How do capitalist labour practices in fisheries make the sea a dangerous place?

Date/Time: 16 June 2022, 9:30-11:00
Venue: The Faculty of Law, UiB, Auditorium 4

The growing number of scandals in relation to unacceptable working conditions in the Irish, New Zealand, Thai and South African fisheries have recently draw attention to abuses and criminal practices in labour recruitment in the Global South but also the Global North – usually in connection. Moreover, these scandals reveal the existence of different understudied trajectories of practices in fisheries at the intersection between licit and illicit practices at the geographic and political limits of the state. For example, state subsidies that sustain unproductive fishing fleets with a massive overcapacity incentivize fishers to extract resources in ways considered illegal or illicit under international agreements and laws, or by states with rival claims, undermining any possibility of sustainable fishing or harvesting.

In the situation when fishing fleets are too large for available resources, fishers can only sustain themselves by taking this pattern of extractive and destructive behavior to other (distant) places, thereby exporting it and (potentially) transgressing into other jurisdictions. As fishers compete with each other for fishing grounds they regularly encroach into other countries’ (only recently demarcated) exclusive economic zones. Sometimes fishers are detained not only for trespassing but also for poaching. Due to the high cost of legal procedures, the prosecuting countries usually make only the captains serve their sentence in jail, while the rest of the crew is allowed to return home. Having neither money nor passport, fishers are often stuck in limbo for months in foreign countries. Twenty-first century globalization of fisheries dominated by neoliberal reforms and capitalist labour relations intensifies the vulnerability of fishers, exacerbating occupational health problems and compromising their safety.

The presenters Prof Peter Vandergeest, Barrister Lyma Nguyen and Associate Professor Natasha Stacey will address these issues looking specifically at cases of forced labour, illegal fishing and fishers’ detention from academic and legal perspectives.


Prof Peter Vandergeest. Unacceptable Working Conditions in Global Fishing:  Lawlessness, Criminality, or Enabling Government Policies?

Industrial fisheries provide much of the high value seafood consumed that supplies global markets, such as the ubiquitous canned or pouched tuna that flew off grocery store shelves during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic.  What is seldom realized is that working conditions on industrial fishing vessels are usually unacceptably dangerous, unhealthy, and exploitative.  In recent years, these unacceptable working conditions have been widely publicized, and some governments, seafood corporations, and NGOs have taken actions that aim to force improvements.  The question is what kind of action will be effective?   The answer is based on how one understands the problem.  In this talk I will suggest that the problem is not just the lawless oceans, criminal captains or seafood companies, human slavery, or human trafficking as described in popular media and many reports; it is also policies that produce vulnerability and enable exploitation. The talk will finish with a quick review of state policies that have the potential to improve working conditions rather than produce vulnerability, with a focus on states that import significant amounts of high value seafood.

Barrister Lyma Nguyen. Caught at Sea: The Prosecution and Defence of Illegal Foreign Fishermen

 As a barrister and legal practitioner who is experienced in both the prosecution and defence of illegal foreign fishermen who are apprehended within the Australian Fisheries Zone, Lyma will discuss the legal, procedural and evidentiary issues arising from these criminal cases involving foreign nationals in domestic courts. Using real life case examples, the environmental, social and political implications of these cross-border incursions will also be examined, including the push and pull factors that lead to such international activity, and the personal consequences for those criminally charged before the courts of a foreign state.

Associate Professor Natasha Stacey. Illegal Indonesian Fishing in the Timor and Arafura Seas Region of Northern Australia

For centuries fishers from what is now the archipelagic nation state of Indonesia have operated in the border regions of the Arafura and Timor Seas which separate the countries of Australia and Indonesia (and more recently Timor Leste). This transboundary activity is differentiated into legal and illegal fishing, small and large scale, experiencing peaks and troughs over time in response to market demand, resource governance in Indonesia, and Australian surveillance border policy.  In recognition of the long association some groups of Indonesia fishers have in the area, transboundary ‘traditional fishing’ has been permitted for nationals from Indonesia within a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Box area in the Australian Fishing Zone since 1974.  In this presentation, I profile Indonesian fishing activity in northern Australian waters over time, Australia’s policy and management responses and discuss the consequences for fishers arising from illegal activity through boat apprehensions, crew detention and prosecutions.


Prof Peter Vandergeest is Professor Emeritus of Geography at York University.  He has been conducting research on forestry, agriculture and fisheries in Southeast Asia since the 1980s, always with a focus on rural livelihoods and the situation of the most marginalized resource users.  His current research concerns working conditions among migrant workers in industrial fisheries.  The focus is on fisheries operated from Taiwan and Thailand, and on migrant workers who travel from Southeast Asia to work in fisheries around the world.

Lyma Nguyen  LLM . LLB . GDLP . BA is the inaugural President of the Asian Australian Lawyers Association, NT Branch. In 2020, she received her title as overall winner of the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian Australians Leadership Awards. Born in Indonesia on a refugee camp of Vietnamese ‘boat people’, Lyma considers herself privileged to have received an education in Australia, and rise into the legal profession, starting as a lawyer in the Commonwealth public service; internationally, as victims Counsel for survivors of genocide (at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia); and presently, at the Independent Bar. In 2018, Lyma was accredited as Counsel before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. At the private bar, Lyma has both prosecuted and defended cases in which foreign nationals have been charged with fishing in Australian waters. Her practice involves criminal cases, and cases with an international and human rights dimension.

Associate Professor Natasha Stacey is an applied anthropologist with interest in maritime societies in the Asia-Pacific region. She leads the Communities and Livelihoods Research Group at the Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Australia. Recent and current research includes improving coastal livelihoods for communities, in the cross – border regions of the Arafura – Timor Seas; success factors for Indigenous fishing enterprises in Northern Australia and improving gender based fisheries livelihoods in Indonesia and elsewhere.


Prof Siri Gloppen is a Professor of Political Science (Department of Administration and Organization Theory) and Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Bergen. She is the founding Director of CMI-UiB Centre on Law & Social Transformation (LawTransform) and current Co-Director.

Dr Edyta Roszko is Senior Researcher and social anthropologist at CMI. Her scientific areas include maritime anthropology, comparative historical anthropology and regimes of spatiality and temporality. She is the author of Fishers, Monks and Cadres: Navigating State, Religion and the South China Sea in Central Vietnam co-published with NIAS/University of Hawai’i Press.

Jointly organized by CMI, LawTransform and ‘TransOcean’, funded by ERC (No. 802223) and led by Edyta Roszko.