News and Activities



April 2022  |  Working conditions in the fishing industry and the impact on sustainability

Peter Vandergeest (Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar, York University) presented a lecture for York University Alumni describing some of the problems faced by workers in fishing, explains why the industry is particularly difficult to monitor and regulate, outlines emerging initiatives to improve these conditions and examines what Canada can do around human rights and sustainability in seafood supply chains. The presentation was recorded and can be viewed on YouTube.

December 2021  |  Seafarers in Industrial Fishing: Examining migrant worker precarity

Melissa Marschke (Associate Professor, University of Ottawa) gave a virtual presentation at the Ocean Frontier Institute on 8 December 2021. The presentation was recorded and can be viewed on YouTube.



November 2021  |  Talk on "Seafarers in fishing: A year into the COVID-19 pandemic"

Melissa Marschke and Peter Vandergeest gave a virtual presentation for the Graduate program in Geography, York University.Melissa Marschke gave a virtual presentation at the Ocean Frontier Institute on 8 December 2021.



September 2021  |  Seafarers in fishing: A year into the COVID-19 pandemic

Our paper on the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted seafarers in distant water fisheries is published and available to the public.  The paper outlines the marginalization of workers in fishing from labour rights provided to workers on land and seafarers in other sectors, and how this has made them particularly vulnerable to negative impacts of pandemic management.  The focus is on crew change and shore access.  We think these negative impacts likely extend to other concerns as well, such as access to social security, vaccination and more.

The full paper is available at Marine Policy:



August 2021  |  Beyond slavery scandals: Explaining working conditions among fish workers in Taiwan and Thailand

One of the key goals for the Work at Sea project is to understand the reasons why working conditions in industrial fishing are often terrible, to the point where they would be unacceptable for terrestrial work. Our recently published paper in the journal Marine Policy, “Beyond slavery scandals: Explaining working conditions among fish workers in Taiwan and Thailand,” is a first step in identifying some causes for variation in working conditions, with an emphasis on those that are amenable to policy actions by states.

Most policy analysis and academic research has gravitated to seeking explanations for unacceptable working conditions that either blame rogue or criminal fishing vessel operators or the globalization of the seafood industry. The latter leads to fisheries depletion and international competition, with both pressuring these operators to cut variable costs—with labour costs being the main such variable cost.

While both of these explanations are important for understanding the reasons for unacceptable working conditions in fishing, Beyond Slavery Scandals provides a more complex account. We do so by breaking down working conditions and labour relations into distinct components such as wages, length of working day, use of violence, debt, recruitment and facilitation of worker action. We then compare these components for three fisheries: Thailand’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) fisheries, Taiwan’s EEZ fisheries, and Taiwan’s Distant Water Fisheries.

Despite the intense global attention to what is often labelled slavery in the Thai fisheries, we find that on the whole, working conditions in Thailand have improved, and that in many ways it is Taiwan’s Distant Water Fisheries where workers are the worst off.  On the optimistic side, the paper also shows that substantial improvements are possible if governments or flag states act both to reform labour laws for fishing, and put in place the infrastructure needed to monitor and enforce these regulations.

The full paper is available at Marine Policy, or by clicking on this link:,714MjK-N



May 2021  |  Facing Lockdown at Sea (Hakai Magazine)

Melissa Marschke and Peter Vandergeest are profiled in a recent article in Hakai Magazine, an important popular magazine that reports on coastal science and society.  The author James O’Donnell became interested after reading our paper on COVID-19 and migrant fish workers from Asia, published in Maritime Studies last year. O’Donnell interviewed Marschke and Vandergeest, and then followed up on some of the suggestions they provided to write this article.

The project research team is working on a follow-up article that will outline the ongoing ways that COVID-19 has negatively impacted migrant workers in industrial fishing more recently.  These impacts include travel restrictions that have made crew changes more difficult, so that captains are pushing workers to extend contracts even when they want to return home; and often severe restrictions on access to shore when vessels are in port.  Restrictions that prevent workers from leaving vessels and sometimes even from talking with people on shore are partly due to public health measures that imagine workers on vessels may be a source of COVID, although they have been at sea often for many months.  In addition, captains fear that crew could be infected with COVID-19 when on shore, which would affect their operations.  Lack of access to shore means that workers may not be able to contact families, access support groups, and get the rest and recreation they need after long and exhausting periods of fishing.

Read the article here:

April 2021
  |  Peter
Vandergeest and Melissa Marschke have organized two roundtables for the People and the Sea Conference, which will be held 30 June 30 to 2 July 2021.
These roundtables will bring together academic and NGO researchers to discuss the reasons why working conditions in industrial fishing are often unacceptable by terrestrial standards, and what sorts of policy changes by various actors could lead to significant improvements.

The conference is being organized through the Centre for Maritime Research in Amsterdam, and is a key venue for engaged researchers doing social science research involving oceans.

30 November 2020 
|  We have completed and published our initial research on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic management on workers in industrial fishing with a focus on Taiwan and Thailand.

COVID-19, instability and migrant fish workers in Asia, a paper co-authored by project team members—Melissa Marschke, Peter Vandergeest, Elizabeth Havice, Alin Kadfak, Peter Duker, Ilinca Isopescu and Mallory MacDonnell—was published online on 23 November in Maritime Studies.

The paper can be found at this link. Thanks to our Research Assistants and collaborators who scoured online media sources and other sources of information, which are the basis of our assessment.

Thailand and Taiwan have both been able to contain and stop the spread of COVID-19 so far—even without paying big pharma billions for a vaccine. One of the pre-conditions for achieving this was reaching out to migrant workers, including migrant workers in fishing—Malaysia is an example of a country that has not been able to control the virus among its large migrant worker population due to inconsistent and racist policies with respect to migrant workers. Thailand experienced more community transmission in the early months of the pandemic than Taiwan, and imposed a more severe set of restrictions, but neither country experienced outbreaks of COVID-19 among migrant workers in fishing, as far as we know.  As of writing in late November 2020, Thailand’s total of about 4,000 knowns cases, and Taiwan’s total of about 650 (of which less than 60 were contracted in Taiwan), is dwarfed by Canada’s daily cases well in excess of these totals for the year to date in either country. Malaysia, which has neglected its migrant worker population, is currently seeing well over 1,000 cases per day.

Even without any outbreaks, however, the pandemic has severely impacted migrant workers in fishing in Thailand and Taiwan.  Our research highlights how migrant workers in an industry that is based on mobilities—that is, the movement of workers, vessels, fish and seafood—face many problems due to pandemic policies that restrict mobilities. All around the world, seafarers have found themselves unable to return home at the end of contracts, or even stuck at sea for long periods of time unable to enter ports, which leaves workers vulnerable to abuse and poor working conditions, and unable to contact their families. Even workers in exclusive economic zone (EEZ)-based fisheries have found that they may not be able to return to their home countries after the completion of their contracts. The flip side of this is that employers have difficulty recruiting new workers, giving existing workers some negotiating leverage for improving their working conditions, including wages. Finally, we are hearing reports that employers might be seeking to recruit workers who enter countries without documents. This kind of movement is occurring not just across land borders, as workers have been smuggled to Taiwan on fishing boats from countries like Vietnam. We do not know if these include fish workers.

Another other key point highlighted by our research is that like migrant workers everywhere, workers in the fishing industry can face obstacles in accessing health care and social security, even when in theory governments are proactive in formally allowing migrant workers to access health care. These obstacles can include language barriers, poor dissemination of information, and discriminatory attitudes among health care providers. At the same time, we have noted how dedicated professionals in the health care system have often recognized and addressed these obstacles, by providing services in the language of the migrant workers, for example.  There is evidence that health care professionals in Thailand have been particularly proactive in this regard. Language barriers in Taiwan, plus the way that labour agencies control migrant worker access to health care, seem more difficult to overcome.

Finally, work in fishing has been disrupted by the way that the global seafood industry has been destabilized, with demand for some products rising—especially those sold in supermarkets—and for others, declining—those sold in restaurants, the tourist industry and so on. While the demand for seafood consumed outside the home has returned in some countries, as governments allow businesses to re-open, continued struggles to contain the virus continue to make seafood supply chains unstable.  We might add that many seafood companies have done very well during the pandemic, with Thai Union (a major supplier of canned tuna around the world), for example, recording record profits as consumers buy and store away shelf-stable seafood products.

We are currently moving forward in our research to start in-person interviewing in Taiwan, and in Thailand via a separate project. We are also turning our attention to worker recruitment, especially in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam—the major suppliers of workers for the Taiwanese fisheries. Finally, we are using AIS data to identify annual patterns in the movement and port visits among vessels in Taiwan’s distant water fisheries. The pandemic continues to shape what we can do, so that most research will continue to be at a distance.


2 September 2020 
|  The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our plan to launch into fieldwork in Asia. The pandemic has also impacted workers, and as with migrant workers in other sectors of the food system, also made their poor working and living conditions more visible. Their work and legal status has been thrown into limbo due to disruptions in the seafood supply chains, their ability to cross borders limited due to travel restrictions, and their access to health care and social security limited in some cases by their status as migrant workers, especially for those workers on FOC (Flags of Convenience) ships that have no status and whose working and living conditions are not governed in any effective way.

To start the research, have thus turned to assessing the impact of COVID-19 and pandemic policies on workers on vessels operated out of Taiwan and Thailand, doing research at a distance. We have published a short rapid response comment in Agriculture and Human Values, with more to come.

We also wish to welcome Peter Duker and Ilinca Isopescu who joined the team as Research Assistants this summer, and Terence Rudolph who has started looking into tracking Distance Water Fishing vessels operated out Taiwan.  Finally, we would like to introduce Alin Kadfak (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences) who will be collaborating with us on this research.