Tuna treaty can help with anti-trafficking push, industry says

A longstanding treaty between the United States and Pacific island nations could help in the global fight against human trafficking in the seafood sector, US tuna fleet leaders told Undercurrent News.

The 1987 South Pacific Tuna Treaty, which provides US purse seine vessels access to the Western and Central Pacific Ocean fisheries, has been extended through interim agreements since 2013, but a longer-term renewal hasn't been agreed to.

At a meeting this week in Brisbane, Australia, the United States and Pacific island nations party to the treaty agreed to an extension through 2016, said Doug Hines, executive director of South Pacific Tuna Corp., which represents 14 purse seine vessels fishing under the treaty. Company owners attended the Australia meeting.

In addition to fishing rights, the treaty also provides a mechanism to address the issue of human trafficking and forced labor that is plaguing the global seafood industry, tuna industry officials say.

“We believe that human trafficking related to fisheries is a problem that can best be resolved by government policies and actions,” Brian Hallman, executive director of the American Tunaboat Association, told Undercurrent.

“This treaty … not only sets forth the terms of fishing access for the US fleet to the waters of the Pacific island countries, but is a vehicle for cooperation on all manner of fisheries matters,” Hallman said.

The trafficking issue is “another reason to continue the US Treaty ensuring our engagement in the region", Hines told Undercurrent.

The treaty not only allows for participation in conservation measures, but it also allows the United States to provide resources within the islands to assist in the anti-trafficking fight, Hines said.

Both Hines and Hallman emphasized that there is no link between the US-flagged purse seine tuna fleet and the human trafficking issue.

But many of the Pacific island signatories to the tuna treaty were not ranked highly in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report released last week. And Asian-flagged vessels were listed as part of the problem in their waters.

The Marshal Islands was downgraded to Tier 3 from its spot on the Tier 2 watch list list year. US officials assign the Tier 3 ranking to nations who's governments they say don’t fully comply with minimum standards in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and aren’t making significant efforts to do so.

In the Marshall Islands, foreign business owners recruit girls from the island nation to engage in prostitution with crew members of foreign fishing and transshipping vessels that dock in Majuro, the State Department report said.

Foreign women living in the nation as long-term residents have been forced into prostitution in establishments patronized by crew members of Chinese and other foreign fishing boats, the report said.

In Papua New Guinea, which was upgraded to the State Department's Tier 2 watch list from Tier 3 status last year, Malaysian and Chinese logging companies and foreign businesspeople arrange for women from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, China and the Philippines to voluntarily enter Papua New Guinea on fraudulently issued visas.

They are then turned over to traffickers and forced into prostitution and domestic servitude in fisheries, logging and mining camps and entertainment sites.

In territorial waters and ports of the Solomon Islands, which is on the report's Tier 2 watch list, the State Department said fishing crew members from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, North Korea, and Fiji have reported severe living conditions, violence, limited food supply and nonpayment of wages.

According to the State Department, migrants from Southeast Asia have said they have worked in conditions indicative of human trafficking on Asian fishing vessels in the territorial waters of Micronesia, which was ranked Tier 2 in the report. The Tier 2 level indicates nations don't fully comply with the minimum standards but are making significant efforts to do so.

Another Tier 2 country, Fiji, is a a transit area for trafficking, the State Department said. Workers from Cambodia, the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, North Korea, China and Singapore — who are deceptively recruited in their home countries and transit through Fiji or board fishing vessels from Fiji ports and waters — live in poor conditions, accrue debt larger than promised wages, and work for little or no compensation on Chinese and Taiwanese fishing vessels in Pacific waters, the TIP report said.

In Tier 2 Kiribati, Asian men in visiting ship crews exploit children and some women in prostitution, the report said.

In the waters of Palau, also Tier 2, foreign workers on fishing boats experience conditions indicative of human trafficking, the State Department said.

“This is an ongoing challenge in many areas of the sector, however, not with US-flagged vessels,” Hines said.

In addition to individuals and companies having long standing human rights policies against human trafficking and abuse, the US fleet is also under the oversight and management of the US Coast Guard, Hines said.

US inspectors have complete access to crew members, and vessels have independent observers who report to the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency, he said.

That information is also shared with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  and “any violations that are noted in the report are aggressively prosecuted", Hines said.

“US operators and its regulatory agencies view these infractions as serious with zero tolerance,” he said.