The Center for Investigative Reporting has a podcast called Reveal. If you aren’t listening to it you should change that, beginning with the recent episode Hunting the Ghost Fleet. At times it feels like a spy thriller, and it comes with some beautiful pictures too. If you listen now, the post will still be here when you return.
As a short summary, reporter Sarah Blaskey and photojournalist Ben Feibleman go to Costa Rica and El Salvador to investigate the shark fin trade–specifically the Wang Group of Companies which ” is the only regional operation [they] found that had its hands in every part of the supply chain: from fishing sharks to exporting the fins to Asia. For decades, it has operated one of the largest fleets of shark-fishing vessels in the region.” There is a lot to learn here—from the brutality of shark fishing (on a good day a boat may catch and kill 500 sharks) to how companies change countries to avoid regulations. There is also a cautionary component of this, as Ben and Sarah left El Salvador for fear of violence because they were attracting too much attention (they did later return). The episode also has fantastic reporting from the AP on Sea to Table, which turns out to be a sham.
But the most important part of the podcast is the human trafficking Sarah and Ben inadvertently uncover. The Wang Group, and other shark fin fishing companies, often crew their boars with Vietnamese men who don’t always know what they have signed up for. Their boats can remain on the sea for as long as a year, and for the crew members to leave before their contract is up they need to pay exorbitant fees. Fees that are potentially illegal in Vietnam, though without a lawyer this doesn’t help the poor Vietnamese fishermen. This is a good example of how modern day slavery works.
The two threads that stuck with me from this story are the freedom to do journalism and the freedom to get away with (almost) anything on the ocean.
First, this story involves some serious investigative reporting, including trekking through a jungle to fly a drone into a private dock. In the course of their investigation Ben and Sarah attracted enough attention that they left El Salvador for fear of violent reprisal. It would take another level of bravery to do this type of work if one wasn’t free to return to a relatively safe (for journalists) country like the US. One of the freedoms that this country has, and that must be forever safeguarded, is that freedom of the press. Investigative journalism and reporting very rarely leads to the reporter being murdered, and for a healthy society and democracy we cannot let that change. Nor should we take it for granted.
There is a different type of freedom provided by the high seas. The freedom to act with impunity, without observation, and outside the law. While there are bodies of law governing action in international water they are not heavily enforced. The UN, where most international treaties about the seas are passed, does not have a policing arm or any strong enforcement mechanisms. Meanwhile, when a nation unilaterally enforces these laws domestically (as Costa Rica did with shark fins), it is simple for the ship and company in question to change countries of operation. This is not cheap, but it is doable and a cost of doing business for some profitable multi-national companies and industries. While Hunting the Ghost Fleet revealed illegal and immoral activity, negative consequences for the Wang Group and those who lied to the journalists is unlikely. They will be able to continue using slave labor because there is no system or capacity to stop them from doing so.