Children as young as 11 are working aboard Vietnamese vessels fishing illegally for seafood that could end up on sale in supermarkets in the EU and US, according to an investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation.
The children were discovered on boats detained by Thai authorities for fishing illegally in Thai waters, thousands of miles from their homes.
A report by the environmental group also found a lack of catch documentation or verification systems on Vietnamese vessels to determine the origin of seafood.
Vietnam is the world’s fourth largest seafood exporter, with one of the fastest-growing fishing fleets. It sends products such as shrimp to 170 countries, and in 2017 it exported $8.5bn (£6.5bn) worth of seafood, with the top export destinations being the EU, followed by the US. The country aims to increase exports to $10.5bn this year.
Steve Trent, the director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), whose members have accompanied Thai police on patrols against illegal fishing in the Gulf of Thailand, said: “It is not every vessel that has a child on board. But we are hearing the same things over and over from the crew: ‘we shouldn’t be out here, but there’s no fish at home’.
“In Vietnam, we’ve found kids on board and we’ve found them fishing in areas they shouldn’t be. You have 180,000 vessels in Vietnam. That’s not sustainable.”
A total of 12 children were found to be working across the 41 vessels surveyed by EJF. Many of them were relatives of the crew. One, who worked as a cook, said he had been promised a small fee on his return home. All forms of child labour on long-distance boats is illegal in Vietnam.
Crew testimony gathered by EJF suggests that depleted fish populations and uncontrolled fishing fleet expansion have led to vessels being forced to fish illegally.
Vessel captains, who were among more than 200 fishermen surveyed by EJF researchers, said boat owners had encouraged them to fish in the waters of neighbouring countries. A third of interviewees said that because of a lack of sea cucumbers, fish and squid in Vietnam, their vessels were forced to travel outside of their territory to remain profitable. Future trips to Thailand were discussed openly among among crew, the report found.
The country’s fleet has increased by more than 160% in a decade from 41,000 vessels in 1990 to 108,500 in 2018. The number of vessels with large engines of over 400 horsepower has also increased by 30% between 2016 and 2018.
Recently, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime ranked Vietnam the fifth worst offender for overfishing and illegal and unregulated fishing, behind China, Taiwan, Cambodia and Russia.
Trent said a “vicious cycle of human rights abuses” fuelled by overfishing was occurring not just in Vietnam, but all over south-east Asia.
“What we are seeing all over south-east Asia is is the effect of the downward economic pressure of decreasing returns. The pattern is ‘where else can we cut costs?’. Whether it’s child labour or forced labour, this is a pattern we’re seeing replicated elsewhere.”
Trent said that while the report did not prove that Vietnamese seafood caught by children was on sale in the EU, such produce was “impossible to distinguish” from other sources in the country because the industry was unregulated.
None of the fishermen who spoke to EJF had ever used logbooks to document their catch, potentially allowing seafood to be laundered into international supply chains. The detained vessels were mainly from Song Doc, on Vietnam’s west coast, a major landing site for boats catching “trash fish” to be processed into fish meal and shrimp feed.
“Most of product these vessels are fishing for is ‘trash fish’ which goes into animal feed, for poultry or aquaculture. If you are buying Vietnamese prawns, there is every chance it is unsustainable and illegally caught and there’s also a chance it could have been caught by kids. How do you know you are not getting that product?”
The report recommended that seafood companies, processors and retailers audit their supply chains to ensure their products do not come from vessels using child labour.
Vietnam, which was issued with a “yellow card” warning by the EU over wild-caught seafood exports in 2017, has introduced new legislation to combat overfishing, including installation of vessel monitoring systems on vessels.
However, poor implementation of reforms as well as years of neglect and a domestic fishery in steep decline had hampered progress, the report said, putting the country at risk of trade sanctions.
The Vietnamese embassy in the UK has been contacted for comment.