Fall 2018

Overfishing and Modern-Day Slavery

Jessica Sparks, VG14, researches the connections between fishing-stock declines and forced labor on the open seas.

By Taylor McNeil

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Burmese fishermen arrive at a fishing company in Indonesia in 2015 to report themselves for departure. Photo: AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

You’re about to make a sandwich with canned albacore tuna today, thinking that’s a good thing—nutritionists talk about the health benefits of eating more seafood, after all. One thing you probably didn’t think about is where exactly that tuna came from. For Jessica Sparks, that’s a crucial question.

A 2014 graduate of Cummings School’s Master’s in Conservation Medicine Program, and now a program faculty member, she researches the links between overfishing and forced labor and slavery. She’s found that fish-stock declines may lead to growth in slavery on the open seas—and, perversely, that forced labor reinforces the overfishing that’s destroying marine life. She hopes her research will lead to policies that better conserve marine populations and alleviate the plight of the many thousands of enslaved workers living in often brutal conditions.

Before coming to Tufts, Sparks was a clinical social worker working with child sexual-abuse victims, teenagers suspected of being trafficked for sex, and victims of mass acts of violence, among others. Burnt out after a decade of work, she reached back to a childhood passion for wildlife conservation and came to Cummings School. While on an externship in China, she learned of a doctoral program at the University of Denver in sustainability and global studies, with a concentration in conservation and social justice. It was a natural next step to build on the issues she studied at Cummings School and her background in social work.

Just as Sparks was starting the Ph.D. program, explosive investigative reports came out revealing how the fishing industry, especially in Southeast Asia, relied on modern-day slavery. The reports by the Associated Press (which won a Pulitzer), the Guardian, and the Environmental Justice Foundation struck Sparks. “With my background dealing with victims of violence and trafficking, I decided I wanted to focus on this issue of marine ecosystems,” she said. “I saw a real gap there and thought I could contribute to understanding it.”

Jessica Sparks on Cummings School’s Grafton campus. Photo: Alonso Nichols

In this modern version of slavery, a middleman usually approaches men—such as poor villagers in Myanmar or Thailand—and offers them what seem to be well-paying fishing jobs. The men incur debt to travel to the vessel, and then suddenly find themselves incurring more debt for food and lodging. “That’s called debt bondage,” Sparks said. “There are stories of fisherman being out at sea for five to ten years, without ever setting foot on land, getting transferred from one vessel to another at sea. There’s a lot of physical violence, sexual violence, mental violence—people getting thrown overboard to fish for sharks.”

Meanwhile, marine life is steadily declining, in large part due to overfishing. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), around 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are already overfished. Some 40 percent of widely eaten species, such as tuna, are now being caught unsustainably, the FAO said in 2016.

When there are too few fish to catch in a region, many fishing vessels move elsewhere. “Common sense would say that as fish stocks decline, you would fish less,” Sparks said. But instead, some vessels stay out at sea longer, farther from shore in deeper waters, and sometimes even use different fishing gear to maintain their yields. That increases production costs. And all those costs are fixed, with one exception: labor.

In fact, a recent University of British Columbia study found that fishing “is only profitable with government subsidies or if they use forced labor—slavery.” And once boat owners become profitable, Sparks said, “it’s not like they would stop using forced labor and go back to be being unprofitable.”

The question then becomes: what to do? “We need policies at the international, national, regional, and local levels” that address the intersection of fisheries depletion and forced labor, Sparks said. “In a lot of places around the world, the fisheries officers can board a vessel to investigate for illegal fishing, but they won’t communicate with the crew or ask the crew about labor-abuse issues, because it’s out of their purview.”

Since she finished her thesis and got her Ph.D., Sparks has been preparing papers for publication. One positive outcome of her research, she said, would be advocating for policies that address social and ecological problems in concert.

In addition to teaching at Cummings School, Sparks soon will be working as a research fellow at the Antislavery Ecosystems Project at the University of Nottingham in England. Part of the university’s Rights Lab, the research group is “one of the only—and definitely the largest—human-rights research groups in the world now,” Sparks said. “They are looking at bidirectional links between environmental degradation and the use of slavery, predominantly forced labor.”

“We are very excited about Jess Sparks joining the Rights Lab,” said its research director, Professor Kevin Bales, author of Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World. “Connecting dots to solve problems is what Jess Sparks does brilliantly.”

Email Deputy Editor Taylor McNeil at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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