Perhaps US Customs and Border Protection can achieve what the Executive Yuan, Taiwanese lawmakers and the threat of EU sanctions have failed to: get the Fisheries Agency to really clean up the nation’s deep-sea industry, not just pay lip service with laws that barely put a dent in the cowboy operations of major violators.
The US agency on Tuesday last week blocked all shipments from the Vanuatu-flagged, but Taiwanese-owned Da Wang from all US ports after what it called credible reports of abusive working conditions and forced labor aboard the vessel.
Its Office of Trade placed a Withhold Release Order (WRO) on all seafood harvested by the Da Wang, meaning that any seafood from the ship imported into the US will be held until the importers can prove that the items were not produced with forced labor.
It was the third WRO imposed on a Taiwan-linked vessel in the past year-and-a-half.
Taiwan has more than 1,000 flagged ships and another 300 or so that are foreign-flagged, but locally owned. About 36 percent of the globe’s tuna longliner fleet is Taiwanese, the most of any nation. Taiwan is one of the world’s top three seafood producers and its fleet the second-largest on the high seas.
However, the relative anonymity of the industry and the lack of an easily identifiable brand name that foreign consumers can link to Taiwanese seafood contribute to the situation in which means of putting pressure on the industry are limited, except for the threat of sanctions, which the EU wielded fairly successfully over three-and-a-half years.
However, a year after the EU lifted its yellow card and commended Taiwan for its efforts to reform the legal framework for its fisheries, two Taiwan-linked ships were hit with WROs by the US.
Obviously, the reforms have not been enough.
Yet there is one tool reform advocates have now that they lacked in the past: In January, Kaoshiung-based Fong Chun Formosa Fishery Co (FCF) bought US-based Bumble Bee Foods, a 111-year-old brand of canned tuna and salmon.
With 10 fishing bases worldwide, 48-year-old FCF is the largest tuna supplier in the western Pacific, and in the wake of the WRO, company officials confirmed that it was supplied by the Da Wang at least once last year.
FCF president Max Chou said in January that his company and Bumble Bee shared a commitment to sustainability and global fisheries conservation, adding that the acquisition “puts us in an advantageous position for sustained growth and leadership throughout the tuna and salmon industries.”
Owning such a well-known brand means that FCF is to face more pressure than before, and it must ensure that corporate practices meet international regulations and standards, not just Taiwan’s.
However, Taiwan’s standards still need toughening. The Fisheries Agency has repeatedly said that it has limited oversight powers over flag of convenience vessels such as the Da Wang, even though they might operate out of Kaohsiung or other local ports, because they are registered in a foreign country.
Taiwanese law does not ban the purchase of seafood harvested by vessels that are suspected of involvement in human trafficking, but the agency would be glad if FCF took steps on its own to remove such vessels from its supply chain, a senior official said.
It is time for such buck-passing to end. Taiwan’s international reputation is being hurt by the actions of its deep-sea fishery industry and the inaction of its bureaucrats.
There should be labor inspections of every deep-sea vessel returning to a Taiwanese port, whether it is Taiwan-flagged or not; there should be time limits for a vessel’s operation at sea without returning to port, and better support should be offered to migrant fishers, including ending entry restrictions on them, which has been proven to enable labor abuses.
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