By Robin Gomes
Noting there are still too many human rights violations that fisherfolk suffer at sea, the Catholic Church is calling on international organizations, governments, civil societies, the different players on the supply chain and NGOs to join forces to stop it.
Following the teaching of the Gospel and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, the Holy See has always advocated respect for those rights as the preliminary condition for a country’s social and economic development that further the common good, said Cardinal Peter Turkson, the prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
He made the remarks in a statement in view of World Fisheries Day that will be observed on Sunday, Nov. 21. World Fisheries Day celebrations serve as an important reminder that we must focus on changing the way the world manages global fisheries to ensure sustainable stocks and healthy ecosystems, while at the same time championing and protecting the human rights of the fisherfolk.
Cardinal Turkson noted that World Fisheries Day was celebrated for the first time in 1998 by the fisherfolk communities, who wanted to highlight the way of living in the fisheries sector, which employs the largest number of workers who generate one of the most-traded food commodities worldwide: the fish.
Challenges of on-board life
During this World Fisheries Day, the Vatican official said, the Church would like to focus our attention on the industrial/commercial fishing sector, which is entangled already for too long, in a net of troubles and challenges related to human rights violations at sea, where the consequences of which were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and made life more problematic for fishers and their families.
Cardinal Turkson acknowledged the continuous efforts made by the international organizations to implement the various conventions and agreements regarding working conditions, safety at sea and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
He lamented that most of the time when the fishing vessel leaves the calm water of the port, the fishers become hostages of circumstances that are extremely difficult to monitor because of miles and miles away from land. The crew cannot come ashore regularly since the fishing vessel does not leave the fishing ground for months, if not years at a time.
24,000 deaths a year
Fishers experience threats and intimidation by the skipper and officers. They are forced to work endless shifts day and night to catch as much fish as possible in any kind of weather, conditions that lead to fatigue and occupational accidents.
Cardinal Turkson noted that the average age of the world’s industrial fishing fleet is more than 20 years old. “With more than 24,000 deaths in a year, we can define the fishing industry, a deadly one,” he said, adding that little or no compensation is offered to the families and the relatives of the deceased, whose bodies are swiftly buried in the middle of the sea.
He expressed concern over the safety of fishers, whose average age in the world’s industrial fishing fleet is more than 20 years. On-board conditions are inhumane, with dirty kitchens and pantries, rusty water tanks are rusted, restricted drinking water and poor and inadequate food quality.
Enumerating other hazards, Cardinal Turkson said that because of poaching in national waters, sometimes armed clashes break out, with the vessel confiscated and its crew arrested. The owner abandons them in a foreign country with no back wages and no hope of repatriation.
Sometimes, the fisher crew is also not paid overtime, with the agent keeping a portion of the salary until the end of the contract. Unscrupulous fishing vessel owners also engage in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, transnational criminal activities, such as trafficking in persons and slavery, as well as drugs and weapons smuggling.
The Church’s efforts
The cardinal said the Holy See condemns the human rights violations of fishers and calls for a transformation of the fishing industry that places at the centre of its interests, the respect of their human and labour rights.
He cited Pope Francis in his encyclical Fratelli tutti: “We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering.”
He thus urged the chaplains and volunteers of the Catholic Church’s Stella Maris seaport ministry to continue their compassioned mission to welcome the fishers and see in their faces the face of the suffering Jesus Christ and provide them with spiritual and material support.