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Modern slavery and the race to fish

David Tickler, Jessica Meeuwig | Nov 07, 2018

David Tickler, Jessica Meeuwig

Aug 01, 2018

  Cover image

Fishing fleets now travel twice the distance to catch a third of the fish compared with 1950.
Photo: Tom Fisk

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Tickler DMeeuwig JJ, Bryant K, David F, Forrest JAH, Gordon E, Larsen JJ, Oh B, Pauly D, Sumaila UR, Zeller D. 2018. Modern slavery and the race to fishNature Communications, 9: 4643.


Marine fisheries are in crisis, requiring twice the fishing effort of the 1950s to catch the same quantity of fish, and with many fleets operating beyond economic or ecological sustainability. A possible consequence of diminishing returns in this race to fish is serious labour abuses, including modern slavery, which exploit vulnerable workers to reduce costs. Here, we use the Global Slavery Index (GSI), a national-level indicator, as a proxy for modern slavery and labour abuses in fisheries. GSI estimates and fisheries governance are correlated at the national level among the major fishing countries. Furthermore, countries having documented labour abuses at sea share key features, including higher levels of subsidised distant-water fishing and poor catch reporting. Further research into modern slavery in the fisheries sector is needed to better understand how the issue relates to overfishing and fisheries policy, as well as measures to reduce risk in these labour markets.



(A) Percentage of unreported catch, (B) mean landed catch value per kg, and (C) national prevalence of slavery, colour-coded by country. Scatterplots show relationship between country-level slavery prevalence and individual fisheries variables for the 20 largest fishing countries: (D) prevalence of slavery per thousand people (Slavery/1000) vs unreported catch (% Unreported catch), e prevalence of slavery vs mean landed value (Landed value $/kg), and f observed against predicted values for a combined model, with selected European, Asian and South American countries labelled. Regression model R2 values and F-test values are labelled on scatterplots . Figure: Tickler et al. 2018.



Slavery risk is expressed in kilograms of seafood from slavery-risk countries per tonne consumed. Slavery risk scores based on the Global Slavery Index; trade flows from CEPII’s BACI database of harmonised UN COMTRADE data. Plots show seafood imports for (A) the United States and (B) Western Europe and Scandinavia (includes Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and United Kingdom). Colour of trade flow components indicates the intensity of slavery risk. Figure: Tickler et al. 2018.


D.T., J.J.M., D.P., U.R.S. and D.Z. acknowledge the support of the Sea Around Us, the Fisheries Economics Research Unit and the Sea Around Us–Indian Ocean . All Sea Around Us activities are supported by the Marisla Foundation, the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation, the Oak Foundation, the MAVA Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and OceanaK.B. F.D., E.G., J.J.L., B.O. and D.T. acknowledge the support of the Walk Free Foundation.