Inside an explosive investigation of the global Chinese fishing fleet
Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organisation based in Washington D.C. Here, he writes about his investigation into human rights abuses tied to the global seafood industry.
Aboard the Ocean Warrior on the South Atlantic – On the high seas roughly 370 miles north of the Falkland Islands, an 18-year-old deckhand working on a Chinese squid ship nervously ducked into a dark hallway to whisper his plea for help. “Our passports were taken,” he said to me. “They won’t give them back.”
Instead of speaking more, he then began typing on his cell phone, for fear of being overheard. “Can you take us to the embassy in Argentina?” Just then, my minder rounded the corner and the deckhand abruptly walked away. Minutes later, I was ushered off the ship.
After I returned to shore, I contacted his family. “My heart really aches,” his older sister, a math teacher in Fujian, China, said, after hearing of her brother’s plea for help. Her family had begged him not to go to sea, but he was drawn to the idea of seeing other countries. She hadn’t known that he was being held captive, and she felt helpless to stop it. “He’s really too young,” she said. “And now there is nothing we can do, because he’s so far away.”
This was one of many stark encounters during a four-year investigation I conducted with an international team of reporters at sea and on land that revealed a broad pattern of severe human rights abuses tied to the global seafood industry. We focused on China because it has by far the largest high-seas fishing fleet and processes much of the world’s catch. China estimates that it has 2,700 distant-water fishing ships, though this figure does not include vessels in contested waters; public records and satellite imaging suggest that the fleet may be closer to 6,500 ships. By contrast, the U.S. and the E.U. have fewer than three hundred distant-water fishing vessels each.
The investigation documented cases of debt bondage, wage withholding, excessive working hours, beatings of deckhands, passport confiscation, the denial of timely access to medical care, and deaths from violence on hundreds of Chinese fishing ships. Data from just one port – Montevideo, Uruguay – showed that for much of the past decade, one dead body has been disembarked there roughly every month and a half, mostly from Chinese fishing ships. The State Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration both named China among countries most likely to engage in illegal labor practices in the seafood sector. The U.S. nonetheless imports much of its seafood from China. Half of the fish sticks served in U.S. public schools, for example, have been processed in China, according to a study by the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers. The organisation explained that state and large school districts have historically used USDA grants to purchase seafood directly from commercial vendors, many of which source from China.
This Chinese fleet is also categorised by The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime as the largest purveyor of illegal fishing in the world. Our reporting revealed Chinese vessels illegally entering the waters of other countries, disabling locational transponders in violation of Chinese law, breaking U.N. sanctions that prohibit foreigners fishing in North Korean waters, transmitting dual identities (or ‘spoofing’), finning of protected shark species, fishing without a license, and using prohibited gear. More than one hundred Chinese squid ships were found to have engaged in illegal fishing practices, including the dumping of excess catch back into the sea.
Journalists, especially from the West, are rarely, if ever, permitted aboard Chinese ships. To get a glimpse into this world, my team and I visited China’s fishing ships in their largest fishing grounds: near the Galapagos Islands; near the Falkland Islands; off the Coast of Gambia; and in the Sea of Japan, near Korea. Occasionally, Chinese captains permitted me to board their vessels to talk to crew, or to interview officers by radio. In many cases, the ships got spooked, pulling up their gear and fleeing the scene. “Don’t talk to these guys!” a Chinese captain yelled at another officer who was speaking to us over the radio. After this happened, we trailed the ships in a smaller and faster skiff to get close enough to throw aboard plastic bottles weighed down with rice and containing a pen, cigarettes, hard candy, and interview questions. On several occasions, the deckhands quickly wrote their replies, often providing phone numbers for family back home, and then tossed the bottles back into the water. After returning to shore in foreign ports, we contacted families of the workers and interviewed several dozen additional former and current crew.
Getting onto these ships was essential not just to hear from the crew, including some that said they were being held against their will, but also to experience first hand the gritty and dehumanising conditions on board. Many deckhands spend over two years at sea without touching land or communicating with their families, and they work long shifts that often last more than twelve hours. Some contract beriberi, a disease caused by deficiencies in vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, and often induced by diets consisting mainly of foods such as white rice or instant noodles, which are low in this vitamin. The disease, fatal if left untreated, has historically appeared in prisons, asylums, and migrant camps, but it has largely been stamped out. Experts say that when it occurs at sea, beriberi often indicates criminal neglect because it is so easily treatable and avoidable. Ships often quickly run out of fresh fruit or vegetables, and conditions on board are filthy. The setting can feel surreal. On squid ships, which make up a large portion of the Chinese distant-water fleet, every surface is covered in oozy ink, and at night the decks are bathed in bright light from bowling ball-sized bulbs that are used to attract squid to the surface of the water.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese fishing ships often used Indonesian deckhands, but with the global lockdowns in response to the pandemic, captains shifted to primarily Chinese crews. Chinese court records offered a rare window into the problem of labour abuse, including the trafficking of workers, typically from poorer inland regions of the country. Labour contracts provided by former deckhands from fishing ships and online advertisements posted by recruiters showed how the unwitting and desperate are often targeted in schemes that amount to labor trafficking.
The investigation also sought to chronicle labour concerns within China’s factories, where large amounts of the world’s seafood gets processed, including catch coming from European and U.S. ships and waters. Over the past decade, China has overseen a crackdown on Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, a region in the far west of the country, setting up mass detention centres and forcing detainees to work in cotton fields, tomato farms, and polysilicon factories. More recently, in an effort to disrupt Uyghur communities and find cheap labor for major industries, China has transferred Uyghurs to work in industries across the country. The U.S. government has described the country’s actions as a form of genocide.
Our investigations revealed for the first time that Uyghurs are also being transferred to work in the seafood industry. As part of its labor-transfer program, the Chinese government has been forcibly relocating thousands of Uyghur workers and sending them to plants on the other side of the country in Shandong province, a major seafood processing hub along the eastern coast. That Shandong is more than two thousand miles away from Xinjiang may have helped it evade scrutiny. But, as it turns out, we found that state-sponsored forced labor from Xinjiang is used extensively in the country’s seafood factories that supply hundreds of restaurants, grocers, and food-service companies in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. Since 2018, ten large seafood companies in China have used at least a thousand Uyghur labourers. During that time, these companies have exported at least forty-seven thousand tons of seafood (among it, some seventeen per cent of all squid imports to the U.S.) to dozens of American importers.
In 2021, Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which declared that all products produced ‘wholly or in part’ by workers from Xinjiang should be presumed to have involved state-imposed forced labor, and are therefore banned from the U.S. market. In the past year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has confiscated more than a billion dollars of goods connected to Xinjiang, including electronics, clothing, and pharmaceuticals. Seafood has largely remained unquestioned.
Foreign journalists are generally forbidden from reporting in Xinjiang, and censors scrub the Chinese Internet of critical and non-official content about Uyghurs. To get around these roadblocks, our team reviewed hundreds of pages of internal company newsletters, local news reports, a database of Uyghur testimonies, trade data, and satellite and cell phone imagery to verify the location of processing plants. We watched thousands of videos uploaded to the Internet, mostly to Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, which showed Uyghur labourers; we verified that the users had initially registered in Xinjiang; and we had specialists review the languages used in the videos. We also hired investigators in China to discreetly visit several plants using Uyghur workers.
One video uploaded to Douyin provided us with a glimpse of what these transfers look like. In April, for example, a group of roughly a hundred and thirty men and women stood in orderly lines in front of the train station in the city of Kashgar, in Xinjiang. The people were Uyghurs, and they stood watching a farewell ceremony held in their honour by the local government. A banner reads, ‘Promote mass employment and build societal harmony’. At the end of the video, drone footage zooms out to show trains waiting to take the men and women across the country, where they will be put to work.
We also identified North Korean labor used in China’s seafood-processing industry. The Chinese government has largely scrubbed references to these workers from the internet, but by using the search term ‘North Korean beauties’, we found several videos on Douyin of what appear to be female seafood-plant workers, most posted by male employees. One Chinese commenter said the women “have a strong sense of nationalism and identity and are self-disciplined!” Another pointed out that the workers have no choice but to obey orders, or “their family members will suffer”.
This type of investigative journalism tends to have more impact if you can demonstrate the tie between crimes and consumers. As a result, we tried to connect the supply-chain dots from the abuses at sea or in the Chinese factories to the global brands, buyers, and sellers of this seafood. This goal is distinctly difficult with seafood because in the many handoffs of catch between fishing boats, carrier ships, processing plants and exporters, there are gaping holes in traceability.
We relied heavily on two satellite tools to track ships and to identify illegal or suspicious behaviour, including when ships turned off their transponders for longer than seven days, a practice prohibited by Chinese law. These included Skylight, a fisheries monitoring tool built by the Allen Institute for AI, and Global Fishing Watch. In some cases, we hired investigators in China to covertly follow trucks carrying seafood from Shidao port to factories. Trade data then allowed us to track exports from processing plants to stores and restaurants abroad.
In order to get a view inside the processing facilities, we used cell-phone footage from workers in seafood plants that had been published on Douyin. This footage often featured frozen squid bags showing useful details like vessel names or brand labels, providing the reporters another way to connect ships tied to illegal behaviour or factories using forced labor to consumers that consume the seafood. We authenticated the locations where the videos were taken by using Google Earth Pro satellite imagery. Google Lens searches for the unique export codes of Chinese processing plants returned images of packaging with those codes. The reporting team used these codes, along with information from Chinese and American trade databases, to trace the full supply chain.
Our trips at sea to visit the Chinese fleet were facilitated by hitching rides with willing partners. In some cases, national-fishery law-enforcement authorities or private fishing-boat captains agreed to taxi us to target the various fishing grounds around the world. In other instances, ocean-conservation groups, including Sea Shepherd, EarthRace, and Greenpeace, transported the team to high-seas locations of interest.
To ensure that the reporting would carry global impact, we partnered with two dozen newspapers and magazines in as many countries to publish the findings while also providing reporters from these outlets with country-specific memos tailored for their distinct audiences so these journalists could carry the investigation forward in a way that spoke to their particular audiences.
Other elements of this journalism project also make it distinct. To offer a more intimate and humanising perspective on why someone, whether Chinese or a foreigner, might choose to take a dangerous, often exploitative job on these ships, we produced a documentary film that follows a fictional character: a young man from China who is deciding whether to follow in his father’s footsteps and work on a Chinese squid jigger. The fictional narrator of the film is an amalgamation drawn from interviews with dozens of deckhands, and he provides a glimpse into a sense of national pride, adventure, and duty that may motivate someone to take this work. The film also makes the point that the U.S. and much of the West may be apt to cast judgment on the brutality of the fleet, but American diners are among the primary consumers of seafood produced on these ships.
Typically, journalists don’t have the time or inclination to publish the ingredients that went into an investigation. In this instance, we took several steps to heighten the transparency of our reporting process. First, we published a database we built of more than seven hundred squid fishing vessels and where relevant, documented associated environmental and human rights crimes, and other concerns. The database also included the names of dozens of affiliated Chinese processing plants, and buyers that have imported seafood from the facilities in recent years. Second, we presented a webpage that showed all of our interactions with the more than 300 companies, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations that were associated with the problematic behaviours we uncovered. This page included our exchanges back and forth with companies and other stakeholders, in which they defended themselves or answered our questions, so that advocates, journalists, and policymakers could see the full version of those discussions, and potentially follow up in the future.
As we reported, we were faced with constant reminders that the problems we were identifying were likely pervasive in the industry. In June 2023, a woman named Silvina González was walking along a beach near Maldonado, Uruguay, picking up trash, when she found a small plastic bottle holding a napkin with black writing in Mandarin. It started with the abbreviation SOS. She quickly sent a photo of the message to her brother-in-law, who spoke Mandarin and sent back a translation: “Hello, I am a crew member of the ship Lu Qing Yuan Yu 765, and I was locked up by the company. When you see this paper, please help me call the police! S.O.S. S.O.S.”
Sixteen months before the message in a bottle washed up on Uruguayan shores, my team and I were in the South Atlantic chasing down ships from the Lu Qing Yuan Yu fleet. One of them was the ship named in the message.
How was the investigation by The Outlaw Ocean Project conducted? Find out here in this video how a team of journalists produced the four-year investigation of forced labour and other crimes tied to the Chinese fleet and the world’s seafood supply:
Ian Urbina writes a regular column for our print magazine that is also exclusively available online to OceanHub subscribers.
This story was produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit journalism organisation in Washington, D.C. Reporting and writing was contributed by Ian Urbina, Daniel Murphy, Joe Galvin, Maya Martin, Susan Ryan, Austin Brush and Jake Conley.
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