Study Links Wildlife Decline to Human Trafficking, Other Social Problems

Study Links Wildlife Decline to Human Trafficking, Other Social Problems

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A new report highlights a hidden social cost of fish declines: It drives up human trafficking and child labor.

The conservation policy report, led by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, appeared last week (July 25) in the journal Science.

Using data from the U.S. Department of Labor and the United Nations, researchers illustrate how decreasing fish stock fuels labor abuses.

According to the report, a world with less fish means that fishers have to search farther out, go deeper, endure harsher conditions and fish for longer to attain the same yields they did a generation ago. They can only do this through cheaper labor, fueling demand for trafficked and child labor.

The report makes a connection that is not well known because people in the conservation and the human rights worlds aren’t necessarily talking to each other, says lead author Justin Brashares, a professor in UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

“They are really not getting it. They are not extending beyond their areas of expertise to consider the true importance of these issues,” he said.

Brashares says he got the idea to study links between wildlife decline and social issues after seeing two seemingly unrelated news articles published the same week: A NY Times piece on the rise of child workers in Africa’s fishing industry and a cover story in Science about the global decline of fisheries.

“The [NY Times] issue on child slavery didn’t touch on or recognize the fact that child slavery was on the increase in fisheries and in wildlife hunting on land … because hunters or fishers have to work a lot harder, because the fish are more scarce and they are looking for cheap labor to do that for them.”

In Thailand’s fishing industry, Burmese, Cambodian, and Thai men are sold to fishing boats where workers may be forced to stay at sea for years without pay, working 18- to 20- hour days, the report found. It also cited an increase in the use of children in West Africa, “to extract wildlife from areas that would otherwise be too costly to harvest.”

Zama Coursen-Neff, director of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, says the report is “spot on at looking beyond a very narrow set of policies.”

In her work on children’s rights issues globally, Coursen-Neff says she hasn’t heard about the connection between fish depletion and child labor before, but agrees a cross-discipline approach can improve policy-making.

For example, part of the solution to address wildlife poaching may need to consider a particular country’s ability to enforce child labor laws.

“Do we need more enforcement of labor laws?” she asked. “Enforcement of child labor laws is completely lacking in India, El Salvador, and fisheries in Thailand as well.”

The report highlighted another possible ripple effect from fish declines, partly facilitated by weak governance: a global uptick in vigilantism to protect resources.

In Thai fishing fleets, Brashares says, small groups of about 10 to 50 fishermen are taking up arms and going out to sea to fend off other foreign fishing boats.

“They are basically protecting their fishing rights,” he said. “They can’t depend on local government to protect those rights or maybe they are in dispute. In Asia, there are rising conflicts over access to fish.”

Brashares says vigilante fishing groups can give rise to violence, as occurred in the case of Somali fishers. He says it started with a group of fishermen trying to defend their fishing rights, but eventually spiraled into violence when some fishermen realized they could make more money collecting ransoms than fishing, because the fishery was in decline.