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Breaking: Deaths of 2 more Indonesian crew uncovered on board Chinese tuna fleet

Scalloped hammerhead shark. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • Official documents show the deaths of two Indonesian crew members of a Chinese fishing fleet went unreported amid an outcry over the deaths of four other men and allegations of forced labor and illegal fishing.
  • Saleh Anakota, 22, died on Aug. 10, three months after the deaths of four of his compatriots aboard the same boat, the Long Xing 629, drew international condemnation; Rudi Ardianto, 30, died on Aug. 8 aboard another boat, the Tian Xiang 16, in the same fleet.
  • Both deaths, attributed to an unknown “sickness,” are mentioned in Indonesian Foreign Ministry documents seen by Mongabay.
  • The documents also show Indonesia and China are working to bring home 155 Indonesian crew members from the Long Xing 629 and 11 other vessels owned by Dalian Ocean Fishing (DOF), a major Chinese tuna-fishing company that supplies Japanese and Chinese markets.

Another Indonesian crew member has died aboard the Long Xing 629, a Chinese vessel alleged to have used forced labor to engage in illegal fishing, including shark finning, Mongabay has learned.

The man, 22-year-old Saleh Anakota, passed away on Aug. 10, three months after the boat became the focus of an international outcry over the deaths of four other Indonesian crew, who fell sick from an unknown illness after allegedly being physically abused and overworked by senior officers.

News of Saleh’s death, not reported in the media until now, has emerged as Indonesia quietly works to repatriate 155 of its citizens serving as crew aboard the Long Xing 629 and 11 other vessels owned by China’s Dalian Ocean Fishing (DOF), according to documents from the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs seen by Mongabay. The company is a major supplier of sashimi-grade tuna to Japanese and Chinese markets.

In addition to Saleh, a 30-year-old crew member named Rudi Ardianto died on Aug. 8 aboard another DOF ship, the Tian Xiang 16, the documents show.

Both died from “sickness,” according to Judha Nugraha, the ministry’s director-general of citizen protection.

“There must be a further examination to determine the cause of the sickness,” Judha told Mongabay in a text message on Oct. 27.

“Indonesia and China have agreed on a law enforcement partnership to bring the responsible parties to the court,” he added. “The partnership is done through MLA.”

An MLA is a mutual legal assistance treaty, or an agreement between countries to share information on criminal matters. Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s foreign minister, has been trying to convince China to sign an MLA with Indonesia since at least Aug. 21, when she reportedly met with her Chinese counterpart in Sanya, a coastal city on China’s southern Hainan Island, to address allegations of mistreatment of crew aboard Chinese fishing boats in several cases that had emerged since the beginning of the year.

The Long Xing 629. Image courtesy of the WCPFC.

Indonesian crew members repatriated from the boat in May told Advocates for Public Interest Law (APIL), a group in South Korea, where the survivors were quarantined as a precaution against COVID-19 before being sent back to Indonesia, that they had suffered from brutal working conditions and unhealthy living conditions.

“They drank salty water converted from sea water while their Chinese counterparts drank bottled water,” the report says. “The crew members claimed that drinking the salty water made their colleagues sick leading to death.”

It adds, “They were physically assaulted by some of the Chinese crew. Moreover, the crew stayed onboard for 13 months, never disembarking at a port. Multiple transshipments at sea allowed the continued operation of the ship for a prolonged period.”

Crew members also said the captain confiscated their passports, made them work an average of 18 hours a day and directed them to use specialized gear to catch and fin a large number of sharks, including endangered species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Photos and videos taken by crew aboard the Long Xing 629 show them finning shortfin mako sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks and great white sharks. Image courtesy of Environmental Justice Foundation.

The reason for the repatriations of the 155 crew members is unclear. Neither DOF nor the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta answered phone calls on Oct. 29, and the foreign ministry’s Judha did not respond to questions about why the repatriations were taking place.

However, a Chinese website that compiles court verdicts shows DOF has been named in more than a dozen lawsuits filed this year against it and its sister companies alleging a failure to repay loans. Courts in several of these cases ordered assets belonging to DOF to be frozen.

Tens of thousands of people from Indonesia, which with a population of 260 million is the world’s fourth-most populous country, work as crew aboard coastal and distant-water fishing vessels from other countries. They mostly come from Indonesia’s main central island of Java, the most densely populated major island in the world, but increasingly hail from around the archipelago nation. Saleh and Rudi, the two men who died in August, were from West Java and Maluku provinces.

Labor rights campaigners contacted by Mongabay said they were trying to confirm how many of the 155 men, most of whom are in their twenties, had already arrived back in Indonesia. Some of the men, they said, appeared to be stuck in Senegal. A spokesman for the Wisma Atlet COVID-19 quarantine center in Jakarta would not say whether any of the fishers were being housed there.

The foreign ministry documents say two DOF boats, the Long Xing 601 and Long Xing 610, are now on their way to Bitung, a port city on the northern coast of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, and are expected to arrive on Nov. 5. It’s not clear whether they’re bringing back crew members or the bodies of the deceased, or if they have another purpose.

Ilyas Pangestu, the chairman of the Indonesian Fisheries Workers Union (SPPI), which is advocating for the men repatriated in May, told Mongabay that China should protect the rights of migrant workers aboard vessels carrying its flag.

Indonesian authorities are already pursuing human trafficking cases against employees of at least three labor recruitment companies in Indonesia that sent abroad the crew members caught up in the scandal that emerged around the Long Xing 629 earlier this year. The APIL report documented withholding, deduction and non-payment of wages — indicators of forced labor, according to the International Labour Organization — among the men who returned to Indonesia in May.

Besides the Long Xing 629 case, recruiters in at least three other cases involving Chinese distant-water fishing boats have been charged with human trafficking by Indonesian authorities this year.

Banner: A scalloped hammerhead shark. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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