Taiwan all at sea on illegal fishing practices

Government insists Taiwan’s deep-sea fishing fleet is cleaning up its act

A fishing boat in Su-ao, Yilan County, sets out to sea. (Taiwan News, Jules Quartly photo)

A fishing boat in Su-ao, Yilan County, sets out to sea. (Taiwan News, Jules Quartly photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Taiwan's Fisheries Agency intends to overturn a U.S. decision that censures the nation’s fishing fleets by proving that it does in fact comply with International Labor Organization fishing conventions.

Taiwan’s fishing industry was in September put on the U.S. Labor Department’s "List of goods produced by child labor or forced labor." This is a black mark on Taiwan’s reputation for being a progressive and fair nation.

It would also appear to undermine President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) policy of welcoming migrant workers, being non-discriminatory, and ensuring their rights. This is being codified in the New Economic Immigration Bill that is still under review.

Taiwan’s fishing fleet is said to be the second-largest in the world, with more than 1,100 vessels employing about 35,000 migrant workers, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. It has an annual output value of NT$40 billion (US$1.4 billion) and is second in size only to China’s fishing fleet, according to Voice of America.

The VOA report quoted Lin Ding-rong (林頂榮), director of Taiwan's Fisheries Agency deep-sea division, last week as saying the following of the U.S. Labor Department listing: "This has negatively impacted U.S. buyers' confidence in sourcing catch (from Taiwan). Frankly, we disagree with the U.S. decision, which was based on offenses by one or a few vessels but will largely hurt the interests of the majority of law-abiding fishermen here."

Lin said there had been new legislation to improve working conditions and prevent illegal fishing. He added that plans to electronically monitor conditions onboard ships were being implemented.

Even so, Greenpeace and a number of organizations representing migrant fishermen’s rights in Taiwan have said the U.S. rebuke is deserved. Furthermore, the European Federation of Journalists has in a series of reports criticized Taiwan fishing companies and boat owners for human rights abuses, illegal fishing practices such as finning sharks, and killing protected species like dolphins, whales, and turtles.

Taipei-based Canadian journalist and author Joe Henley recently published a powerful book about the plight of Taiwan's exploited migrant fishermen. He believes the "heavy hand" of the law is needed to improve conditions for the better.

"If concrete steps aren't taken by the Taiwanese fisheries industry to ensure that its catch is not produced by forced labor, some sort of censure by the international market might be the next logical step."

The EU has also “yellow carded” Taiwan’s fishing industry since 2015. If it gets a “red card” for illegal fishing practices, it would mean a ban on seafood exports to the region.

Being listed by the U.S. Labor Department merely means that customs may investigate imports of Taiwan fish. However, some companies could decide to ban Taiwan fish imports unless illegal fishing practices are done away with and the treatment of migrant fishermen is improved.