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Fishing is ranked as the deadliest job in the world and, by many measures, Chinese squid ships are among the most brutal as human trafficking, violence, filthy conditions and death are common

This story was published in co-ordination with The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization in Washington.

In the early morning hours of March 8, 2021, a small inflatable boat powered by an outboard motor covertly made its way into the port of Montevideo to unload a dying deckhand, and then sped away.

The deckhand, a slight 20-year-old Indonesian named Daniel Aritonang, had been at sea for the previous year and a half, working on a Chinese squid-fishing ship called the Zhen Fa 7. Now he was dumped dockside, barely conscious, with two black eyes, bruises along the sides of his torso and rope marks around his neck. His feet and hands were bloated, the size of melons.

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Daniel Aritonang aboard the Chinese fishing ship Zhen Fa 7, where he lived and worked for a year and a half.Ferdi Arnando via Facebook

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Mr. Aritonang was found dockside, barely conscious, with two black eyes, bruises along the sides of his torso, and rope marks around his neck. His legs, feet and hands were bloated. He would die shortly after these photos were taken at a hospital in Montevideo, Uruguay.Outlaw Ocean Project

Paramedics put Mr. Aritonang in an ambulance and rushed him to a nearby hospital. Jesica Reyes, a local interpreter, was summoned, and when she arrived she found Mr. Aritonang in the ambulance bay. He told her that he’d been beaten, choked and deprived of food for days. As doctors took him away to the emergency room, he began crying and shaking. “Please, where are my friends?” he asked her, and then whispered, “I’m scared.”

Mr. Aritonang had been suffering from beriberi, a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1, also known as thiamine. The illness, preventable with proper diet, and reversible with intravenous B1 supplements, kills an untold number of workers each year on distant-water fishing ships, where fresh foods are scarce.

Hours after arriving at port, Mr. Aritonang died.

A report from the local coroner noted “a situation of physical abuse.” Mirta Morales, the local prosecutor who investigated the case, declined to say whether the investigation had been closed, but added that, as with most alleged crimes at sea, she had very little information to work with.

READ & WATCH: Daniel Aritonang's story

Montevideo, one of the world’s busiest ports, is popular among Chinese squid ships, several hundred of which in recent years have been targeting the rich high-seas fishery that lies off South America’s southeastern coast. The ships are drawn to Montevideo as an option for refuelling, making repairs and restocking, in part because the next best options, in Brazil, Argentina and the Falkland Islands, are either too expensive or, for nationalistic or logistical reasons, closed to them.

Many of the crew members on Chinese ships are Indonesian, and when they arrive in Montevideo dead, injured or sick, port officials contact Ms. Reyes, who is among the few interpreters in the city who speak Bahasa, Indonesia’s official language. She gets calls often to manage the families of dead workers. For most of the past decade, one dead body has been dropped off every other month on average in this port, mostly from Chinese squid ships.

In taking the job on the Zhen Fa 7, Mr. Aritonang had stepped into what may be the largest maritime operation the world has ever known.

China is the world’s most prolific violator of laws designed to prevent unauthorized fishing in territorial waters and limit the industry’s environmental impact, but the human-rights abuses taking place on China’s ships have attracted less notice and remain rampant. THE OUTLAW OCEAN PROJECT

Fuelled by the world’s growing and insatiable appetite for seafood, China has dramatically expanded its reach across the high seas, with a distant-water fleet of as many as 6,500 ships, which is more than double that of its closest global competitor, Taiwan. The fleet, heavily subsidized by the Chinese state, forges new trade routes, flexes political muscle, presses territorial claims and increases China’s political influence in the developing world.

China also now owns or runs terminals in more than 90 ports around the world and has bought political loyalties, particularly in coastal countries in South America and Western Africa. It has become the world’s undisputed seafood superpower.

But China’s pre-eminence on the water has come at a high human and environmental cost. Fishing is ranked as the deadliest job in the world and, by many measures, Chinese squid ships are among the most brutal. Debt bondage, human trafficking, violence, criminal neglect, preventable injuries and death are common in this fleet. International labour officials say that China’s squid ships, which today make up the bulk of the country’s distant-water fishing fleet, are highly prone to using forced labour.

China is the world’s most prolific violator of laws designed to prevent unauthorized fishing in territorial waters and limit the industry’s environmental impact, according to The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. The country’s practices have received so much attention recently for their effects on the marine environment that the Chinese government has taken steps in the past several years to bring them under control. But the human-rights abuses taking place on China’s ships – far out at sea, away from public view – have attracted less notice and remain rampant.

Reporters from The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, spent four years documenting conditions on Chinese distant-water vessels, sometimes by boarding them at sea to talk to crew, or by pulling alongside to interview officers by radio.

The reporting team shadowed Chinese ships in four fishing grounds: the South Pacific Ocean, near the Galapagos Islands; the South Atlantic Ocean, near the Falkland Islands; the Atlantic Ocean, near Gambia; and in Korean waters, in the Sea of Japan.

Reporters trailed the Chinese ships to get close enough to throw messages and goods in plastic bottles onto their aft decks. THE OUTLAW OCEAN PROJECT
Reporter Ian Urbina reviews a message thrown back to him in a bottle from crew on a Chinese squid-fishing ship in Feb. 2022. Youenn Kerdavid/Sea Shepherd Global
Some of the returned message bottles that were tossed on the Chinese fishing vessels, the Lu Rong Yuan Yu 668, Lu Qing Yuan Yu 279, Guo Ji 902, and Fu Yan Yu 715. Ed Ou/The Outlaw Ocean Project

In many instances, the ships were spooked, pulled up their gear and fled. In these cases reporters trailed the ships in small, fast skiffs to get close enough to throw onto their aft decks plastic bottles weighed down with rice. Each bottle contained a pen, cigarettes, hard candy and interview questions written in English, Chinese and Indonesian.

This investigation revealed work conditions that were often dire and sometimes deadly. Workers on Chinese squid ships typically spend two years at a time almost entirely at sea, often with no internet or phone signal, isolated from their friends and family. Workdays routinely last 15 hours, six days a week. Crew quarters are cramped, with 10 men bunking in rooms built for half that number. Injuries, malnutrition, illness and beatings are common.

Once brought to shore, the squid and other seafood caught by these ships intermingles with the rest of the global supply. As a result, it is often impossible for importers and consumers to know whether the seafood they buy was caught under poor or criminal labour conditions.

But there are indications that a great deal of seafood caught illegally or with forced labour ends up in Canada. China accounted for about $520-million of Canada’s seafood imports in 2021, making it this country’s second-largest supplier after the U.S.

Even squid from the Zhen Fa 7 itself could have ended up on Canadian plates. Through a combination of direct surveillance and the use of export records and satellite tracking, Outlaw Ocean Project reporters were able to trace the ship’s catch to processing plants that supply the North American retail market.

Violence, homesickness, long hours and filthy conditions make life on Chinese fishing ships a tough experience. On the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010, a Chinese trawler fishing on the North Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Gambia, a Senegalese deckhand named Lamin Jarju gave a tour of his living quarters: a nest located on the roof of the wheel room, consisting of crumpled newspapers, clothing and blankets. As he entered, a rat scurried out from under a tarp covering his area. Several crew members, he explained, had been sleeping in these quarters ever since the captain hired more workers than the ship could accommodate. “They treat us like dogs,” Mr. Jarju said.

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In August 2019, the Outlaw Ocean Project team inspected a rusty Chinese fishing vessel, the Victory205, off the coast of West Africa.

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Onboard the Victory 205 in Sept. 2019, a crew member shows off his sleeping quarters, shared with six fellow crew members, in a small crawl space between the engine room and wheelhouse.Fabio Nascimento/The Outlaw Ocean Project

On a different Chinese trawler in the area, the Victory 205, other African deckhands showed reporters where eight men slept in a space meant for two: a four-foot-tall steel-sided compartment directly above the engine room, which made the space dangerously hot. When high waves crashed on board, water flooded the makeshift cabin, where, the workers said, an electrical power strip had twice sparked, nearly setting their mattress on fire.

In Punta Arenas, Chile, a fishing expedition headed to the waters near Antarctica in January, 2019, to catch Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass, came upon a dozen rusty Chinese squid ships a mile from port.

Asked about these ships, the toothfish boat’s crew of mostly Chileans recounted watching a Chinese captain several weeks earlier punch and slap deckhands who, they said, looked Filipino or Indonesian. Three of the Chilean deckhands recounted an incident where they pulled alongside the Chinese ship and began screaming at the captain to stop hitting a crew member, and he eventually did.

The broad pattern of labour abuse on Chinese squid ships is well documented. The U.S. Department of Labor concluded in 2020 that many deckhands on these ships work involuntarily under conditions of coercion, fraud, intimidation or debt bondage.

In 2021, the Environmental Justice Foundation, an advocacy group based in London, released a report based on interviews with 116 Indonesian crew members from Chinese ships. It revealed that roughly 97 per cent of them reported having experienced some form of debt bondage or confiscation of documents. The report also showed that 85 per cent described abusive working and living conditions, 70 per cent said they had experienced intimidation and threats and 58 per cent said they had seen or experienced physical violence.

Roughly 350 miles west of the Galapagos Islands, in the Pacific Ocean, The Outlaw Ocean Project got a close-up look at the conditions on a Chinese squid ship. The reporters were invited aboard on the condition that the vessel not be named.

Hundreds of light bulbs adorn the sides of the Jao Tu 668 vessel to attract squid to the surface of the water, where they can more easily be caught. Ed Ou/The Outlaw Ocean Project
Fishing lines extend out into the water under the lights, each bearing a specialized squid hook, known as a “jig.” THE OUTLAW OCEAN PROJECT
Workers can spend over 12 hours on their feet fishing overnight. Ed Ou/The Outlaw Ocean Project

On deck, both sides of the vessel were festooned with 300 or more bowling-ball-sized light bulbs, which hung on racks for the purpose of enticing squid up from the depths. At night, when the bulbs were turned on, the effect was blinding and made the surrounding blackness feel otherworldly. The glow of a squid boat with its lights on is visible at sea to the naked eye more than a hundred miles away.

Scores of fishing lines extended out into the water under the lights, each bearing a specialized squid hook, known as a “jig.” When a squid latched on to a line, a reel automatically flipped it onto a metal rack. The deckhands then tossed it into a plastic basket for later sorting.

Often these baskets overflowed, and the deck floor filled shin-deep with squid, leaving virtually no place to walk. The squid became translucent in their final moments, draining of the pale red tint in their skin, sometimes also making a final hissing or coughing sound.

The stink and stain of squid are virtually impossible to wash from clothes. Sometimes the crew on these ships tie their dirty clothes together to form a long rope, occasionally stretching 20 feet, that they drag for hours in the sea behind the ship to clean them.

When the crew were not fishing, they weighed, measured, washed, sorted or eviscerated squid, or packed them into metal trays for freezing and bagging. They carved up squid, separating the tongues from inside the beaks and cutting out the soft tissue around the beaks, for use as bait.

Below deck, they had daily duties: sweeping hallways, scrubbing toilets, mopping showers. The ship had been at sea for four months and had long since run out of vegetables and fruit.

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Crew members work the squid-fishing lines aboard the Zhen Fa 7 Chinese, the ship Daniel Aritonang worked on. Fishing is ranked as the deadliest job in the world and, by many measures, Chinese squid ships are among the most brutal.Ferdi Arnando via Facebook

For most of the 20th century, distant-water fishing was dominated by three countries: the Soviet Union, Japan and Spain. But the collapse of the USSR, coupled with expanding environmental and labour regulations, caused these fleets to shrink. During this period, China sent more ships out across the globe, and those ships caught more seafood. The country invested billions of dollars in its fleet and took advantage of new technologies to muscle in on a very lucrative industry. China has also attempted to fortify its autonomy by building its own processing plants, cold-storage facilities and fishing ports overseas.

Today, the China National Fisheries Corporation, which is state-run, is the largest distant-water fishing company in the world, and the Zhen Fa 7, where Mr. Aritonang found himself, is one of the hundreds of fishing ships that supply the company. CNFC forms the connective tissue for much of the industry, including many ships with some of the worst records of environmental and human rights violations. It owns more than 250 fishing boats and refuel ships, at least six seafood processing plants or cold storage warehouses, and more than 15 refrigeration vessels, or reefers, that carry catches back to shore.

China’s efforts have succeeded beyond any predictions. In 1988 it caught 198 million pounds of seafood; in 2020, it caught five billion. No other country even comes close.

Political analysts, particularly in the West, say that having just one country controlling a global resource as valuable as seafood creates a precarious power imbalance. Ocean conservationists and U.S. Navy analysts also fear that China is expanding its maritime reach in ways that are undermining global food security, eroding international law and heightening military tensions.

More than a third of fish stocks globally have been overfished, and China is not the only country responsible. Chris Costello, a professor of natural resource economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said that long before China emerged as the dominant fishing power, other countries, including some in the West, fished unsustainably. “In other words,” he said, “overfishing is not a China problem.”

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Crew of the Zhen Fa 7 show off a freshly-caught brown squid. More than a third of fish stocks globally have been overfished, and China is only one of the countries responsible.Ferdi Arnando via Facebook

For example, the Canadian government reports that less than one-third of Canada’s fish stocks are classified as healthy. This means that the majority of the country’s stocks are in need of rebuilding in order to reach the desired populations and avoid permanent damage from extensive overfishing.

But where China differs from other countries is in the sheer ambition of its fishing project. Ian Ralby, the chief executive officer of I.R. Consilium, a maritime-security research firm, said that China, through its distant-water fishing fleet, is working to establish de facto sovereignty over international waters, by leaning on a terrestrial legal concept called “adverse possession,” which, in essence, grants property rights to anyone who occupies and controls an area long enough.

The concept is akin to “squatter’s rights,” the notion that possession constitutes nine-tenths of the law. The recent signing by 193 countries of a high-seas biodiversity treaty, which aims at eventually protecting 30 per cent of the world’s oceans, is unlikely to change China’s course.

“China likely believes that, in time, the presence of its distant-water fishing fleet on the high seas will convert into some degree of sovereign control over those waters and the resources in them,” Mr. Ralby said. “With 70 per cent of the Earth covered in water, any one state’s effort to establish rights and interests over the global commons should be a concern.”

According to Greg Poling, a senior fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Washington, there’s another wrinkle in all of this: Not all Chinese fishing vessels actually fish. Instead, hundreds of them serve as a kind of civilian militia that works to press territorial claims against other nations. Many of those claims concern seafloor oil and gas reserves. Taking ownership of the South China Sea, for example, Mr. Poling said, is part of the same historical project for the Chinese as taking control of Hong Kong and Taiwan. The goal is to reclaim what Beijing considers lost territory, and restore China’s former glory.

Industrial fishing has now advanced technologically so much that it has become less an art than a science, more a harvest than a hunt. THE OUTLAW OCEAN PROJECT

China’s dominance has come at a moment when the world’s hunger for products from the sea has never been greater. Seafood is the world’s last major source of wild protein and an existentially important form of sustenance for much of the planet. During the past 50 years, global seafood consumption has risen more than fivefold, and the industry, led by China, has satisfied that appetite through technological advances in refrigeration, engine efficiency, hull strength and radar. Satellite navigation has increased the length of time fishing vessels can stay at sea, and the distances they can travel.

Industrial fishing has now advanced technologically so much that it has become less an art than a science, more a harvest than a hunt. To compete requires knowledge and huge reserves of capital, which Japan and European countries have in recent decades been unable to provide. But China has had both, along with a fierce will to compete and win. Its “Going Out” policy, launched in 2001, energetically encouraged Chinese companies to expand their presence abroad, backed by state money.

China has grown the size of its fleet predominantly through state support, which by 2018 had reached US$7-billion annually, making the country the world’s largest provider of fishing subsidies. The vast majority of that investment went toward expenses such as fuel and the cost of new boats. Ocean researchers consider these subsidies harmful, because they expand the size and efficiency of fishing fleets, which further deplete already diminished fish stocks.

The Chinese government’s support for its fleet is vital to the industry. Enric Sala, the director of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project, said that more than half of the fishing that occurs on the high seas globally would be unprofitable without these subsidies. Squid jigging is the least profitable of all types of high-seas fishing.

China also bolsters its fleet through logistical, security and intelligence support. For example, the country sends its squid-fishing vessels a weekly digital index that provides updates on the sizes and locations of the world’s major squid colonies. This helps boats decide when and where to chase their catch, and often means that they work in a co-ordinated manner.

For years, until the pandemic made the logistics of using foreign workers more difficult, Chinese squid ships relied heavily on foreign crew members, mostly from Indonesia. The majority of these workers got their jobs through so-called manning agencies. Hundreds of these firms operate globally. They play a vital role in supplying crew members from dozens of countries to ships that are almost always on the move. The firms handle paycheques, plane tickets, port fees and passports.

To the men they recruit, manning agencies promise an open doorway to another, more lucrative life.

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Fadhil bags up a Peruvian squid at night during his shift aboard the Chinese squid-fishing ship, the Wei Yu 18. By August, 2019, after being at sea for over a year, Fadhil and other Indonesian deckhands began coming down with beriberi disease.Yansel Lianus Saputra/Handout

Fadhil, a 24-year-old from Indonesia, was recruited through one of these agencies in July, 2018. He travelled from his village to Jakarta, where he waited with others for two months to board a Chinese squid ship called the Wei Yu 18. (Like many Indonesians, Fadhil has no last name.)

During this time, the Indonesians signed contracts that said they would receive no overtime pay and no sick leave. They would work 18 to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and have US$50 deducted from their pay each month to cover their food. If the fishing vessel did not find itself near a convenient port of repatriation, the contracts permitted captains to extend their stays on board indefinitely. Captains were also granted full discretion over reassigning crew members to alternate ships. Wages were to be paid not monthly to families, but in full, and only after completion of the contracts – a practice that is illegal in most countries.

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From left, Fadhil and fellow crew members on the the Wei Yu 18 Ramadhan Sugandhi, Frans Wiliam Imbab, and Ilham Sugito. At least three of the Indonesians on the ship were recruited by a manning agency called PT Multi Maritim Indonesia, based in Bogor.Ramadhan Sugandhi/Ramadhan Sugandhi

At least three of the Indonesians on the Wei Yu 18 were recruited by a manning agency called PT Multi Maritim Indonesia, based in Bogor. Their contracts required that they each pay a processing fee for recruitment, which was to be deducted from their salaries. Since the men did not have the money to pay upfront fees for access to the jobs, they were required to give the agency their diplomas and identity cards as a form of collateral. These items were to be returned to the men’s families once the fees had been deducted from the men’s salaries. Having initially been told by recruiters that they would make upwards of US$450 per month, the men soon learned that their actual salaries would be far less, typically around US$300.

This is also when the Indonesians learned about a range of other salary deductions. These deductions would have been loosely explained amid a flurry of paperwork, rapid-fire calculations and unfamiliar terms: “passport forfeiture,” “mandatory fees,” “sideline earnings.” Each of the deckhands’ contracts also included penalty clauses, which said that they would pay up to US$1,000 if they left the ship before their contracts expired.

Some contracts also said that to collect their wages crew members had to fly back to Indonesia at their own expense. Each of the PT Multi Maritim Indonesia fishermen had a total of US$1,000 deducted in the first eight months, and did not receive a promised monthly payment of US$50 in cash on board the vessel. (PT Multi Maritim did not respond to requests for comment.)

On Aug. 28, 2018, Fadhil boarded the Wei Yu 18 in the port of Busan, South Korea, joining a crew of nine other Indonesians and 20 Chinese. The rusty red-and-white steel-hulled ship traveled for several weeks to the coast of South America to fish near Peru, then south along the coast of Chile. During its 22-month journey, the ship made only one port call, at Punta Arenas, Chile. The rest of the time it stayed hundreds of miles from shore.

READ & WATCH: Fadhil's story

After a year at sea, two Indonesian deckhands on the Wei Yu 18 contracted beriberi and were transported by another fishing ship to shore, where they received treatment, recovered and then flew home. The Wei Yu 18′s captain left his ship in late August to visit his family, hitching a ride with another fishing ship back to China.

Fadhil fell ill with symptoms of beriberi in September, when the ship was roughly 285 miles off the coast of Peru. He was gripped first by thirst, then seizures and extreme fatigue. “Elephant feet” is how other deckhands described the swelling in his lower extremities.

He and other deckhands asked for him to be allowed to go home, or to a hospital, but the ship’s foreman, who had taken over for the captain, refused. A copy of Fadhil’s contract says that he was only required to do a one-year at-sea tour, which he had already completed. But the foreman told Fadhil he was required to stay for two years, according to five other deckhands from the ship.

It took less than a month for Fadhil to die. He was one of a total of five Indonesians who contracted beriberi on the ship, and the only one who didn’t survive.

Several days later, the ship’s crew put Fadhil in a wooden coffin that was weighed down by an anchor chain and pushed the box into the sea. “I felt hopeless watching him,” said Ramadhan Sugandhi, another Indonesian who was working as a deckhand on the ship.

Crew members tend to Fadhil's coffin, which the ship's captain ordered the crew to build, aboard the Wei Yu 18 in Sept. 2019. THE OUTLAW OCEAN PROJECT
Fadhil’s coffin in lowered into the ocean weighed down with a heavy anchor chain for burial at sea. THE OUTLAW OCEAN PROJECT

Shandong Baoma, the Wei Yu 18′s parent company, did not reply to requests for comment on its ties to ships The Outlaw Ocean Project’s reporting found were allegedly engaged in human rights abuses and illegal fishing.

Beriberi is a particular concern on Chinese squid ships, which travel especially far. Often they remain at sea for two years, relying heavily on trans-shipment, a term for when fishing vessels offload their catch onto refrigeration ships in the middle of the ocean instead of coming to shore. The Outlaw Ocean Project’s investigation of the Chinese distant-water squid fleet found that, between 2013 and 2021, at least two dozen workers on 14 ships had suffered symptoms associated with beriberi. Of those, at least 15 died.

Though no global statistics are kept on beriberi, it’s clear that the use of trans-shipment heightens the frequency and deadliness of the disease on distant-water ships, according to Nicola Pocock, a specialist on the topic who teaches at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“Beriberi fatality at sea is a red flag for severe neglect or captivity,” Ms. Pocock said. “There is absolutely no reason people should be getting, much less dying, from this disease.”

Distant-water fishing captains often refuse to carry sick or injured crew back to shore because of the cost of lost time, spent fuel and missed work. Logistics are also difficult. Swells can make it dangerous for large ships to get close to each other. Most fishing ships do not carry skiffs, which are small boats with outboard motors that enable crew transfers by traversing the water between bigger vessels. Instead, captains sometimes string up zip lines several storeys above the water, connecting two ships. Crew members are then put inside fishing nets and sent across the open ocean.

Chinese ships typically stock rice and instant noodles, because they are cheap, calorie-rich and slow to spoil. But these foods are poor sources of vitamin B1, the nutrient that prevents beriberi. THE OUTLAW OCEAN PROJECT

For long voyages, Chinese ships typically stock rice and instant noodles, because they are cheap, calorie-rich and slow to spoil. But these foods are poor sources of vitamin B1, the nutrient that prevents beriberi.

The vegetables, fruits and meats eaten on these ships tend to be canned or dried, making them low in nutrients and high in salt, sugar and preservatives. On one Chinese squidder, located on the South Atlantic Ocean about 370 miles north of the Falkland Islands, a deckhand in the mess hall, where the workers eat, pointed out a bag of rotten and blackened cabbages and onions, the only fresh vegetables on the ship.

Since the pandemic, the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet has shifted away from recruiting foreign deckhands, relying instead mostly on Chinese workers, many of them recruited from rural and inland regions of the country. More than 292 million people migrated in 2021 within China, a level accelerated by climate change, which has produced faster temperature increases and sea level rises in the country than the global average. Online and in cities within China, the fishing industry’s labour problems, especially on squid-fishing ships, are an open secret.

Labour recruiters sometimes target the desperate. “If you are in debt, your family has shunned you, you don’t want to be looked down on, turn off your phone and stay far away from dry land,” reads an online advertisement.

To get paid fully, the crews on Chinese fishing ships usually have to complete the entire terms of their contracts, which often include heavy financial penalties for deckhands who attempt to leave prematurely. When deckhands discover that their working conditions and the terms of their employment are not what they thought they would be, they sometimes rebel. On occasion, crews have stopped working, effectively going on strike to protest conditions on boats. In some cases, they have turned to violence.

One famously gruesome mutiny, which took place aboard the Lu Rong Yu 2682 in 2011, transfixed China. The lead mutineer was a deckhand named Liu Guiduo. Before the vessel set out from the port of Shidao, Mr. Liu, a three-pack-a-day smoker, had bought 165 cartons of cigarettes from the ship’s captain on credit, stacking them next to his bunk, floor to ceiling.

After leaving shore, the ship’s captain informed the crew that they would not be paid fixed salaries, as they had been promised, but instead would receive payment based on a percentage of their catch. After realizing that his earnings would likely not even cover what he owed for the cigarettes, Mr. Liu recruited nine other crew members to take the captain hostage.

Over the next five weeks, according to court transcripts and reports in Chinese media, the ship split into warring factions. Men disappeared at night, crew members were tied up and tossed overboard to drown and engine equipment was sabotaged. Stranded at sea, the crew eventually managed to restore the ship’s communications system and transmit a distress signal, drawing two Chinese fishing vessels to their aid. Eleven of the original 33 men made it back to shore.

In 2013, five of them, including Mr. Liu and the ship’s captain, were sentenced to death, one crew member was given a suspended death sentence, and the other five received terms of between four years and life in prison.

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The Zhe Pu Yuan 98 is a Chinese squid ship that doubles as a floating hospital for crew members that become ill onboard.Ben Blankenship / The Outlaw Ocean Project

China has taken some limited steps recently to prevent strikes, mutinies, and violence on its fishing ships. Local police in some coastal cities have begun using satellites to communicate directly with some distant-water fishing vessels, even monitoring real-time surveillance footage from on board.

In March, 2020, a dozen Chinese workers on a Chinese squid ship anchored near the coast of Peru went on strike, frustrated at not being able to return home because of China’s pandemic controls. According to Chinese media reports, the fishing company contacted the police in Zhejiang province, who spoke directly to the crew by satellite phone.

After listening to their grievances, a police officer arranged for a psychologist to hold therapy sessions with the crew members remotely to help alleviate their stress. The police officer also explained to the workers that their options were to transfer and sail home on a supply ship, which would have taken about a month, or to return to shore in Peru immediately and fly back to China, but at their own expense. The men opted to return to work and stick it out.

To treat sick or injured crew members without having to account for the expense of taking them back to shore, some provinces in China fund medical ships to shadow distant-water fishing fleets based in their ports. “If a patient is too sick for us to handle, we drop him in Peru,” an officer on the bridge of the Zhe Pu Yuan 98, a squid ship that doubles as a floating hospital, said over the radio roughly 400 miles from the Galapagos in the Pacific Ocean.

In 2021, the Zhe Pu Yuan 98 replaced the Pu Yuan 801, which over the previous five years had treated nearly 300 crew members, escorted more than 20 critically ill crew members to the port of Peru, and completed rescues of five fishing boats that had lost power.

The Chinese government has also tried to address mental-health concerns that contribute to violence on ships. In 2017, after a Filipino crew member on a Chinese fishing vessel reportedly jumped overboard to his death, the Chinese government created a Communist Party branch in Chimbote, Peru – the first for fishing workers – intended to bolster their “spiritual sustenance.”

On April 22 the body of Mr. Aritonang was flown from Montevideo to Jakarta, and was driven by ambulance to his family home in the countryside. A solemn crowd of villagers lined the road to pay their respects.

On April 22, the body of Mr. Aritonang, the Indonesian deckhand who died after serving on the Zhen Fa 7, was flown from Montevideo to Jakarta, and the next day it was driven by ambulance to his family home in the countryside, where a solemn crowd of villagers lined the road to pay their respects.

Fatieli Halawa, the village pastor, recalled how Mr. Aritonang’s mother wailed then fainted on seeing the shiny wooden casket with a Jesus figurine on top. Mr. Aritonang’s province is more than 95 per cent Muslim, but he was a Christian, and had attended mass weekly. The family opted not to open the coffin.

A funeral was held the next day. That night, an official from Mr. Aritonang’s manning agency visited the family at their home to discuss a “peace agreement.” Hengki Anhar, a friend of Mr. Aritonang’s who also worked as a deckhand on the Zhen Fa 7, said the family ended up accepting a settlement of 200 million rupiah, or roughly US$13,000.

The family was reluctant to talk about the events on the ship. Mr. Aritonang’s brother Beben said that he didn’t want his family to get in trouble, and that talking about the case might cause problems for his mother. “We, Daniel’s family,” he said, “have made peace with the ship people and have let him go.”

More than 9,000 miles away, the Zhen Fa 7 soon began its long journey home. In May, 2021, it reached Singapore, where it disembarked its remaining Indonesian crew, who had not stepped on land for nearly two years. The ship then at last returned to Shandong, China where it unloaded 330 tons of squid, marked in port records as destined for export.

To understand the supply chain of China's huge fishing fleet, The Outlaw Ocean Project team tracked the catch from a fishing vessel to a seafood processing facility in China. The team spent four years investigating forced labour and other crimes tied to the Chinese deep-water fishing fleet and the world’s seafood supply.

The Globe and Mail

To determine which factories in China processed the Zhen Fa 7′s squid, The Outlaw Ocean Project’s reporters hired investigators in China to conduct direct surveillance in 2022 in the port of Shidao, located in Shandong province. The investigators filmed a refrigeration ship in port that had just months before taken catch from the Zhen Fa 7. Through much of the night, men in blue jumpsuits used forklifts to load hundreds of the Zhen Fa 7′s bags of frozen squid into trucks. The investigators then trailed the trucks to their processing plants.

The investigation connected the Zhen Fa 7 to at least three plants in China, all owned by a large conglomerate called the Chishan Group. These plants export large volumes of squid to Lagoon Seafood Products, a key supplier of the wholesale giant Costco. Neither company responded to questions about their seafood supply and ties to potential crimes, including the events that led to Mr. Aritonang’s death on the Zhen Fa 7.

In an e-mail, the Zhen Fa 7′s owner, Rongcheng Wangdao Ocean Aquatic Products Co. Ltd., declined to comment on Mr. Aritonang’s death but said that it had found no evidence of complaints from the crew about their living or working conditions on the vessel. The company added that it had handed the matter over to the China Overseas Fisheries Association, which regulates the industry. Questions submitted to that agency went unanswered.

China's seafood fishing fleet is more than double that of its next competitor. How did they become so big and should the world care? The Outlaw Ocean Project produced a four-year investigation of forced labour and other crimes tied to the Chinese fleet and the world’s seafood supply.

The Globe and Mail

Reporting and writing was contributed by Ian Urbina, Joe Galvin, Maya Martin, Susan Ryan, Daniel Murphy and Austin Brush. This reporting was partly supported by the Pulitzer Center. A version of this reporting was originally published by the New Yorker and subsequently by news outlets in two dozen countries.

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