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Chinese boat that dumped Indonesian crews at sea was also shark-finning: Reports

  • A Chinese fishing company under scrutiny for the deadly labor abuses of its Indonesian boat crews was likely also engaged in illegal fishing, conservationists say.
  • Jakarta has demanded answers for the slavery-like conditions under which the crew members worked on board a tuna boat belonging to the Dalian Ocean Fishing Co. Ltd.
  • Four of the crew members died of illness, with three of them dumped at sea; photos provided by the surviving crew indicate the boat was engaged in the illegal finning of threatened shark species.
  • “[Illegal] fishing and modern slavery practices at sea are two sides of the same coin,” said Greenpeace Indonesia oceans campaigner Arifsyah Nasution.

JAKARTA — Conservationists are calling for an investigation into alleged illegal fishing by a Chinese tuna company that kept Indonesian seamen as virtual slaves, leading to the deaths of four of them.

China’s Dalian Ocean Fishing Co. Ltd. has been under scrutiny after reports in early May linked four of its high-seas boats — Long Xing 629, Long Xing 802, Long Xing 605 and Tian Yu 08 — to the human rights abuses of its Indonesian crew members. Four Indonesians died between December 2019 and April 2020 due to the hazardous working conditions on board the boats. The bodies of three of them were dumped overboard for fear of infection, sparking a diplomatic outcry from Jakarta.

Migrant boat crews from Southeast Asia are seen as a source of cheap labor, making up a large proportion of Asia’s distant-water fleets. But deadly conditions await the workers aboard the vessels, such as overwork, having their wages withheld, being forced into debt bondage, and experiencing physical and sexual violence.

The Indonesian government has condemned the abuses of the Indonesian crew on the Chinese boats and called on Beijing to investigate the matter. But conservationists are also calling for both countries to look into allegations that the boats were engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU).

“IUU fishing and modern slavery practices at sea are two sides of the same coin. They’re intertwined,” Arifsyah Nasution, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, told Mongabay in an interview.

Shark fins aboard the Chinese tuna fishing boat Long Xing 629. Image courtesy of the Environmental Justice Foundation.

According to reports, the Long Xing 629 left Chinese shores on Feb. 15, 2019, and operated in the waters off Samoa for at least 13 months straight without docking. Observers say long periods out at sea without bringing catch to shore is often indicative of transshipment, the practice of transferring the catch to other vessels and taking on fuel and supplies. While not illegal in itself, transshipment is common in IUU fishing.

In a report, the Environmental Justice Foundation said the Indonesian crew members from the Long Xing 629 provided visual evidence that threatened shark species were caught and finned at a rate of up to 20 per day. By the time the crew members had left the vessel, it had reportedly collected 16 boxes full of shark fins, each weighing 45 kilograms (100 pounds).

The report added that photographs provided by the crew members indicated the fins may have come from critically endangered species such as hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna spp.) and oceanic whitetips (Carcharhinus longimanus). Shark finning is prohibited across the jurisdiction in which the four Dalian vessels are registered.

Conservationists have called on Indonesia, as a party directly involved in the case, to report and demand an investigation also looking into the alleged capture of forbidden shark species done by the Chinese vessels.

“The photos and videos made by the crews who worked on board Long Xing 629 can become the primary and supporting evidence for the crews’ testimony,” Arifsyah said.

Arifsyah added that Long Xing 629 was a registered longliner boat. “This fishing gear is one of the most destructive tools due to its high rate of bycatch, which is between 20 and 50% of the total catch, so it’s very not selective,” he said.

Longlining uses a main line that trails dozens of miles behind the boat with thousands of hooks attached. In addition to the tuna they’re meant to target, they also snag sea turtles, seabirds and other animals. Longlining is notorious for having the highest rate of shark bycatch of any fishing method on the high seas.

Shark fins aboard the Chinese tuna fishing boat Long Xing 629. Image courtesy of the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Muhammad Ichsan, a shark expert and Segre-EDGE fellow at the Zoological Society of London, said that shark finning was widespread and that the rapidly expanding and largely unregulated shark fin trade represented one of the most serious threats to shark populations worldwide.

Hong Kong customs officials recently made the largest shark fin bust in the region when they seized a shipment of 26 tons of shark fins from CITES-protected species. More than 73 million sharks enter the global shark fin trade each year, primarily to make a luxury food item called shark fin soup, although conservationists believe the demand for this soup is waning in China and Hong Kong.

“Industry-scale vessels usually target tuna or other economically high fish as the main catch, but because their habitats intersect and fins are highly prized, sharks often become the expected high-value secondary catch,” Ichsan said.

“Shark finning and human rights abuse at sea are the tip of the iceberg of problems in the fishery sector. Solving them requires a synergistic management,” he added.

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