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Taiwan’s Distant-Water Fleet Still on Troubled Waters

What is going on?

In July 2023, Taiwan and the United States held Taiwan-US Fisheries Consultations on the preservation of marine resources and Taiwan’s participation in international fisheries organizations. The consultations took place just one month before one of the participating organizations, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), listed Taiwan for the second time in its biennial report on Illegal Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU) submitted to Congress. Although NOAA credited Taiwan for taking appropriate corrective actions to address the activities for which it was listed in the 2021 Report to Congress, Taiwan did not comprehensively resolve all issues, including violations of human rights in the high seas.  

What is the broader picture?

Taiwan owns one of the largest distant-water fishing fleets in the world. With 2000 fishing vessels and an average annual production reaching  765,000 tons and 44.6 billion New Taiwan Dollars in value, Taiwan is one of the major tuna suppliers to global markets. Bilateral international fishing access agreements enable Taiwanese tuna fishing vessels to operate within the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of nearly 30 coastal countries.  

These operations were nearly put on hold when, in 2015, the European Commission issued Taiwan a yellow card for failing to cooperate against IUU fishing fully. Taiwan stopped short of receiving a red card, which would have resulted in a ban on entry to the EU single market for the catch from its vessels. As a result, the EU lifted the yellow card for Taiwan in 2019. At the same time, Taiwan started cooperating with the marine countries of the Indo-Pacific region, including its diplomatic allies, to tackle illegal fishing. Nevertheless, occasional international IUU-related incidents take place. 

Taiwan’s involvement in IUU is not related solely to illegal fishing. In its 2023 report, NOAA first addressed forced labor in the seafood industry sector, including working conditions on board the fishing vessels as an IUU criterion, which the EU IUU Regulation does not include. For years, Taiwan has been accused of misconduct related to the treatment of migrant workers on the high seas, including poor labor standards and malpractices towards the fishers from Southeast Asia (mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines) working aboard Taiwanese-owned vessels. The case was first highlighted with the Fuh Sheng No. 11, which became the first Taiwanese fishing vessel to be detained by the South African authorities for contravening the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention, including unsafe conditions as well as insufficient food and the absence of crew lists onboard the vessel. Although Taiwan has also made several revisions to the Regulations on the Authorization and Management of Overseas Employment of Foreign Crew Members, in September 2022, the US Department of Labor (DoL) included Taiwan’s fish products in the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor for the second time. 

Why does it matter?

Taiwan has conducted significant efforts to tackle Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing issues. However, the mistreatment of migrant fishers and the problem of forced labor in the high seas overshadow the nation’s reputation as one of the leading democracies and economies in Asia. This issue might significantly affect the negotiations regarding future trade cooperation between Taiwan and its international partners, particularly the US and the EU. Additionally, forced labor might negatively affect Taiwan’s participation in supply chains and its ability to export seafood products due to the growing awareness of consumers and retailers and their demand for ethical seafood sourcing.