Relevant news article on IUU fishing

 Fish caught illegally by Chinese boats, getting shipped into Japan
 Prohibited fishing methods, human rights abuses commonplace 
 British conservation group investigates, crew members testify 
 Investigation points out involvement of a major trading company

Photo: Shark finning at the Chinese fishing vessel (Environmental Justice Foundation)

 Illegal fishing and human rights abuses against workers are routinely committed on many Chinese fishing vessels operating in the Western Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and tuna and other fish caught by these vessels are likely to have been brought to the Japanese market, according to an investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF, an environmental group based in the U.K.), as well as interviews of Indonesian fishermen by Kyodo News. The EJF analyzed the results of tracking surveys using the location information of the vessels, and interviews with about 70 crew members; the crew members also testified to Kyodo News about the actual situation.
 The EJF pointed out that the carriers that transferred the catch from the Chinese fishing vessels included vessels operated by a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation. As international attention focuses on companies’ stances on “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing” and human rights abuses overseas, Japan’s response is likely to be questioned.
 The environmental organization interviewed about 70 Indonesian seafarers aboard 19 Chinese fishing vessels that operated in the Western Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans and elsewhere from 2017-2020, and which were believed to be related to Japan; the EJF also obtained many photos the fishermen had taken on board. Almost all of the men testified, with pictures, that “finning”, the practice of cutting off only the fins and then discarding the remaining bodies of sharks, was practiced on a large scale.
 Shark finning is the practice of cutting off only the fins of sharks that have been caught, and discarding the less expensive parts of their bodies from the boat. The purpose of this practice is to obtain the fins, which can be sold at high prices as material for foods which include shark fins. Many countries, including the U.S., the European Union, and the U.K., have banned this practice on their own fishing vessels and on vessels entering their ports, as it makes it difficult to identify whether the fins are from sharks that cannot be legally caught, and encourages overfishing. A number of international resource management organizations, including the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), have also banned the practice.
 The EJF analyzed the testimonies and photographs provided by the fishermen, route data of the fishing vessels from satellites, as well as the routes of refrigerated/freezer vessels that came into contact with them, to determine whether the catches were transferred to the refrigerated carriers on the ocean, and where the cargoes went. As a result, they concluded that fish including tuna and swordfish, or black marlin were loaded from these Chinese fishing boats onto about 10 Japan-bound carriers, and transported to ports including Shimizu Port in Shizuoka Prefecture. Some of the sailors testified that they transferred tuna to carriers flying the Japanese flag.
 Some of the Chinese fishing boats that reloaded the tuna belonged to a distant-water fishing company in Dalian, China, which was embargoed by the U.S. government in May for “slave labor” working conditions.
 There were a series of testimonies that Chinese fishermen on board were verbally abusive and violent towards their Indonesian coworkers, that long working hours were the norm, and that in many cases the Indonesians were not paid according to their contracts. A 25-year-old Indonesian seaman who gave an interview to Kyodo News gave a similar account.
 Max Schmid, Deputy Director {as of 2021, Chief Operating Officer*; cf. https://ejfoundation.org/who-we-are/the-ejf-team} of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), pointed out, “IUU fishing has a negative impact on both natural resources and biodiversity. While the European Union (EU) and the United States have taken legal steps to stop imports from fishing vessels associated with IUU fishing and human rights violations, Japan’s legal system has not kept pace,” he said. Schmid added, “Consumers end up eating seafood associated with IUU fishing and human rights abuses without knowing it, and law-abiding Japanese fishermen are also harmed. It is necessary to strengthen countermeasures, such as requiring by law that all marine products be certified as having come from legitimate fisheries.”

 In response to the findings of the conservation group’s investigation, Mitsubishi Corporation’s Public Relations Department commented, “Four of the carriers cited by the group are chartered by our subsidiary (Toyo Reizo), but neither our company nor our subsidiary have confirmed any of them being involved in illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing or human rights violations. As for the activities of the Chinese fishing vessels in question, we would ask you to confirm their activities with their owners. We exchange views on human rights and sustainability through direct dialogue with the owners of fishing vessels we do business with, and we also conduct annual questionnaires of our suppliers to determine whether or not to conduct on-site surveys if issues are found”. The department added, “Tuna reloading and other activities are carried out in accordance with international rules to ensure transparency.”
 The EJF, established in 2000, is an international environmental organization that operates in Europe, Asia including Japan, Latin America, Africa, etc. It carries out fact-finding surveys and provides policy recommendations on environmental issues including fisheries and deforestation, as well as related human rights violations.


 An Indonesian fisherman, 25, who spent two years aboard a Chinese tuna fishing boat, gave a graphic account, on condition of anonymity, of illegal fishing and daily human rights abuses on board in an online interview with Kyodo News.

– What was the situation with illegal finning?

 “We regularly aimed to catch sharks, and on average we caught about 15 a day. Only the fins were cut off, and the rest of the shark bodies were either thrown away or used as bait for fish. After boiling the fins, we skinned them and dried them in the sun on board. We bagged them and put them in boxes, and hid them in the refrigerator for everyday food – rather than in the freezer for catch – to hide them from inspection.”

– Did you catch dolphins?

 ”We didn’t target them, but I saw some caught as bycatch. I remember some Chinese sailors cutting off the dolphins’ heads, discarding the bodies, and taking the teeth back as souvenirs.”

– Trans-shipments to boats bound for Japan?

 “The shark fins were for the Chinese market, but the tuna, swordfish, marlin etc. were for Japan. A carrier boat with a Japanese-style name would be tied to our boat, then we’d move our catch to that other boat. When there was a lot of cargo, it took almost 24 hours to transfer it. I remember one carrier called “Tuna Queen,” but there were some others that also were bound for Japan.”

– What were the working conditions on board?

 ”I was originally contracted to work on a Taiwanese ship, but it was a mainland Chinese ship that I ended up on. Almost every day I was subjected to abusive language such as ‘Your work is slow.’ and ‘How long are you going to sleep?’ I never experienced physical abuse myself, but I saw a fellow fisherman who appeared to have been injured in a violent attack. During busy times, we would work over 24 hours straight, but during those times, we were almost never given any food or drinking water. Even when we were sick or injured, we were not given medicine unless our condition was very bad – and even then it was just simple medicine. One time, a fishermen was injured, but couldn’t get treated; so his condition got worse, and he ended up unable to work, and had to be brought ashore on a ship from another country.

– What happened with your passport?

 “When it was decided which boat I’d be on, the boat captain took my passport, and I couldn’t get it back until my contract was finished. Only once in two years was I allowed to land – in a Senegalese port for nine days to do special work, such as loading and unloading goods (for which I was not paid). The Chinese sailors had passports and were free to walk around town, but we Indonesians, the Filipinos, and others could only go to certain areas.”

-What do you think about your experience now?

 “I was paid a salary, but after the two years of my contract were up, I decided that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I am grateful that Japanese people are buying our tuna, but we want them to know that behind the tuna, illegal activities are rampant, and poor, vulnerable fishermen like us are suffering as victims.”


 IUU fishing, as revealed in this survey, takes place in oceans worldwide and has in recent years become a major international issue. It is said that exploitative “slave labor” – such as unpaid wages for crew members – is rampant on ships operating in this way, and some point out that “the seas are lawless zones” where surveillance is difficult. This is a problem that is also linked to Japan, but there has been little movement toward a solution.
 An Indonesian fisherman on a Chinese fishing boat testified in this investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF): ”I was supposed to be paid $480 (about 52,000 yen) a month, but even after 14 months of work, I never received any money.”
 Another seaman explained, “$1,400 was deducted from my pre-contracted salary, for things like safety training and medical examinations.” As a result, he said, he was left in debt to the intermediary.
 According to the testifying crew, “finning” of sharks, which is strictly regulated, was done on a regular basis. The cut fins were placed in food boxes and hidden in food refrigerators to evade inspection. Sharks such as hammerhead sharks, which are considered an endangered species of which fishing is banned, were included.
 Video taken on board clearly shows the crew cutting off the fins of the sharks and throwing their bodies overboard.
 There were also several testimonies and photos showing that the boats sometimes deliberately caught dolphins and sea turtles – the catching of which is prohibited – and only their shells and teeth brought back as accessories or souvenirs.
 Illegal fishing vessels and the Japanese market are not unrelated.
 In May 2020, the EJF’s investigation also included fishing boats belonging to China’s Dalian Ocean Fishing Company Limited; the company was found to be engaged in large-scale illegal shark fin fishing and serious human rights abuses.
 Mitsubishi Corporation responded to Kyodo News by stating, “We have not had any tuna transactions since April 2020 with the Dalian company that was allegedly involved in human rights abuses and other crimes, but we did purchase tuna from them in the past. If the reports are true, it is very regrettable.”
 Although the fight against IUU fishing is an international issue, it is difficult to grasp the reality of the problem, and eradicate it. At sea, it has become common for many fishing vessels to transfer their catch to large carriers, making it difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal products.
 In the past few years, Europe and the United States have been working to eliminate IUU fishing by requiring that proof of catches’ origins, including the location, fishing method, and fishing companies involved, be provided when catches are landed.
 In December 2020, Japan enacted the Act on Ensuring the Proper Domestic Distribution and Importation of Specified Aquatic Animals and Plants, which requires fishermen to show proof of catch coming from both Japan and abroad. However, for the time being, the law only covers sea cucumbers and abalone, and is not expected to include tuna. Environmental groups are calling for the law to be expanded to cover all fish species as soon as possible.
 Yasuhiro Sanada, visiting visiting associate professor of environmental policy at Waseda University and an expert on the issue of IUU fishing, said, “Japan’s efforts are lagging behind, and there is an urgent need for the country to strengthen regulations. If regulations are delayed, there is a greater risk that IUU fish products that are no longer accepted in Europe and the United States will flow into Japan, where regulations are looser.”
 Another member of the Fisheries Agency’s study group on the catch certification system, Wakao Hanaoka, head of Seafood Legacy, pointed out, “As a countermeasure to IUU fishing, the European Union requires catch certification for all imported fish species, and discussions are underway in the U.S. to cover all fish species. In Japan, which is one of the three largest markets along with the U.S. and Europe, the Act on Ensuring the Proper Domestic Distribution and Importation of Specified Aquatic Animals and Plants has been enacted to prevent the inflow of IUU fisheries products, and the world’s attention is focused on this trend.”
 ”In Japan, only a few species, such as bluefin tuna, are currently subject to mandatory catch certification, so the law should start with highly at-risk species and eventually cover all species. Companies are being called upon to set up and implement procurement policies which eliminate IUU fishing – without waiting for the law to be enacted,” he said.

By Tetsuji Ida, Kyodo News