Workers in the Fishing Industry

From the steady depletion of fish populations to the suffering these animals experience, it is clear that commercial fishing is a cruel industry. But what about the humans who toil on fishing boats or in processing plants? Numerous investigations and research studies show that these workers endure low wages, inadequate living facilities, insufficient food and water, a lack of safety equipment, and endless working hours.[1] Many are forced to work as part of debt bondage to pay off an obligation, such as their recruitment; they receive very little pay or might only be compensated by receiving some of the fishes caught that day.[2] Others are even enslaved, victims of human trafficking who work against their will for no pay at all. Such forced labor has been recently found aboard ships from Thailand, China, and Taiwan as well as England and the United States, among others.[3] With no hope of escape while out at sea, some workers suffer physical, sexual, and mental abuse.[4]

One of the reasons for this situation is that due to dwindling fish populations, it now requires twice the fishing effort that it did in the 1950s to capture the same number of fishes, leading some commercial fishing operations to engage in serious labor abuses, including slavery.[5] Although modern slavery has no legal definition, the International Labour Organization (ILO) defines it as “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.”[6]

About the Workers

In 2017, an estimated 40.1 million people worldwide worked on fishing boats.[7] Like laborers in agriculture and slaughterhouses, workers in the fishing industry are often economic refugees who are lured or forced into crossing borders after false promises of a well-paying job.[8]

In its 2013 study Caught at Sea: Forced Labour and Trafficking in Fisheries, the ILO reports that migrant workers are especially prone to being deceived and exploited by labor brokers and recruitment agencies and forced to work on fishing vessels under the threat of violence or by means of debt bondage. “Victims describe illness, physical injury, psychological and sexual abuse, deaths, and their vulnerability on board vessels in remote locations of the sea for months and years at a time.”[9]

A typical example, documented by Human Rights Watch, is Saw Win, who left his native Burma (now Myanmar) with the help of a labor broker and wound up working against his will on a Thai fishing vessel with other migrants. After toiling on a trawler for three months without pay, he was locked up at port and sold to another boat on which the person in charge of the ship regularly beat the crew with an iron bar and threatened them at gunpoint. They were given meager rations of food as “payment.” Some workers became malnourished and ill, and at least one was thrown overboard and drowned. Saw Win was sold to yet another boat, where he witnessed the person in charge of the ship beat and strangle a worker to death because he’d supposedly torn a fishing net. Eventually, Saw Win jumped overboard and was picked up by a passing ship, which brought him safely to Malaysia—his first time on land in two years.[10]

According to a report by the Environmental Justice Foundation, an escaped victim of trafficking named Tun Thet Soe was among 59 percent of laborers in the Thai fishing industry who watched the killing of a fellow worker. “They would torture and murder the fishers then throw them into the sea,” he said. “They abused the crew in many ways—beating, hitting, and killing out on the ocean. I witnessed murder with my own eyes.”[11]

Some victims of forced labor on fishing boats have been found to be as young as 11 years old.[12] Meanwhile, a 2013 investigation into child labor in fishing and aquaculture by the ILO found 4-year-old children working on fishing nets and in other on-land capacities in Cambodia,[13] and similar discoveries were made in Ghana’s fishing industry in 2019.[14]

Nature of the Work

It is difficult to accurately monitor working conditions far out at sea.[15] Clearly, the nature of the work is different for crews on so-called “legitimate” fishing vessels than for those on what are known as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) ships. (IUU fishing “includes all fishing that breaks fisheries laws or occurs outside the reach of fisheries laws and regulations.”[16]) For example, in both cases, the work is highly strenuous and the hours are long, but on IUU vessels, at least one study found that crews were given as little as four hours a day to rest and sleep.[17]

Regardless of the vessel, however, the nature of commercial fishing work may be characterized as harsh. “Furthermore, fishermen (and processing workers) for the most part are a nonunion work force. There are no third parties monitoring work hours, health benefits, time at sea, profit sharing (most fishermen do not work for wages), grievances, or collective bargaining.”[18]

Some port authorities and fishery observers try their best to monitor illegal fishing, yet these efforts have been severely restricted during the international outbreak of COVID-19, which prevented inspectors from boarding vessels.[19] Clearly, future pandemics will cause a similar disruption to monitoring efforts.

Health and Safety Hazards

Because it often takes place far out at sea in a rapidly changing environment, commercial fishing is highly dangerous. Fishers must routinely cope with slippery decks and open hatches, becoming entangled in nets and fishing lines, ice in the water, contact with high tension lines and cables running through hydraulic equipment, and any number of additional hazards that can cause serious injury or death. Moreover, rapid transportation to a doctor or medical facility is often not possible when injuries occur. The biggest dangers, however, are sinking vessels, which are the number-one cause of fatalities, followed by workers falling overboard.[20]

“Commercial fishing boat” by Sam Beebe is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“The fatality rates and injury rates in fishing have always been high and they continue to be high because of the nature of the work,” says Brandt Wagner, senior specialist at the ILO.[21]

Workers on fishing vessels are also exposed to or may experience fatigue, extreme temperatures, disease-carrying insects, chemical hazards, sleep apnea, hearing loss, poor dental care, and a higher prevalence of certain types of cancers, including actinic keratosis and leukemia.[22, 23]

Although the majority of sea creatures consumed by people in the United States comes from overseas, commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. as well, with a fatality rate that is 23 times higher than for all other workers.[24] But there are also dangers on land for workers. Conditions for foreign-born workers employed by the U.S. “seafood” processing industry often resemble those endured by migrant workers in agricultural fields and slaughterhouses, including wage theft, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, crowded living conditions, and threats of being reported to immigration authorities.[25]

A 2020 lawsuit brought against Seattle-based North Pacific Seafoods by Alaska-based employees, many from Mexico and Central America, accused the company of forcing them to endure filthy, unsafe working conditions and cheating them out of wages. Workers were exposed to ammonia fumes because the plant’s ammonia detector did not work, stopped eating when the smell of raw sewage in the dining hall became intolerable, and were issued just one dust mask for the entire fishing season—a mask intended to function as both a shield against fish entrails and COVID-19 yet was covered in fishes’ blood and rendered useless within two days.”[26] The same company had settled another lawsuit months earlier for unpaid wages, false imprisonment, and failure to follow coronavirus testing and quarantine procedures.[27]

Other health and safety hazards faced by workers in processing plants include high noise levels that may result in hearing loss, musculoskeletal disorders caused by ergonomic risk factors, as well as exposure to chemical and “seafood” allergens that can increase the incidence of occupational dermatitis and asthma. These are all often underdiagnosed and underreported, leading to significant harm and poor quality of life for these workers.[28]

Out at sea, the most highly regarded legal tool for ensuring the safety of human life and vessels is the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS); however, fishing vessels are generally exempted from SOLAS, unless specifically included.[29]

Quality of Life

Faced with myriad health challenges and the stress that comes with physically demanding work and exploitative conditions, most commercial fishers and workers in the “seafood” processing industry have a poor quality of life. Moreover, abuses of labor and human rights are a common occurrence on IUU fishing vessels.[30]

Life aboard fishing boats is difficult at best. Workers endure isolation, confinement, boredom, monotony, tension with co-workers, long hours, strenuous and complex workloads, noise, and sleep deprivation.[31]

Even among legally sanctioned fishing activities, fishers are subject to a variety of stressors, including the presence of IUU vessels. A 2017 study in which 306 fishermen (276 Malays, 18 Chinese, and 12 Indians) were asked to characterize their quality of life found that lack of maritime law enforcement was a major factor in how they felt about their work. “The government came up with all these laws and acts and they’re good,” said one fisher. “But the implementation is almost zero because there are still so many illegal boats trespassing our zones.”[32] Many of the respondents were angry that the intruding fishers used banned fishing gear, which destroys artificial and coral reefs, thus reducing the fish population.

Environmental Impact

While it is the position of Food Empowerment Project that no fishes or other animals should be taken from the ocean to be killed or eaten, we recognize that many environmental groups are concerned about “overfishing.” Such organizations say that taking “too many” fishes from the ocean than the marine population can replenish is an unsustainable practice, leading to a collapse of “fish stock” and threatening the ocean ecosystem.[33] (Again, the position of Food Empowerment Project is that all sea creatures should be left alone.) According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Overfishing transforms an originally stable, mature and efficient ecosystem into one that is immature and stressed.”[34] The FAO says this happens in a variety of ways, such as when fisheries target and reduce the abundance of predators, thus modifying the trophic chain and the flows of biomass across the ecosystem. “They can also alter habitats, most notably by destroying and disturbing bottom topography and the associated habitats (e.g. seagrass and algal beds, coral reefs) and benthic communities.”[35]

Another catastrophic effect of commercial fishing is dumped fishing gear. By some estimates, the fishing industry is the largest plastic polluter in the ocean, discarding more than 640,000 tonnes of nets, lines, pots, and traps in the ocean every year, the same weight as 55,000 double-decker buses.[36] Other studies, however, say that 80 percent of plastic in the ocean is in the form of food packaging, soda bottles, and other post-consumer trash, making that the number-one source,[37] while 20 percent comes from marine sources.[38]

Whatever the actual amount of dumped fishing gear, it has disastrous consequences for the ocean and those who live in it, as it leads to a tragic phenomenon called “ghost fishing,” in which abandoned equipment continues to trap and kill fishes and other sea creatures. By one estimate, some 650,000 marine mammals are killed every year by ghost gear.[39]

IUU fishing—again, the type most likely to exploit workers—is especially prone to environmental destruction, and it undermines the ability to accurately report information about fishing activities.[40]

Our Responsibility

If you live in the Global North, home to many of the world’s wealthiest and most industrialized countries, it is important to understand how your consumer choices impact those living in the Global South. The United States, for example, imports about 80 percent of the “seafood” it consumes, mainly from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador,[41] thus fueling forced labor and the enslavement of workers.

We can all help exploited workers in the fishing industry (as well as sea creatures) by not consuming anything from the ocean. This not only reduces the demand for fishes but also decreases the environmental impact that the commercial fishing industry has on the ocean, especially the presence of dumped fishing gear.

Fortunately for those who crave the taste of fishes and crustaceans, there is a growing number of animal-free alternatives available in retail stores and restaurants, including vegan sushi, fishless filets, plant-based shrimp, and many others. Consumers who take fish oil supplements for nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids will also find a wide variety of vegan supplements for sale.

What You Can Do

Go vegan: If you have access to healthy foods, choose a vegan lifestyle. Going vegan is one of the most direct ways to help end the suffering of workers in the fishing industry as well the animals who live in the ocean.


[1] “Forced labour and human trafficking in fisheries,” International Labour Organization,–en/index.htm

[2] Blood and Water: Slavery in the Fishing Industry Revealed,

[3] Global Slavery Index,

[4] Blood and Water: Slavery in the Fishing Industry Revealed,

[5] Modern slavery and the race to fish,

[6] Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage,–en/index.htm

[7] Saving workers from the hell of the fishing industry in Asia,

[8] Seafood Slavery: Human Trafficking in the International Fishing Industry,

[9] Caught at Sea: Forced Labour and Trafficking in Fisheries,—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_214472.pdf

[10] Hidden Chains: Rights Abuses and Forced Labor in Thailand’s Fishing Industry,

[11] Thailand’s Seafood Slaves,

[12] Vietnam boats using child labour for illegal fishing,

[13] Guidance on Addressing Child Labour in Fisheries and Aquaculture, International Labour Organization,


[15] Modern slavery and the race to fish,


[17] Matthew Gianni and Walt Simpson, The Changing Nature of High Seas Fishing: How Flags of Convenience Provide Cover for Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (2005),

[18] National Resource Council, Fishing Vessel Safety: A Blueprint for a National Program (National Academy Press, 1991),

[19] Todd Woody, “Covid-19 leaves fisheries observers in the dark,” China Dialogue Ocean, September 29, 2020,

[20] Fatal Falls Overboard in Commercial Fishing — United States, 2000–2016,

[21] Fishing’s dark side: the need to improve conditions for workers,


[23] Chronic Health Risks in Commercial Fishermen: A Cross-Sectional Analysis from a Small Rural Fishing Village in Alaska,

[24] Fatal Falls Overboard in Commercial Fishing — United States, 2000–2016,

[25] Migrant workers in US seafood industry exposed to forced labor conditions, and American Seafood Has Its Own Forced Labor Problem,

[26] Paula Dobbyn, “Lawsuit alleges wage theft, filthy conditions at Seattle company’s Alaska seafood processing plants,” Seattle Times, November 20, 2020,

[27] Paula Dobbyn, “Lawsuit alleges wage theft, filthy conditions at Seattle company’s Alaska seafood processing plants,” Seattle Times, November 20, 2020,


[29] Caught at Sea: Forced Labour and Trafficking in Fisheries,—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_214472.pdf

[30] Matthew Gianni and Walt Simpson, The Changing Nature of High Seas Fishing: How Flags of Convenience Provide Cover for Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (2005),

[31] Stressors, Coping Mechanisms, and Uplifts of Commercial Fishing in Alaska: A Qualitative Approach to Factors Affecting Fishing in Alaska: A Qualitative Approach to Factors Affecting Human Performance in Extreme Environments,

[32] Quality of Life (QoL) of Fishermen in the West Coast States of Peninsular Malaysia,




[36] Sandra Laville, “Dumped fishing gear is biggest plastic polluter in ocean, finds report,” The Guardian, November 5, 2019,

[37] W.C. Li, H.F. Tsi, and L. Fok, “Plastic waste in the marine environment: A review of sources, occurrence and effects,” Science of the Total Environment, Volumes 566–567, 2016, pages 333–349,

[38] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Plastic Pollution,”, September 2018,

[39] NRDC, Net Loss: The Killing of Marine Mammals in Foreign Fisheries,

[40] David W. Evans, The Consequences of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing for Fishery Data and Management,

[41] Fishwatch U.S. Seafood Facts,