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[Herald Interview] ‘Industry needs to do more to fight illegal fishing, labor abuses’

Few in South Korea would imagine that the fish they bought today at a cheap price might have been illegally taken or stolen from poor communities in Africa where fish is the only source of food and income.

However, there is always someone paying the real price which often involves forced labor, poverty and malnutrition, says Steve Trent, executive director and co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation.

“Very often, such things are not really cheap. Those abused were paying the real price for cheap products being consumed in Korea, in London and in New York,” Trent said during an interview with The Korea Herald.

Just five years ago, South Korea received a “yellow card” from the European Union over the government’s inadequate restrictions over Korean vessels’ illegal, unreported and unregulated -- also known as IUU -- fishing practices off the coast of West Africa.

“In Sierra Leone, locals called Korean vessels ‘black face,’ giant black boats. I saw them doing this firsthand, steaming down the coast, big trawler nets taking everything and anything and throwing away unwanted fish which could have fed locals,” he said.

From 2010 to early 2014, the EJF filmed Korean vessels operating illegally in the areas reserved for local fishers and presented the evidence to the EU, leading the 28-member union to warn the Korean government of possible trade sanctions if it did not improve fisheries management.

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea produced seafood worth 5.4 trillion won in 2015, ranking fifth among the member states.

The South Korean government responded with a set of reforms to stamp out pirate fishing. It revised the Distant Water Fisheries Development Act to toughen control over IUU vessels and punishment for illegal fishing. It also made it mandatory for all fishing boats to carry Vessel Monitoring Systems, which allow satellites to track their movements, and opened the Fisheries Monitoring Center to monitor the vessels’ activities. Following such reforms, Korea was cleared of its “yellow” card warning in 2015.

“All the same people in Sierra Leone are now catching more fish, bigger fish (since the Korean government acted against illegal fishing there.) The locals’ lives are being transformed. They are now able to sell fish to provide themselves with the basics -- like electricity, clean water,” he said.

“How children in poor countries can be impacted by somebody in Seoul -- what consumers decide to purchase and what lawmakers and businesses decide to do -- may not be visible to people, but there are direct lines of connections.”

Steve Trent (EJF)
Steve Trent (EJF)

Another pressing challenge facing South Korea is migrant fishing crews at risk of being abused at high seas on Korean-flagged vessels, he said.

According to a report published last year by Advocates for Public Interest Law and International Organization for Migration, migrant fishing crew on Korean vessels in general suffer from poor living conditions, long work hours, discriminatory pay, confiscation of their documents and verbal and physical assault.

As of the end of 2016, the number of migrant fishermen stood at 11,305, accounting for 41 percent of the total fishing crew in South Korea.

“They fish down through the resources, the resources are declining, and they make more efforts to catch the same amount. That costs more,” he said. “So where can you save money? They often use cheaper crew, or as it gets more extreme, bonded and forced labor, and full slavery.”

Founded in 2000, the UK-based organization has been working to address “environmental justice” in the world where the poorest nations which contribute the least to causing environmental problems are hit first and worst by dire consequences of climate change.

The EJF has exposed state-sponsored forced child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields and uncovered the modern-day slavery propping up in Thailand’s seafood sector, among other things. Its use of powerful films and images has helped promote public awareness and convince decision makers to take action.

In South Korea, the EJF focuses on building a domestic constituency among government officials, lawmakers, businesses and activists so that they can identify problems and solutions themselves, Trent said.

“The government did a lot here, made a lot of changes, but I don’t think the industry kept pace,” he said. “Businesses have an inherent short-term vision, only focusing on this year’s profit and loss, but they are affectively undermining their own future, own future profits and sustainability.”

Ultimately, Trent said, bringing an ethical, responsible and transparent system free from illegal fishing, environmental damage and human rights abuses to their supply chains will be a win-win for businesses, too.

“What we are doing is to create a healthy, sustainable and profitable industry,” he said. “By doing the right thing, businesses can enhance their brand and create more market share, which will translate into more profit.”

In democracies, citizens have more power as a consumer, rather than a voter, to shape the world, he said.

“In Korea, if you were to spend a little bit more to pay for ethically-produced products, I think most people will choose that,” he said, calling on the government to put a system in place so that anyone could check how fish are produced, where it came from and who caught it.

By Ock Hyun-ju (