How to get away with murder on the high seas

More than 100,000 people die on the oceans each year, a rising number fuelled by impunity drawn from poor regulations.

The men floating in the sea were apparently shot from the deck of the Taiwanese fishing vessel Ping Shin 101
The Taiwanese fishing vessel Ping Shin 101, from where a group of unarmed men was shot in a case of murder on the seas that has led to a rare conviction [Outlaw Ocean Project]

Crimes like this don’t often happen on land. A 10-minute slow-motion slaughter captured by a cellphone camera shows a group of unarmed men at sea, flailing in the water, shot and killed one by one, after which the culprits pose for celebratory selfies. The only thing more shocking than the footage was the government inaction that followed.

The case shows the challenge of prosecuting crimes on the high seas and the reason violence offshore often occurs with impunity. There were at least four ships at the scene that day, but no law required any of the dozens of witnesses to report the killings — and no one did. Authorities learned of the killings only when the video turned up on a cellphone left in a taxi in Fiji in 2014.

It’s still unclear who the victims were or why they were shot. An unknown number of similar killings take place each year — deckhands on the ship from which the video was shot later said they had witnessed a similar slaughter a week before.

The number of violent killings – and deaths at sea in general – remain extremely hard to assess. The typical estimate has been about 32,000 casualties per year, making commercial fishing among the most dangerous professions on the planet. The new estimate is more than 100,000 fatalities per year – more than 300 a day — according to research produced by the FISH Safety Foundation and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Reasons for this significant loss of life include the lack of a comprehensive safety legislative framework and coordinated approaches to promoting safety at sea in the fishing sector,” a September report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said. But the United Nations, which tracks fatalities by profession, does not indicate how many of these deaths are from avoidable accidents, neglect or violence.

Brutality in distant-water fishing fleets – and the connection to forced labour on these vessels – has been an open secret for a while. A report released in May by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab showed, for example, that migrant workers on British fishing ships were systematically overworked and underpaid while more than a third of the workers said they experienced severe physical violence.

In 2020, a team of researchers used satellite data tracking of about 16,000 fishing ships to estimate that up to 100,000 people — a quarter of those sailing on those vessels — were at high risk of being victims of forced labour.

The Environmental Justice Foundation interviewed 116 Indonesian crew members who worked on fishing vessels from China, which has the world’s largest distant-water fishing fleet. Comfortably more than half had seen or experienced physical violence, the organisation found.

Addressing such violence and other brutal conditions in commercial fishing is difficult in large part because so little data is captured or provided to the public. That research shortfall is a major barrier to regulating the industry.

The case of the murders caught on the cellphone was unusual in that the perpetrator and the ship were eventually identified. Trygg Mat Tracking, a Norwegian research firm that focuses on maritime crime, determined the ship was the Taiwanese-flagged Ping Shin 101 by comparing video footage with images in a maritime database. Former deckhands on the Ping Shin were found through Facebook postings and on other social media platforms where they had discussed their time on board. Interviews with these former deckhands, some of whom said they witnessed the killings captured in the video, revealed the name of the captain and details of the killings.

Taiwanese officials, presented with the names of the men and ships in 2015 and 2016, said the victims appeared to be part of a failed pirate attack. But maritime security analysts noted that the claim of piracy has been used to justify violence for a range of offences, real or otherwise. The victims, they said, might have been crew members who had mutinied, thieves caught stealing or simply rival fishermen.

After several years of public and journalistic pressure, the Taiwanese government issued a warrant for the arrest of Wang Feng Yu, the captain of the Ping Shin 101, who ordered the killings. In 2021, he was convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison, though a court reduced that to 13 years in June this year.

Such killings will continue to go unchecked and unpunished without better tracking of offshore violence, more transparency from flag registries and fishing companies, and more effort by governments to prosecute the perpetrators. And that matters because what occurs at sea affects everyone. By some estimates, upwards of 90 percent of world trade is moved by sea and seafood is a major source of protein for much of the world.

What can be done? Advocates, law enforcement officials and researchers suggest four steps.

First, human rights researchers suggest that ship owners and crews should be legally obligated to report crimes at sea. The resulting data should not be held privately by insurance companies or flag registries for ships, but be made available to the public.

Second, registries must be regulated. Ships on the high seas obey the rules of the countries whose flags they fly. Flags of convenience often provide cover for illegal behaviour, including violence against or between crew. Seafood companies should require that fishing ships supplying them only fly the flags with the strictest accountability and transparency standards.

Next, transshipment must be banned. Forced labour and violent crime are more common on fishing ships that stay at sea longer, which are enabled by transshipment, where supply vessels carry catch back to shore so that fishing boats can keep working. Forcing ships back to shore sooner helps limit forced or trafficked labour, and enables companies and governments to spot check for violence or abysmal working conditions.

Finally, it is vital to monitor employment agencies. Seafood buyers and fishing companies should clean up their supply chains by requiring the agencies that recruit, pay and transport crews to produce digital copies of contracts indicating wages and prohibiting common trafficking tactics like debt bondage, up-front recruitment fees or passport confiscation.

There are reasons for hope. Satellites make it tougher for ships to go dark and hide their crimes. Cellphones make it easier for crew members to document violence. A growing use of open-source footage by journalists has bolstered public awareness of human rights and labour abuses offshore. Now, it’s really up to companies and governments to do their part.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.