Crimes like this don’t usually happen on land. A 10-minute slow-motion slaughter taken with a mobile phone camera shows a group of unarmed men at sea, floating in the water, shooting dead one by one, then the perpetrators creating celebratory selfies.
For human rights lawyers and ocean advocates, the only thing more shocking than the footage was the government’s inaction that followed.
The case demonstrates the challenge of prosecuting crimes at sea and why offshore violence often comes with punishment. There were at least four ships at the scene that day, but there was no law that required any of the dozens of witnesses to report murder – and none did.
Authorities learned of the murder only when the video was filmed on a mobile phone left in a taxi in Fiji in 2014. It is still unclear who the victims were or why they were shot.
An unspecified number of similar killings take place every year – those on the deck of the ship whose video was later filmed said they had witnessed a similar carnage a week earlier.
Sea deaths are hard to track
The number of deaths at sea – including homicides – remains difficult to assess. Typical estimates have been about 32,000 casualties each year, making commercial fishing one of the most dangerous occupations on the planet. A new estimate is more than 100,000 deaths a year – or more than 300 a day, according to research conducted by the Safe Fish Foundation and funded by the Pew Charitable Foundation.
“The reasons for this significant loss of life include the lack of a comprehensive legal framework for safety and coordinated approaches to promoting safety at sea in the fishing sector,” a recent report said. this report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
But the United Nations, which tracks deaths by occupation, did not say how many of these deaths were due to avoidable accidents, neglect or violence.
The brutality in the far-water fishing fleets – and the connection to the forced labor on these ships – has been an open secret for some time. A report released in May by The University of Nottingham’s Rights Laboratory showed, for example, that migrant workers on British fishing boats were systematically overworked and underpaid; More than one-third of workers reported that they had experienced severe physical abuse.
In 2020, a team of researchers used satellite data tracking about 16,000 fishing vessels to estimate how many people were at risk of forced labor, based on criteria set forth by the International Labor Organization. determined by the United Nations. Follow researchpublished in the journal PNAS.
Steve Trent, director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said his staff interviewed 116 Indonesian crew members who worked on fishing boats from China, which has the world’s largest offshore fishing fleet. Generally 58 percent the organization perceives to have witnessed or experienced physical violence.
LISTEN | Ian Urbina talks to The Current about crimes committed at sea:
Present23:37Ian Urbina on the crimes committed at sea
Addressing such violence and other brutal conditions in commercial fishing is in large part difficult because so little data is collected or made available to the public. And since problems are often only solved when they are seen and counted, this lack of research is a major barrier to industry regulation.
Murder caught on mobile phone prosecuted
The mobile phone-captured murder case is unusual in that the perpetrator and the ship have finally been identified.
Trygg Mat Tracking, a Norwegian research company focused on maritime crime, identified the ship as the Taiwanese-flagged Ping Shin 101 by comparing the footage with images in a maritime database. The former deckhands on Ping Shin were found through posts on Facebook and on other social media platforms where they discussed their joining times. Interviews with these former deckers, some of whom say they witnessed the murder captured in video, reveal the captain’s name and details of the murder.
Taiwanese officials, presented with the names of the men and the ship in 2015 and 2016, said the victims appeared to be part of a failed pirate attack.
But maritime security analysts note that claims of piracy have been used to justify violence for a wide range of offenses, real or not. The victims, they said, could be the crew members who were killed, those who were stolen or simply the fishermen’s opponents.
After years of pressure from the public and the press, the Taiwanese government issued an arrest warrant for Wang Feng Yu, the captain of the Ping Shin 101, who ordered the murder. In 2021, he was found guilty and sentenced to 26 years in prison.
Such killings will continue to go unchecked, without better monitoring of violence at sea, more transparency from registry agencies, and more transparency, according to maritime and law enforcement researchers. flags and fishing, as well as greater efforts by governments to prosecute perpetrators, according to maritime researchers and law enforcement.
And that’s important because what happens at sea affects everyone. By some estimates, more than 90% of world trade is transported by sea, and seafood is the main source of protein for much of the world.
What can be done? Campaigners, law enforcement and researchers suggest four steps.
Report violence. Human rights researchers argue that ship owners and crews should have a legal obligation to report crimes at sea. The resulting data is not kept private by insurance companies or registries but must be made available to the public.
Registrar of agencies. Vessels sailing on the high seas comply with the regulations of the flag state on which the ship flies. Flags of convenience often cover up illegal acts, including violence against or between crews. Fisheries companies should require fishing vessels to provide them only with the most stringent transparency and accountability standards.
Prohibition of transshipment. Forced labor and violent crime are more common on fishing vessels that stay at sea for longer periods of time, accomplished by transshipment, in which supply vessels carry catch back to shore for fishing vessels to use. Fish can continue to work. Forcing ships to return to shore sooner helps limit forced labor or trafficking, and allows companies and governments to immediately check for violence or poor working conditions.
Supervision of employment agencies. Seafood buyers and fishing companies should clean up their supply chains by requiring crew recruitment, payroll and transportation agencies to present a digital copy of the contract stating wages and prohibits common trade practices such as debt bondage, prepaid recruitment fees or passport confiscation.
There are reasons for hope, human rights and maritime advocates say. Satellites make it difficult for ships to navigate in the dark and hide their crimes. Mobile phones make it easier for crew members to capture violence. The increased use of open source videos by journalists has raised public awareness of human rights and labor abuses occurring abroad.
But these advocates also add that we are far from there: now, they say, it is up to companies and governments to do their part.
Ian Urbina is the director of Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization focused on environmental and human rights concerns at sea. The murders on Ping Shin 101 are the subject of the first episode of a new podcast series, The Outlaw Ocean, published by the CBC and the Los Angeles Times. To listen on the CBC Listen app, or wherever you get your podcast.