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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.
In the wild-caught seafood industry, forced labor persists because the first crucial supply-chain steps take place in a lawless, saltwater abyss.
so badly regulated that officials are unsure just how many Thai boats and fishermen ply the seas.
The Mirror Foundation, a Bangkok-based anti-trafficking NGO, estimates around 250,000 fishermen labor on long-haul boats with the percentage of captives “far greater than anyone imagines.”
Thailand claims one of the world’s largest commercial fishing fleets. In its last public census, the Thai Fisheries Department counted more than 25,000 mid- to large-sized vessels. But this picture is further muddled by “ghost boats,” Thai boatman lingo for unregistered deep-sea vessels.
They are rampant. Numerous officials cited in a 2011 International Organization for Migration report estimate that more than half of all fishing boats are unregistered.
Many ghost boats are actually full-on clones of registered boats mimicking everything from the paperwork to the paint job, according to investigations by the Labor Rights Promotion Network, a Thai NGO based in Samut Sakhon.
“A boat owner might have a fleet of 10 boats,” said Piyakrai Seelakort, a caseworker with the network. “Four will be legitimate. Six will be clones.”
If approached by marine police, a Thai captain is required to provide the boat’s registration and “seafarer” books, government-issued documents that include each fisherman’s name and photo.
“All of this is easy to fake,” Bpa Ouan said. The veteran captain depicted his interactions with various marine authorities as negotiated shakedowns.
“If the Indonesian navy wants to drag you in, you bribe them 10 million rupiah [$1,090]. In Thailand, it’s about 20,000 baht [$646]. You can bribe them on the spot, and keep fishing, or bribe them once you’re tugged ashore,” he said. “But you’re going to end up bribing them.”
Trawling under the radar
Under such an anarchic approach to regulation, the number of sea slaves remains a mystery. What they catch is not. All escaped slaves interviewed by GlobalPost, and most ex-captives profiled by anti-trafficking agencies, describe laboring on a particular style of vessel: the trawler.
Sturdy and ubiquitous on Southeast Asia’s seas, the trawler is the ideal deep-sea slave ship. Nearly 60 percent of all Thai vessels’ catch is pulled aboard a trawler, according to a UN fisheries report. Manning nets on the roughly 50-foot boats is a job for at least 15 people. But on ghost boats, ex-slaves report, captives often squeeze all that labor from seven or eight men.
If a fishing pole is a sniper rifle, a trawler net is a Dresden-style bombardment. Heavily weighted mesh nets dredge the sea floor and scoop up everything in their path. Another less-popular technique — the “purse seine” method — captures fish that swim in the warmer zones between the waves and the ocean floor.
Either way, more than half of a typical trawler’s catch amounts to “trash fish”: tiny fish and unpalatable species. Trash fish, however, are not trash per se: they’re sold to processors that grind them up bones and all to make fish oil, livestock feed, fertilizer, pet food and low-quality edible nuggets.
“The biggest thing in the net could be nearly 90 kilos [nearly 200 pounds],” said Kim Net, a 26-year-old former slave from Cambodia. “The smallest are as little as your fist.”
A typical Thai trawler’s high-value catch consists of snapper, sardines, squid, anchovies and mackerel, according to multiple sources including the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Not only do these species match ex-slaves’ descriptions of their trawler’s catch, they make up for many of the breeds shipped en masse to America.
In 2011, according to National Marine Fisheries Service stats, Thailand’s US exports included the same species associated with illicit trawlers: sardines (12.4 million pounds), processed fish balls and cakes (10.2 million pounds), mackerel (9 million pounds), squid (8.8 million pounds), cuttlefish (1.2 million pounds), snapper (237,500 pounds), anchovies (167,000 pounds) and so on. The US imports 5.3 billion pounds of edible seafood every year.
Claiming that no slave-harvested seafood finds its way into America’s anchovy salads, squid linguine or sardine sandwiches is highly dubious. Once a slave-caught fish leaves a ghost boat and comes aboard the mothership, it becomes nearly impossible to trace back to the original boat.
Captains, beholden to their syndicate’s owners, radio a description of their catch to supervisors on land. When they locate their mothership, the boat’s haul is transferred to a stall inside its ice room. Those who enter must first don an industrial