A Thai ship captain was arrested Friday and his cargo of about $2 million in seafood was seized in Indonesia on suspicion of illegal fishing, in the latest development in an ongoing investigation into a "slave island" uncovered earlier this year.
The Silver Sea 2, the Thai-owned vessel that was involved in Friday’s arrests, was first identified by the Associated Press in July in satellite imagery that appeared to show it carrying loads of fish that had been captured by trafficked labor in Papua New Guinea waters. Thai authorities were informed of the vessel’s progress when it crossed over into their territorial waters. The Silver Sea 2 is accused of receiving fish that were illegally caught, and turning off its satellite beacon, the AP reported. Silver Sea Fishery Co., which owns the vessel, has denied any wrongdoing.
Friday’s arrests brings the total number of arrests in the case to 10, made across Indonesia and Thailand since the AP investigation, which linked the catch from enslaved migrant laborers to the supply chains of major U.S. food and pet food companies. Since then, over 2,000 men from Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have been identified or sent home this year after the investigation broke.
A multi-million dollar Thai-Indonesian fishing business was shut down, seafood importers have called for reform, and the administration of President Barack Obama has promised to come down harder on exporters who violate labor laws.
Lawsuits have been filed against Nestle SA and Costco Wholesale Corp for using seafood products that were sourced to illegally caught Indonesian or Thai fish. Other companies including Wal-Mart, Sysco, Kroger, Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams have also been linked to the "slave-caught" fish.
Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said on the Silver Sea 2 that she believed its catch had come from the eastern Indonesian Arafura Sea, where fishing vessels are illegal. She also said that authorities are investigating the alleged link between the ship and the human trafficking ring. Aside from the captain, the remaining 16 crew members are set to be deported, and at least one of them is still under scrutiny.
Pudjiastuti said that anyone found guilty would be deported and added that the vessel may be destroyed.
"If the court decides it should be confiscated, then we will sink it," she said.
Indonesia has already scuttled dozens of smaller foreign vessels that were linked to illegal fishing.
Indonesia and Thailand have begun cracking down on illegal fishing after an AP investigation in March found slave-caught fish being loaded onto another reefer owned by the Silver Sea company in the Indonesian island village of Benjina. The report described finding men being held in cages and asking to go home, and surveys from 400 rescued forced labors found that several were trafficked from Thailand aboard Silver Sea vessels.
While there are no official records of how many people in the Thai fishing industry are enslaved, government records suggest that up to 300,000 people are employed in it, 90 percent of whom are seasonal migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.