Asiatisk fiskebåt

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Protecting people and oceans by managing fisheries

Updated: 30 May 2017

In Southeast Asia fisheries are important. But often it is undocumented migrant workers, with poor working conditions, who maintain them. SEAFDEC is a regional body that works to improve the situation of workers on ships, parallel to activities to safeguard fish stocks and protect the ocean environment.

Much of the fish we eat in Sweden comes from Southeast Asia. The water is rich with fish and fisheries have a central role in both local supplies and those for export. However, as few want to work on the sea and the conditions are often harsh, workers are mainly recruited from poorer neighbouring countries. Often, it occurs through a process which for all intents and purposes resembles human trafficking. And when the crew is undocumented and lacks proper wages, then according to international norms, the operations are illegal and even the catch is considered illegal. Poor management with illegal operations can lead to export restrictions. The EU has, for example, warned Thailand that the fisheries must be cleaned up, if the country wants to continue to export to the EU.

“These problems exist, both on the ships and in the processing industry, for example at canneries. It is a highly mobile workforce and without ID cards, these migrant workers have no rights. The ships have labour-intensive equipment and often 20-30 people work on a relatively small boat. There is risk of injuries and adverse effects on the environment when the workers come from inland environments and have no knowledge of the ocean or experience in handling the equipment,” says Magnus Torell, Senior Advisor of the regional body, SEAFDEC.

Better follow-up of workers and boats

Better management, according to Magnus Torell, requires providing ID registration cards to undocumented persons, at the place they migrate to, so that it is possible to check when they travel into and out of the country and so that there is information on who is included in the crew of each individual fishing expedition. Moreover, the boats, to a greater extent, need to be registered and licensed to avoid illegal fishing in places where fish habitats and breeding grounds are negatively impacted.

In Sweden and Europe there are electronic systems which mean that it is possible to track where the fishing boats are and to follow-up where fishing has occurred, what equipment has been used and who is part of the crew. Lack of such control mechanisms means that fishing activities are run in areas that, for various reasons, are not suitable or allowed.

SEAFDEC, with Swedish funding, also conducts activities to strengthen information exchanges between the countries of the region. Exchange of information shall provide better knowledge of the extent of fishing.

“It provides the opportunity to balance catch levels with estimations of the fish stocks, and in this way strengthen the environmental management. With better control at the docks and follow-up of licensing and landings, it is easier to follow-up the number of boats and work conditions,” says Magnus Torell.

In collaboration with ILO, SEAFDEC also works to get various administrations to be more aware of the international conventions on working conditions. Additionally, SEAFDEC works to spread the importance of ID cards and keeping records of who is part of the crew. At the regional level, it concerns developing agreements and follow-up mechanisms, for example between countries that export and import labour. Moreover, SEAFDEC and ILO are working to create conditions that will enable migrant workers to receive basic training in how to handle the equipment on-board a ship.

Workforce issues and the environment interrelated

Despite the close relationship, workforce issues and environmental management are often handled by different authorities with limited interaction. Thus, SEAFDEC especially focuses on establishing dialogues between different ministries and authorities and that is, according to Magnus Torell, one of the most important achievements of the programme. This means, for example, that fishery management increases its knowledge of the need to handle workforce issues and of the links to fish stocks.

“It is very much about different authorities needing to learn each other’s “language”, know which regulations are applicable, and to a greater degree be involved when the regulations that affect their own industry are drawn up.

Ola Möller, Lead Policy Specialist at Sida for Rural Development and Food Security, says that SEAFDEC’s work with linking environment and climate issues to human rights is especially relevant in Southeast Asia, where working conditions are deplorable, overfishing happens fast and fishing methods are particularly destructive.

“SEAFDEC is one of the most relevant organisations in the region, with a great deal of knowledge on small scale fishing and people living in poverty. Our long collaboration makes it possible to try new things and work on long-term visions.”

Page owner: Department for Asia, North Africa and Humanitarian Assistance

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