Fisherman slaves: Human trafficking and the seafood we eat

Over the course of 18 months, Associated Press journalists located men held in cages, tracked ships and stalked refrigerated trucks to expose the abusive practices of the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. The reporters’ dogged effort led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves and traced the seafood they caught to supermarkets and pet food providers across the U.S. For this investigation, AP won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Below is an excerpt from the AP ebook, FISHERMEN SLAVES: Human Trafficking and the Seafood We Eat:

For hundreds of slaves, Benjina was the end of the world.

The remote Indonesian island village was cut off for several months a year due to stormy seas. There were no roads or telephone service and just a few hours of electricity a day.

The Burmese fishermen who docked here spent months at sea, pulling up monstrous nets and sorting seafood around the clock. But the relief they felt after touching land was quickly replaced by desperation. They were trapped, held captive by Thai boat captains working for large fishing companies. Some men were locked in a cage for simply asking to go home. Others who managed to run away were stuck on the island, living off the land for a decade or longer. And just off a beach, a jungle-covered graveyard was crammed with the corpses of friends and strangers buried under false names.

When AP reporters first arrived in Benjina in late November 2014, informing the men we were there to tell their stories, they couldn't believe it. A few wiped away tears as they spoke. Some chased after us on dusty paths, shoving pieces of paper into our hands with the names and addresses of their parents in Myanmar.

"Please," they begged. "Just tell them we're alive.”



The long, sometimes dangerous, journey of telling the story of Southeast Asian men held captive on fishing trawlers began in late 2013.

Human trafficking in the global seafood industry had been written about anecdotally, but Associated Press reporters Robin McDowell and Margie Mason were determined to connect the dots in a way that would make the world finally take notice.

Their best bet, they decided, would be to link slave-caught fish to American dinner tables _ and name names. At the start, sources told them it would be next to impossible. The industry was huge, and its practices murky. Fish was transferred between boats at sea. Documentation on land was often done improperly. And tainted and ‘clean’ seafood was mixed together at huge export markets.



Nearly a year into their investigation, they caught a major break. A source pointed them to eastern Indonesia, where they discovered a slave island.

At great risk, McDowell, with the help of Burmese reporter Esther Htusan, filmed a man in a cage, and others pleading for help over the side of their giant trawler. The two also watched as fish was loaded onto a giant refrigerated cargo ship, and then tracked it by satellite to a Thai harbor. They were there with Mason to meet it in trucks, following the catch over several nights through the seedy, mafia-run streets. California-based reporter Martha Mendoza then joined forces to complete the four-woman team, eventually linking the seafood directly to U.S. supermarket chains and retailers, including Wal-Mart and Kroger.

The story captured worldwide attention. It led to governmental and corporate action. More importantly, it resulted in one of the biggest rescues of modern-day fishing slaves, with more than 2,000 men from four countries being identified and repatriated, some returning to homes they hadn't seen in 20 years.



Slave-caught fish and U.S. tables: Making the connection


Each small factory that accepted one of the loads of slave-caught fish raised the question, where does it go next? Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mendoza went to work. Her account:

We spent weeks calling distributors, processors, freezers, and visiting Thailand's largest fish market and talking to security guards and workers to obtain information that linked them to large Thai seafood export businesses.

In California, I began a search of my own, looking through U.S. Customs records to trace the seafood directly to companies familiar to most Americans.

Plugging away at databases that track U.S. imports, I checked to see whether the companies receiving the tainted fish in Thailand were shipping to a U.S. distributor, and whether those deliveries were packaged and branded.



It was relatively easy to determine that cans of cat food labeled Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams came out of Thai processors that bought fish off the boat from Benjina. But the U.S. distributors were more complicated because they are not required to disclose where they sell fish. Thus began my odyssey to dozens of supermarkets in different states to check out frozen and canned seafood. Was it from Thailand? Was it a species we had seen? What brand was it? Who was the distributor? Then it was back to the databases for a potential match.

This became part of my daily life for weeks. I even took my husband on a date night to a local Wal-Mart to search for seafood. One day, driving home from my daughter’s field trip, I pulled into another Wal-Mart, sending out an army of fifth-graders to examine bags of frozen fish and filling my iPhone with photos of labels. On weekends, Mason and I swapped snapshots as we grocery shopped, a continent away from one another.

Eventually, the puzzle came together. With weeks of database tracking, we found seafood from Benjina in the supply chains of supermarkets, distribution centers and restaurants in every state at thousands of outlets. And then, with a videographer and photographer, I headed to Boston for the North American Seafood Expo to talk to companies with tainted supply chains, industry groups and Thai and Indonesian representatives.



The National Fisheries Institute, in a pre-emptive strike, sent a warning to the companies at the show: "Prepare for major AP story on labor abuse in seafood: Association advises members Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist reporting from Boston show floor."

The warning had an impact. We were followed by men, apparently working for seafood firms, as we worked the floor. Salespeople turned their backs. When we were told to come back later, we simply sat down and waited, sometimes for hours.

Eventually we had given all the subjects of our story an opportunity to respond, and obtained comment on camera from Thai and Indonesian authorities. We were ready to publish.

But there was still one major obstacle left. The men on Benjina identified by name, in photos or in video were vulnerable. And we couldn’t run the story until their safety was guaranteed.



Twenty-two years a slave: One man’s story


After interviewing dozens of rescued slaves, Mason found one with an extraordinary story. She followed him from the island of Tual, Indonesia, where all of the freed slaves were temporarily housed, to his home in Myanmar. Here is her account:


I couldn’t believe it when I met Myint Naing in Tual. He told me he had been in Indonesia since being trafficked in 1993, the year I graduated high school.

He pulled back the hair on top of his head to show me a jagged scar, telling me his skull had been cracked by one of his bosses, simply for asking if he could go home. Later, he asked a second time, and was shackled to his boat with no food or water and told he would be killed. He managed to escape one night and swam to shore. He then hid in the jungle with help from a local family for years.

Myint boarded the first of four planes that took the former slaves back to Myanmar. When he arrived at the biggest city, Yangon, I was there with a team of AP reporters to meet him. We followed him as he boarded an overnight bus with other men from Mon State, and then in a car that took him to the village he'd left behind 22 years ago.



As Myint leaped from the vehicle, we watched what could have been a scene from a movie. First, Myint embraced his sobbing baby sister. Then, a small, frail figure ran toward him. He wailed and then fell to the ground before he was pulled into his mother’s arms.

Htusan and I hugged on the side of the road as we were overcome. This was the true power of journalism, and we all knew it was happening over and over in villages across Southeast Asia. It was amazing to see, but even more amazing because we helped make it happen.


The investigation continues: More to come


AP’s work on the story is unfinished. The release of the first slaves was followed by a four-month quest, using satellites and sources, to find men the reporters knew were still enslaved at sea after their boats fled Benjina.

Nearly two years into the investigation, the impossible question has clearly been answered: thousands of enslaved men have been forced to fish, catching seafood that ends up on U.S. dinner tables. But much more remains to be done. The chance to make a difference is what led us to our profession in the first place, and with the support of the AP, further reporting is already underway.


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Text from the AP Book, FISHERMEN SLAVES: Human Trafficking and the Seafood We Eat, by Martha Mendoza, Robin McDowell, Margie Mason, Esther Htusan and The Associated Press.

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