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For Americans, the calculation is worrisome. Thailand is the United States’ second-largest supplier of foreign seafood. Of America's total seafood imports, one out of every six pounds comes from the Southeast Asian nation. The accounts of ex-slaves, Thai fishing syndicates, officials, exporters and anti-trafficking case workers, gathered by GlobalPost in a three-month investigation, illuminate an opaque offshore supply chain enmeshed in slavery.

Seafood slavery part 3 pic
Migrants from Cambodia and Myanmar unload fish off a boat Feb. 25, 2010, in Mahachai, Thailand. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Motherships in the abyss

In the wild-caught seafood industry, forced labor persists because the first crucial supply-chain steps take place in a lawless, saltwater abyss.

SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand, and PREY VENG, Cambodia — The laundering begins in a sub-zero chamber floating far from civilization. It is filled with heaps of fish, and men dressed like eskimos.

This is the fridge room on a vessel known as a “mothership.” These hulking vessels serve as deep-sea resupply stations for trawlers seeking fuel, meat, medicine, spare parts and even laborers to replace men lost at sea.

The ship’s most important function, however, is receiving wild catch into its icy bowels and ferrying it to onshore fishmongers. Some motherships and fishing boats operate under the same syndicate. Motherships that don't collect a fee for transporting catch to the buyer, typically a fishmonger stationed at a specific dock. Once a squid or sardine comes aboard the mothership, there is almost no way to know whether it was netted by paid fishermen or sea slaves.

“Motherships have freezing capacity to hold high-value fish for long periods of time,” said Lisa Rende Taylor, chief technical specialist with the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. “The fish is taken back to Thai ports for sale and, most likely, export if the fish is of high value.”

“The boat that caught it may or may not have used slave labor,” she said. “There’s just no way to know who actually caught these fish because of the way unregistered boats work with motherships many kilometers away from the shore.”

Most of the fisheries supply chain between the US and Thailand, America’s second-largest supplier of foreign seafood, can be traced. These are the links that can’t.

Slavery in Thailand’s deep-sea fishing trade is an open secret, acknowledged by the US, the UN and some within the Thai government. It is not all-pervasive. Thailand's biggest seafood export, shrimp, is sourced from coastal farms subject to spot checks. Most "Thai" tuna, the nation's second-largest seafood export, is actually imported from abroad and processed for re-export.

But in the wild-caught seafood industry, forced labor persists because the first crucial supply-chain steps — catch and transport — take place in a lawless, saltwater abyss.

“It’s brutal out there,” said Bpa Ouan, a fishing syndicate chief based in Samut Sakhon, the Thai seafood industry’s industrial hub. His name is a nom de guerre that means “Poppa Fatty.”

“The law is soft,” he said. “We have to handle problems ourselves.”

Overfishing in Thai waters has drawn the nation’s vessels into increasingly distant seas. A UN report estimates that 40 percent of Thailand’s seafood output is caught in foreign territory. Thai vessels now ply the near waters of Malaysia and Indonesia as well as the far seas by Bangladesh and even Somalia.

Bpa Ouan, now 50, began as a 16-year-old deckhand. Later, as a captain, he earned a reputation for fearlessness by illegally trawling Vietnamese waters in the 1990s.

“Their navy sucked but they’d always fire on sight,” he said. “I saw lots of guys get shot up. They’d wait until we anchored and start blasting. You’d have to yank the anchor quick or just cut it and tear out of there.”

The trade has always rewarded men who inspire fear and obedience. Before he swore off alcohol, Bpa Ouan boozed for free in Thailand’s port-side karaoke dens. As a syndicate boss, he now administers rewards and punishments, payments and fees. He is surrounded by tattooed bruisers who call him “daddy," an honorific for powerful men in Thailand.

“I’m like the master and they are my students,” said Bpa Ouan, his coiffed hair tinged with pewter-gray streaks. “They’re like my children.”

For his five biological offspring, however, the fish trade is off limits. “No way,” he said. “You don’t want your kids doing this.”

Murky waters

Most deep-sea fish — legit or caught by slaves — travels through the same steps: trawler, mothership, onshore fishmonger, processing plant, exporter, importer and, finally, supermarket or restaurant.

The world of Thai trawlers is particularly opaque. “Not all of these fishing boats are bad,” Rende Taylor said. “There are good ones as well. But picking out the bad seeds is very difficult.”

Reckoning the number of men in slavery on Thai vessels is almost impossible, she said. “Thousands” is a common estimate among anti-trafficking agencies.

Attempting to measure the trade’s criminality is exasperating: even figures on legal operations are elusive. The trade is