maritime database. The former deckhand was found in Facebook postings on Ping Xin and on other social media platforms where they discussed their time together. Interviews with these former deckhands, some of whom said they saw the murders captured on video, revealed the captain’s name and details of the killings.

In 2015 and 2016, Taiwanese officials presented with the names of the men and ships said the victims appeared to be part of a failed pirate attack.

But maritime security analysts noted that piracy claims have been used to justify violence for a wide variety of crimes, actual or otherwise. The victims, he said, may have been members of the crew who rebelled, people caught stealing or simply rival fishermen.

After several years of public and journalistic pressure, the Taiwanese government issued a warrant for the arrest of Ping Shin 101’s captain, Wang Fang Yu, who ordered the killings. In 2021, he was convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Fishermen sort out their fishing catch on Lai Son Island, offshore Vietnam, on August 19, 2022. (Nak Nguyen/AFP via Getty Images)

According to marine and law enforcement researchers, such killings will continue to go unchecked without better tracking of offshore violence, greater transparency from flag registries and fishing companies, and more effort by governments to prosecute the perpetrators.

And it matters because what happens in the ocean affects everyone. By some estimates, more than 90 percent of world trade is by sea, and seafood is a major source of protein for much of the world.

What can be done? Advocates, law enforcement and researchers suggest four steps.

  • Report violence. Human rights researchers suggest that shipowners and crew should be legally bound to report crimes at sea. The resulting data should not be held privately by insurance companies or flag registries for ships, but should be made available to the public.

  • regulate registries, Ships on the high seas are subject to the rules of the countries whose flags they fly. Facility flags often provide cover for illegal behavior, including violence against or among the crew. Seafood companies require that fishing vessels supplying them fly flags only with strict accountability and transparency standards.

  • ban transshipment, Forced labor and violent crime are more common on fishing vessels that remain at sea for long periods, enabled by transshipment, in which supply ships are taken back to shore so that the fishing boats can operate. Getting ships back to shore sooner helps limit forced or smuggled labor, and enables companies and governments to spot-check for violence or poor working conditions.

  • monitor employment agencies, Seafood buyers and fishing companies must clean up their supply chains by requiring agencies that recruit, pay and transport employees to have digital copies of contracts indicating wages and debt bonds, advance recruitment fees or Bans common smuggling tactics such as passport confiscation.

There are reasons for hope, human rights and maritime advocates say. Satellites make it difficult for ships to go into the dark and hide their crimes. Cellphones make it easier for crew members to document violence. The increasing use of open-source footage by journalists has fueled public awareness of human rights and labor abuses occurring offshore.

But these advocates also add that we are far from coming: Now, they say, it is up to companies and governments to do their bit.


Ian Urbina is the director Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization that focuses on environmental and human rights concerns at sea. Ping Xin is the subject of murders on 101 The first episode of The Outlaw Ocean, a new podcast series released by CBC and the Los Angeles Times. listen on the CBC Listen app, or Wherever you find your podcasts.