WASHINGTON (CNS) — Each November, communities around the world celebrate an industry that has provided livelihoods and built strong bonds for coastal communities that depend on fishing.
For them, Nov. 21, known as World Fisheries Day, helps to celebrate men and women who have dedicated their lives to the fishing profession. Increasingly, however, the date also is being used to call attention to environmental concerns, as well as the plight of women and men whose abuse by some in the industry goes largely unseen.
This year, the Holy See and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization used the occasion to urge an end to the violation of human rights in the fishing industry.
Jose Graziano da Silva, director general of the FAO, along with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, joined forces to ask the fishing industry to combat illegal and unregulated fishing.
Fishing and aquaculture, said da Silva, speaking at an event in Rome in November to address the issue, supports the livelihoods of one of every 10 people on the planet. It helps developing countries create jobs, builds strong coastal communities, and provides food and nutrition to vulnerable populations.
“Sadly the same industry that offers so many opportunities also victimizes the most vulnerable,” said da Silva, adding that the International Labor Organization estimates that every year “an average of 24,000 fishermen and women lose their lives” in the industry.
Media reports have called attention to abuses such as forced labor, child labor and slavery, he said.
The stress of migration in recent years also has contributed to forced labor and poor working conditions, da Silva added. As producers, da Silva said, the fishing industry has “to guarantee that the seafood reaching our plates has been produced, not only in an environmentally sustainable manner but also in a manner that supports the socioeconomic well-being of those who harvest and process it.”
Cardinal Parolin said that while the fisheries sector makes a global contribution as it allows many to have access to nutrition and improves human welfare and economic prosperity, “it is vital the economic vision not forget to guarantee a human level of well-being that is compatible with the environmental protection.”
He said long-term prosperity must be assured by sustainable practices. Uncontrolled fishing can threaten marine organisms, he said. Cardinal Parolin also called attention to labor practices that have led to a form of modern-day slavery.
He said by some estimates, 29 million people around the world continue to work under coercion, largely in an informal and illegal economy.
“About 90 percent of today’s forced labor is imposed by private agents primarily in labor-intensive industries such as fisheries,” Cardinal Parolin said.
Some of these practices have led migrants to become the victims of trafficking or forced labor.
“Workers aboard fishing vessels are isolated for long periods being deprived not only of contractual guarantees but also of most basic fundamental rights,” he said.
Many live in confined spaces, in circumstances that are a “tantamount to detention,” and have their travel or other legal documents confiscated and returned only after forced or underpaid labor, he said.
In many cases, crews are unable to disembark in a port, and even if a worker wanted to flee to report an abuse, “they are unable to escape, to prevent abuse, or to seek assistance,” Cardinal Parolin said.
“This situation is aggravated in the case of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing,” he added. “The Holy See considers it crucial to develop capabilities to monitor, identify and rescue fishermen who are victims of smuggling, trafficking and great (abuse).”
In Washington, Sister Joanna Okereke, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Apostleship of the Sea ministry, said World Fisheries Day is an opportunity to reflect on fishing, fishermen and women, coastal communities as well as the status of the oceans and fish stocks. But mostly importantly, she said, it’s a day to focus on those whose work puts food on our tables yet whose lives, which sometimes include suffering, are largely out of sight.
It’s important for people of faith, she said, to learn about the lives of men and women who work in the fishing industry. She urged others to learn about them, to offers prayers for them and to actively do something to help.
The Apostleship of the Sea ministry, she said, celebrates their valuable work and encourages port chaplains to help “the fishers’ faith” as they journey in lonely conditions. Some work 7 days a week and are often far from their families. Chaplains are ready to listen to whatever they might be experiencing and provide help, said Sister Okereke, a member of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus.
“We try to advocate for the spiritual care and the fair working conditions of those working in fisheries around the world,” she told Catholic News Service.
Dioceses in coastal communities, said Sister Okereke, sometimes offer opportunities to volunteer. Some organize Masses or events at ports, others help with letter-writing to advocate for better treatment, and some help put together Christmas boxes for fishermen and women to receive as they reach a port during the holidays.
The Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking invited John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, which represents a variety of fishing industry entities, for a discussion about the issue.
“We want to solve the problem,” said Connelly, speaking to the coalition at USCCB headquarters Nov. 22.
No one wants to be associated with product that comes from abusing others, he said.
The fishing industry in the United States is working with a lot of organizations, including some nongovernmental organizations, to identify solutions, he said.
If there’s a problem, Connelly encouraged others to make the problem known. The industry, he said, wants to know about the problems so they can be fixed.