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Addressing Illegal Fishing and Labor Abuses

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Millions of tons of fish are stolen from the ocean each year. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing imposes huge economic losses on coastal and fishing nations – estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.  It is an even greater threat to food security – nearly one billion people rely on fish as their main source of protein. In many of the countries that are most dependent, one fish in three is stolen.  IUU fishing defeats governments’ efforts to manage their resources and undercuts the millions of fishers who are playing by the rules.

Fishing vessels engaged in IUU fishing often engage in labor abuses including, exploitation, forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking, and modern slavery.  Crews can be trapped at sea for months or years at a time, working in grueling conditions and sometimes facing wanton brutality. Wages are withheld or simply never paid. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 128,000 fishers are trapped in forced labor aboard fishing vessels worldwide, often far from shore. Isolation at sea and the risk of repercussions can make it uniquely challenging for workers to report concerns, so the ILO indicates that this figure likely significantly understates the full extent of the labor abuses in the seafood sector.

IUU fishing and labor abuses therefore exist at the intersection of an environmental emergency and a human rights crisis. Addressing these issues requires interdisciplinary, novel, and collaborative policy solutions that engage a multitude of stakeholders – governments, companies, conservation groups, communities, and workers - in mobilizing action to combat these abuses. Here’s what we’re doing:

Addressing Labor Abuses in Fisheries

COS and the Stanford Center for Human Rights and International Justice are working together to address labor abuses in the tuna sector. Labor abuses encompass everything from substandard working conditions to modern slavery and can occur at all phases of the fishery supply chain, from fishing vessels  to processing to distribution. Together, we are building a collaboration with leading researchers, the ISSF and some of its member companies, the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative and other partners to develop tools that increase transparency and accountability in the recruitment of workers for tuna vessels.

Addressing Illegal Fishing

COS is working with a wide array of partners to close the Pacific to illegal fishing. Working with the Friends of Ocean ActionWorld Economic Forum, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, COS is engaging governments in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (the 21 largest economies in the region) to advance the implementation of port controls to prevent vessels that fish illegally from landing their catch. We are also working with leading seafood business groups, including SeaBOS (the 10 largest seafood companies), the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF, representing 70% of the canned tuna industry), and the Global Tuna Alliance (leading retailers), to forge a broad industry coalition committed to addressing illegal fishing in the sector. These initiatives are supported by COS research, which identifies high-risk areas at port, at sea, and associated with transshipment to elucidate policy and supply chain actions that mitigate risks.

Explore our work

Boat with blue filter.

Supply Chain Risk Project

Designing user-driven approaches for actionable risk assessments to combat IUU fishing in seafood supply chains

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Swordfish in orange basket.

Decent Work in Fisheries

Laying a framework for understanding how to better support decent work in fisheries and the health of this vital workforce on a warming planet

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Fishing boats at port.

Artificial Intelligence and Fisheries

Harnessing recent AI developments toward better fisheries monitoring and enforcement

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Outlaw Ocean Course

Supporting students investigating solutions to address illegal fishing and labor abuses in the seafood industry

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Jessie Brunner
Deputy Director of Strategy and Program Development Director, Stanford Center for Human Rights and International Justice
David Cohen
WSD-HANDA Professor of Human Rights and International Justice
Trevor Hastie
John A. Overdeck Professor, Professor of Statistics and of Biomedical Data Sciences
Irene Lo
Assistant Professor of Management Science and Engineering
Serena Yeung
Assistant Professor of Biomedical Data Science and, by courtesy, of Computer Science and of Electrical Engineering

Project Partners


Global Fishing Watch - Logo

Global Tuna Alliance - Logo

Sustainable Ocean Economy logo

Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative - Logo

International Seafood Sustainability Foundation - Logo

SeaBOS - Logo

The Nature Conservancy - Logo

Center for Human Rights and International Justice - Logo

The Pew Charitable Trusts - Logo

World Economic Forum - Logo