Abuse of Southeast Asian migrant workers are rife across the fleet of one of China’s largest tuna fishing companies, according to a cross-border investigation.

Lulu Ning Hui, 23 Aug 2021

Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, China

WHEN Sepri was growing up, life in his village began to deteriorate. In the 1990s, the village, Serdang Menang, in the south of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, was centered around fertile rice fields and rivers full of fish. But after a palm oil company drained and denuded the swampy landscape, flooding and wildfires became commonplace, damaging local livelihoods. Sepri’s father, a tenant farmer, found new work as a janitor at a police station. But when Sepri reached adulthood, he, like millions of others in the world’s fourth-most populous country, saw migration as his only chance to make a living.

With only a middle-school education, Sepri tried his hand in Jakarta, the nation’s capital, but his salary at an aging shopping mall was barely enough to meet his basic needs. He returned home disheartened after a few years. Back in the village, he spent much of his time at a loose end, watching soccer at his sister Rika’s house. She worried about her little brother. Many young men with too much time on their hands had fallen prey to methamphetamine use. Police in the village had recently shot dead one local dealer and were openly threatening to kill others. Rika, who ran a food stall with her husband, urged Sepri to take an easy job, stay out of trouble and start a family. But Sepri felt pulled toward something more. 

“He wanted to make a lot of money,” Rika told us at her home in the village. “He wanted to make his cousins and me proud. That was his wish. Even though I always said the important thing was finding a job.”

The islands of Java and Sumatra are home to three-quarters of Indonesia’s 270 million people.

One day, Sepri came across a Facebook post advertising for deckhands to work on foreign fishing boats. The job paid $350 a month, double the minimum wage in South Sumatra province, no experience needed. The job sounded so flush with promise that six of his friends wanted to join. Before long, the seven were on their way to the neighboring island of Java to sign up with a recruitment company.

It should have been a grand adventure. But a year later, Sepri and his friend Ari were dead. 

According to interviews with four witnesses, Sepri, Ari and the other Indonesians on their boat were beaten, worked around the clock, fed rotten food and given dirty drinking water. Over time, some of them developed unknown illnesses characterized by distended body parts. The swelling started in their legs and, for some, crept all the way up to their necks and faces. In December 2019, Sepri, struggling to breathe, collapsed on the deck of the boat and died. He was buried at sea. Ari and two other deckhands died in a similar fashion shortly thereafter. 

The boat, the Long Xing 629, is owned and operated by Dalian Ocean Fishing (DOF), a Chinese company operating in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans that has claimed to be China’s biggest supplier of sashimi-grade tuna to Japan.

But the deaths on the Long Xing 629 were not isolated incidents. 

Over the past year, our reporting team — consisting of Mongabay, the Japanese investigative outlet Tansa, and the Environmental Reporting Collective, a network of journalists in more than a dozen countries — tracked down and spoke with 13 Indonesians who worked on eight of DOF’s boats. The Environmental Justice Foundation, a London-based nonprofit that investigates the fishing industry, provided us with transcripts of its own interviews with 11 more Indonesians, covering a further six of the company’s boats. 

Together, these interviews account for deckhands on 40% of DOF’s known fleet of some 35 longliners, industrial-scale vessels that practice a commercial fishing technique in which thousands of baited hooks are dragged through the sea in search of fish. The interviewees all worked for DOF between 2018 and 2020. We also spoke with dozens of experts to help put their testimonies into context.

Our findings indicate that the conditions said to be present on the Long Xing 629 — including substandard food, possibly dangerous drinking water, and excessive working hours — were the rule rather than the exception on DOF’s boats, crewed by hundreds of deckhands from Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines. 

Almost every deckhand we interviewed said they had been made to perform hard physical labor for at least 18 hours per day, seven days a week. If there were a lot of fish, they could be worked for up to two days straight without rest. 

Besides rice and noodles, the deckhands’ main staple was the bait fish with which they threaded their tuna hooks. They also got bits of chicken, often slimy and discolored, and meager quantities of old, wilted vegetables. 

Each longliner had around 20 deckhands as well as seven or eight senior crew members, who were always Chinese. The senior crew members had access to more and better food. They also drank bottled water, while the deckhands only had desalinated seawater, often described in interviews as yellowish, rusty-smelling and salty — characteristics that may indicate a defective desalination unit or holding tank, according to Dr. James Allen, a clinician who spent 21 years coordinating community health programs in Southeast Asia for oil companies and who reviewed the deckhands’ testimonies for our reporting team.

Sepri, left, and Ari.

The Long Xing 629 was not the only vessel aboard which fishers fell ill. At least 30 deckhands from five of the eight boats whose workers we interviewed experienced symptoms similar to those that affected Sepri and Ari, deckhands told us. The symptoms described — most commonly severe swelling, a condition known as edema, but also weakness and pain in the legs, difficulty standing or walking, dizziness or confusion, and chest discomfort — were likely caused by the limited diets and/or the drinking water, according to five clinicians we asked to review their testimonies. 

While the clinicians could not say for certain what afflicted the deckhands without examining them directly, some identified beriberi, a malnutrition disease caused by vitamin B1 deficiency that can lead to heart failure, and nephrotic syndrome, a kidney disorder that can stem from salt overload caused by long-term consumption of insufficiently desalinated seawater, as possible pathologies. 

“I think you are looking at a mixed picture of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, caused by a really, really inadequate diet, exacerbated by the distilled water consumption,” Dr. Frank Wieringa, a malnutrition expert and senior researcher at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development, wrote in an email.

Migrant fishers haul a shark aboard DOF’s Long Xing 621 vessel in the mid-Atlantic in September 2019. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Greenpeace.

Despite the awful conditions, some deckhands said they were unable or afraid to leave their ships. 

The boats rarely, if ever, returned to shore, sometimes staying at sea for more than two years. Instead, they offloaded their catch onto collecting vessels in the middle of the ocean. The practice, known as transshipment, has become integral to long-distance fishing, since it allows boats to save on fuel by remaining at sea for years at a time, but it is widely seen as a risk factor for forced labor — defined by the U.N. as work performed involuntarily and under the menace of penalty — because workers are inherently isolated and restricted in their movement. 

One deckhand told us that a fisher on his boat once tried to escape by jumping onto a collecting vessel but was turned back. Another said that only the Chinese crew members on his boat had been allowed to go to port for a rest. 

The threat of debt, meanwhile, provided a powerful incentive to stay. As is typical in migrant fisher recruitment in Indonesia, the deckhands’ contracts said that if they failed to complete their two-year work terms, they would forfeit much of their salary while still owing their recruiters fees they had agreed to pay out of future earnings, potentially putting them in the crosshairs of debt collectors back home. Some deckhands said they would have tried to leave if not for this provision.

Interviewees said senior crew members often threatened to withhold pay if they did not follow orders. Physical assault occurred on at least half of the 14 boats from which we obtained testimony; migrant fishers were hit, kicked, slapped across the face, and beaten with objects like ropes and metal rods. Deckhands had no phone or internet signal while at sea, no way to report what was going on.

The deckhands interviewed for this story worked aboard these 14 DOF longliners:

Long Xing 629
Interviewed by
Mongabay, EJF
Tian Yu 8
Interviewed by
Mongabay, EJF
Long Xing 607
Interviewed by
Mongabay, EJF
Long Xing 625
Interviewed by
Mongabay, EJF
Long Xing 906
Interviewed by
Long Xing 630
Interviewed by
Long Xing 601
Interviewed by
Long Xing 905
Interviewed by
Long Xing 606
Interviewed by
Tian Xiang 8
Interviewed by
Long Xing 611
Interviewed by
Long Xing 621
Interviewed by
Long Xing 622
Interviewed by
Long Xing 628
Interviewed by

In addition to the four deaths from the Long Xing 629 in late 2019 and 2020, we uncovered six more deaths from five more DOF vessels during those years: 

  • Indonesians Rudi Ardianto, 30, and Saleh Anakota, 22, whose deaths Mongabay first reported last year; 
  • Abdullah, an Indonesian who jumped into the Pacific Ocean in mid-2019 after complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath; 
  • A Filipino whose corpse was kept in the fish freezer for several months until it was brought to Fiji in mid-2020; 
  • A Chinese engineer who injured his foot in a work accident and was never brought to shore, even though he asked to be hospitalized; 
  • And a Filipino, Jelbert Duminag, one of four DOF deckhands to be hospitalized at Clinical Casahous in Dakar, Senegal, around September 2020. 

In May, U.S. Customs and Border Protection banned imports of seafood from DOF, the first time it has targeted an entire fleet of vessels rather than a single boat. While the agency cited “forced labor indications” turned up by its own investigation into DOF’s practices as its reason for doing so, it publicly provided no evidence to back up its claim. China’s foreign ministry quickly dismissed the allegation as a “fabrication,” calling it “nothing but a lie concocted by the U.S. side in an attempt to wantonly suppress Chinese enterprises.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the allegations of forced labor on DOF’s boats “completely groundless” at a May 31 press conference.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, an international NGO headquartered in New York, who reviewed the interview testimonies, wrote in an email: “These fishermen’s accounts contain all the attributes of highly abusive forced labor: long periods at sea often seen in distant water fleets, incredibly long hours of work, verbal and physical abuse, arbitrary deductions from salary, and no way out. 

“Everyone from the fleet owners, the manning agents, on down to the captains and officers should be held accountable for subjecting these fishermen to such a litany of human rights abuses, and pay heavy compensation for the forced labor, injuries, and other associated deprivations they faced.” 

China’s foreign ministry did not reply to a letter outlining our findings and posing a list of questions, emailed to its Beijing headquarters and to its embassy in Jakarta. Attempts to reach the ministry by phone did not succeed in yielding a response.

DOF is hardly the first fishing company to be accused of forced labor. In 2011, after 32 migrant fishers ran away from a boat belonging to South Korea’s largest fishing firm, Sajo Oyang, while it was docked in New Zealand, revelations of abhorrent conditions on its vessels led to reforms and law enforcement action in both countries. In 2015, a series of exposés about extreme violence and slave-like conditions on Thai boats — including men being kidnapped and kept in cages — prompted threats of a trade ban from Europe and, eventually, new control measures by the Thai government.

But today, China — which is by far the world’s largest fishing power, accounting for nearly as much activity in distant waters as the next four top countries combined — is often described as the worst flag for migrant fishers to work under. Many of them come from Indonesia, the country widely believed to be the top supplier of labor for the global distant-water fishing industry, although quality data is lacking.

Twenty-nine of the 35 fishing boats flagged in complaints to the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (SBMI), an NGO, in a recent 13-month stretch were Chinese. And more than four-fifths of the 35 Indonesians known to have died on foreign fishing vessels between November 2019 and March 2021 worked on Chinese vessels, according to Abdi Suhufan, the national coordinator of Destructive Fishing Watch, an NGO. 

Chinese-flagged boats “give the worst treatment to their fishers compared to other flags,” Fadilla Octaviani, co-founder of the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative, which has interviewed dozens of migrant fishers for an upcoming report about conditions on distant-water boats, wrote in an email.

Tuna on sale at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Japan, one of the world’s largest consumers of seafood. Photo: Dennis Tang/Flickr.

Since its founding in 2000, DOF has been supported by a broad spectrum of investors. Its shareholders today include some of China’s largest state-owned firms and publicly traded companies. The main buyer of its tuna has long been an arm of Japan’s Mitsubishi conglomerate, one of the world’s leading seafood traders, though the firm told us it stopped doing business with DOF in April 2020, a month before the deaths of the Long Xing 629 fishers came to light. 

“[DOF] is a major company, with major investment, getting major profits,” said Steve Trent, the founder and CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation, who noted that the Thai companies flagged for extreme abuses around 2015 tended to have far fewer and smaller boats than DOF does. “The fact that they’re conducting themselves and their business in this way is even more outrageous in that context.”

Many of the Indonesians who worked on DOF’s boats for $300 a month have not received their full salaries or been paid at all. DOF’s alleged failure to pay its labor suppliers has meant that the Indonesian recruiters who dispatched the men have generally been left holding the bill. Some have paid their recruits, borrowing money when necessary; others have disappeared, leaving their recruits with nothing.

While five Indonesian recruiters have been imprisoned for illegal recruitment or human trafficking in connection with the Long Xing 629, it is unclear whether anyone at DOF has been held accountable for the treatment of its Southeast Asian workers. The company’s operating status is also unclear. Around September 2019, three months before Sepri died, its boats stopped operating normally, proceeding to drift through the high seas for many months rather than motoring around in search of tuna, according to interviewees and satellite imagery. Late last year, DOF repatriated its entire Indonesian workforce, and appeared to call back much of its fleet to Dalian, a city in northeastern China where the company is headquartered. 

Since mid-2019, dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the company in China over unpaid loans and bills. Chinese courts have issued at least 16 “consumption restriction orders,” which ban debtors from activities like traveling first class, buying real estate and sending their children to expensive schools, against DOF founder Li Zhenyu since mid-2020, public records show. The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment made by phone and email, including a detailed letter outlining our findings. 

Proportion of Fishing Effort by the Top 10 DWF Fleets based on AIS Data from Global Fishing Watch, 2016-2017:

In addition to the allegations of human rights abuses, deckhands from all of the boats we obtained testimonies from said the longliners had engaged in a large amount of shark finning, the illegal act of cutting off sharks’ fins and throwing the bodies back into the sea. Many said their vessels had intentionally targeted sharks using specialized gear. This and other issues will be covered in subsequent articles to be published as part of this investigation.

From delivery driver to migrant fisher

Like many deckhands working for Dalian Ocean Fishing, Rizky Fauzan Alvian was sent to his boat, the Long Xing 629, by one of Indonesia’s biggest crewing agencies for foreign fishing vessels.

Rizky first signed on with the agency, PT Lakemba Perkasa Bahari, in 2013, following a reunion with a childhood friend. The two had grown up together in a satellite city of Jakarta before the friend’s family moved to Pantura, a northern coastal area of Central Java province that has become a hub for the recruitment of migrant fishers. Rizky’s friend had been working for Spanish longliners, and he offered to help Rizky, who was 20, unemployed and curious about life at sea, find a similar job.

The Pantura region is home to most of Indonesia’s crewing agencies, according to Del Agus, chairman of the Indonesian Fishermen Manning Agents Association.

Rizky didn’t know the first thing about fishing. He had graduated from an accounting vocational high school and worked as a data entry clerk and food delivery driver in the nation’s capital. But he liked the sound of the $300 monthly salary, more than he’d ever made. He eventually ended up at Lakemba, which had a training program for inexperienced sailors. 

Lakemba had been founded in the mid-2000s, as Indonesia’s battered currency, having collapsed during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, drove a surge in migration to work overseas. Men flocked to Malaysian oil palm plantations and foreign fishing vessels; women became maids and nurses in Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. Remittances quadrupled in the first half of the decade, reaching $5.4 billion annually by 2005, nearly 2% of GDP, per World Bank figures. Referred to as “heroes of foreign exchange” by the government and media, migrant workers became an important source of foreign currency and economic growth.

By 2013, Lakemba was a leading supplier of deckhands to Taiwanese boats. It had some two dozen employees spread across its headquarters in Jakarta, a branch office in Pantura city of Tegal and various ports overseas. When Rizky showed up at the Tegal branch, he had to wait in line with dozens of other young men who had come in search of a job. Business appeared to be booming.

Facebook photos posted at Lakemba Perkasa Bahari show (clockwise from top left) men training with fishing lines, a sign outside Lakemba’s office in Bekasi, a satellite city of Jakarta, Lakemba recruits, and coffee and cigarettes.

Rizky’s month in training had the feel of a boot camp. They shaved his head and had him flip tires and pull ropes to build strength and calluses on his hands. Mostly he practiced handling fishing lines. The agency also helped him obtain the documents he’d need to legally work abroad, such as a passport and a seaman’s book, a compulsory identity document for seafarers. Lakemba paid the associated fees with the understanding that Rizky would pay it back in monthly installments to be deducted from his paycheck. Recouping these costs would be easy for Lakemba, since it would receive his wages from the fishing company before taking its cut and transferring the rest to his mother’s bank account.

Three days before Rizky’s scheduled departure, Lakemba presented him with his contract. Reviewing it, he was taken aback by the terms. He wouldn’t receive his full monthly wage for more than a year, after Lakemba had deducted $600 to pay for his training and other fees and $2,400 as a “deposit” which he’d only recoup if he completed the entire two-year work term. If he left the boat prematurely, for just about any reason at all, he’d forfeit both the deposit and the rest of his salary, yet still be liable for any remaining debt to Lakemba.

Prospective fishers train with fishing gear in a 2019 promotional video produced by Lakemba.

If Rizky backed out, he’d still owe Lakemba for his training and documents. But he could not turn back now. His wife was pregnant with their second child, and as the family breadwinner, he felt pressure to start earning money. “I felt really desperate,” he told us. 

Rizky flew to the Caribbean island of Trinidad with a group of some 20 Lakemba recruits and boarded a Taiwanese longliner. It was hard work, but the captain gave them plenty of rest, fed them well and made regular stops at port. At one point, Rizky learned that some Lakemba employees, including the owner, had been imprisoned over a scheme to forge hundreds of seaman’s books, but Lakemba’s representatives at the port told him not to worry: the important thing was to finish his contract, get his money and go home.

After two years, Rizky returned to Indonesia having received all his promised wages, which he used to buy a motorcycle and pay off some debts his family had accrued while he was away. Overall, he felt the trip had gone smoothly and was eager to go again.

Rizky Fauzan Alvian at a boarding house in Jakarta, August 2021. Photo: Wienda Parwitasari/Mongabay

In 2018 Rizky completed a second two-year stint on another Taiwanese longliner and again received all his money. A few weeks later, he and his wife separated. After that, he asked Lakemba for another job. This time he requested a European vessel, which tended to pay more. Lakemba agreed, then after a couple of months told him the job had fallen through. But there was a spot on a Chinese boat: the Long Xing 629. 

Rizky couldn’t afford to be picky. His eldest daughter was about to start school and he had to support his aging mother. “When an opportunity came along, I had to take it,” he said. “It was either that or borrow money.” As he signed the contract, in February 2019, he could feel his life taking on a rhythm: two years at sea, six months at home, two years at sea, six months at home...

‘I resigned myself to my fate’

Unlike many unlicensed crewing agencies, which often use aggressive tactics to recruit deckhands, Lakemba held the necessary documentation to send men to sea.

Bernardus Maturbongs, a now 36-year-old who had spent a decade working on merchant ships, was one sailor to be trapped by illegal recruiters like Joni Kasiyanto.

A wiry man in his late 20s, Joni was part of a new wave of recruiters to emerge in the mid-to-late 2010s, as the global expansion of distant-water fishing led to a mushrooming of Indonesian crewing agencies. Del Agus, chairman of the Indonesian Fishermen Manning Agents Association, believes the number of agencies has increased over the past decade from a few dozen to perhaps 600. “There’s one around every corner,” he told us.

Del Agus, a former import-exporter who entered the labor recruitment business in the 1990s, founded the Indonesian Fishermen Manning Agents Association in 2009. Photo: Del Agus

Some of these agencies have diversified from other sectors, like maid recruitment or travel services for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and Medina. Others were set up by former fishers, like Joni, who tend to lack business experience. “Someone like this suddenly becomes the director of a company and dispatches large numbers of fishers abroad — well, that’s what can create a big problem,” Del said.

For years, the Indonesian labor and transportation ministries have presided over parallel licensing regimes for migrant fisher recruitment, even as some local governments also issue permits. Many observers, including Del, told us that the lack of clarity over which agency is responsible has allowed fly-by-night recruiters to flourish, endangering migrant workers.  

“Unfortunately, the existing legal process can’t guarantee that our migrant fishers won’t be subject to human trafficking or forced labor,” said Irham Ali Saifuddin, a program officer for the International Labour Organization in Jakarta. 

Like the vast majority of Indonesian recruiters, Joni never dealt directly with boat owners. His client was a Chinese-run crewing agency, based in Fiji, that had its own arrangements with DOF and other fishing companies. After leaving his job at an agency in Pantura to strike out on his own, Joni obtained the Skype handle of the Fiji-based agency’s director, and within a week he had reached an agreement to supply it with Indonesians. Joni would receive $30 for every month that each of his recruits worked at sea, he later testified in court. Unlike Lakemba, Joni’s company gave its recruits no longline training.

Hard orange buoys used for longlining. Photo: Jennifer/Flickr

Two Long Xing 629 crew members told us Joni had threatened them when they hesitated over their contracts. One of them, Bernardus, had traveled to Pantura to discuss the terms with Joni, then returned to his home near Jakarta to wait. A few weeks later, Joni’s brother-in-law met Bernardus in the city and handed him a contract to sign. Bernardus balked at the terms. The salary was much lower than he’d initially been told, and he’d specifically asked not to work on a longliner, which he’d heard were more demanding than other types of fishing boats. But Joni’s brother-in-law told him they had already bought the plane ticket, for a flight leaving later that same day. Bernardus went home to show the contract to his wife, because she didn’t believe what he was telling her over the phone. On the phone with Joni, he tried to negotiate. 

“The thing was, he said he’d already bought the ticket,” Bernardus told us. “‘So if you cancel the ticket, the police are going to come looking for you, they're going to arrest you. You'll have to pay me 20 million rupiah [$1,400] in compensation,’ he said that to me... After that I resigned myself to my fate. My wife too. I would just have to go.”

Rise of a Chinese tuna giant

Sepri, Ari, Rizky and Bernardus couldn’t have known it, but they were signing up to crew the Long Xing 629’s maiden voyage under a new owner. Dalian Ocean Fishing had recently bought the vessel from another company, part of a spree of acquisitions DOF hoped would propel it to become the biggest tuna fishing enterprise in the world. 

In 2000, a former HSBC bank employee and apparel exporter named Li Zhenyu founded DOF with three longliners. Soon it had seven, generating funds that Li invested in yacht-building and shipyard ventures in Liaoning province, home to Dalian, a port city facing the Korean Peninsula across the Yellow Sea.

Once occupied by Russia and Japan, Dalian has grown into major shipbuilding and financial center. China’s first aircraft carrier was built there in 2012.

In its early days, DOF benefited from China's low labor costs. Japan, once the world’s top distant-water fishing country, was reducing the size of its fleet as fewer Japanese wanted to work at sea. China was in a very different position, as millions of farmers from inland provinces flocked to the wealthier eastern seaboard to work in the booming industrial sectors.

At the time, China’s rationale for distant-water fishing was evolving. Beginning in the 1980s, China had cultivated the sector for food security and job creation, but in the early 2000s it included the industry in its “going out” policy, which encouraged companies to seek new markets abroad. Valuable government subsidies, especially for fuel, soon followed. By the end of the decade, an ascendant China had even grander ambitions for its fishing fleet. “Marine biological resources are seen as the largest store of protein, therefore owning and mastering the ocean means owning and mastering the future,” a task force of 12 people affiliated with the government, fishing firms and universities declared in 2010, arguing for further expansion of the sector.

Pacific bluefin are the most valuable species of tuna, with the most prized specimens selling for millions of dollars at the Tsukiji Fish Market’s annual tuna auction in Japan. DOF focuses on bigeye and yellowfin, which are also quite valuable. Photo: Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

DOF was ready to capitalize on China’s push for global fishing dominance. In 2012 and 2013, DOF cut its first deals with international investors. Three parties each bought a minority stake in the company, paying a total of $38 million for a combined 29% of the firm. The buyers were Los Angeles-based investment house Ares Management, whose founder, Tony Ressler, owns the Atlanta Hawks basketball franchise; billionaire Chinese agribusiness tycoon Liu Yonghao; and a Chinese-run private equity fund whose principal investors were Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek, U.S. food giant Archer-Daniels-Midland, Japan’s Mitsui conglomerate, and the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank. DOF used the money to buy more boats. Between 2012 and 2014 it tripled the size of its fleet to 24 longliners. But the company was just getting started.

Li Zhenyu, second from right. He has reportedly served as president of the ocean fisheries branch of the Dalian Marine Fisheries Association.

In 2014, DOF sought to fund the purchase of even more longliners by going public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. But the plan ran aground after Greenpeace complained that DOF, in draft documents filed to the exchange, had misrepresented the state of bigeye and yellowfin tuna stocks it planned to exploit, using outdated data to paint them as healthy when more recent assessments had shown them to be overfished. DOF’s filings also suggested that China would look the other way while its companies flouted internationally agreed-upon catch limits. In a stern rebuke, China’s fisheries bureau said DOF had “gravely misled investors and the international community, causing a tremendous negative impact”. Shortly thereafter, DOF pulled the IPO application amid the negative publicity.

In the wake of the stock exchange debacle, the original trio of investors divested from DOF. They were replaced by a succession of Chinese investors, including some of China’s largest conglomerates, a host of private equity firms, and state-owned asset management companies.

DOF’s office circa January 2021.

By 2017, DOF was receiving more than 50 million yuan ($7.8 million) annually in government subsidies and was positioned to receive further support under a state-backed vessel modernization program, according to a document produced that year by one of its investors. DOF claimed to have made more than 324.3 million yuan ($50 million) in profits in 2016, an amount it said would double by 2020 as it brought its fleet to 56 longliners in a quest to “become the world's largest offshore tuna fishing company,” according to the document. 

The following year, China’s agriculture ministry lauded DOF for its “landmark” construction of two new vessels, the nation’s “first batch of glass-fiber reinforced plastic ultra-low temperature tuna longline fishing boats”. The cutting-edge application of the material to larger ships meant the boats could save on fuel and maintenance costs and remain at sea for even longer periods of time. 

In 2018, two years after DOF tried and failed again to go public, China’s biggest soy sauce maker, Jiajia Food, announced its intention to buy 100% of the fishing firm for 4.8 billion yuan ($743 million). Jiajia was listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, and the merger was seen as yet another attempt by DOF, which was bigger than Jiajia, to obtain a public listing. Chinese media dubbed the proposed deal as a “snake swallowing an elephant”.

Heavy finance, heavy growth:

DOF’s meteoric rise — and that of China’s distant-water fishing industry as a whole — was fueled not only by enormous state subsidies, but also by cheap labor from Southeast Asia. By the mid-2010s, rising living standards in China and an aging population meant fishing companies were having a harder time crewing their boats with locals. An Indonesian deckhand, meanwhile, could be hired for less than half the price of a Chinese one, according to Dina Nuriyati, coordinator of research and foreign relations at the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (SBMI).

DOF employed Indonesians at least as early as 2015, as shown by a complaint submitted to the SBMI by an East Javan who worked on one of its longliners, alleging he’d been fed substandard food and made to work 19-hour days. But even as reports of abuse, especially on Chinese boats, have become widespread, Dina said, young Indonesians from “structurally impoverished” areas — like Sepri — continue to take these jobs.

An excavator works near a drainage canal in a pulpwood plantation in Sumatra. Photo: Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

“Maybe you’re from an area with a lot of agricultural land, and then one day that land is cleared for development — that’s a common push factor” encouraging Indonesians to go to sea, Dina said. Promises of high wages and decent conditions can also serve as a powerful lure. But in reality, she said, “most of these promises are just scams”.

'If this weren’t water, I’d run away’

When Rizky Fauzan Alvian, the experienced deckhand, first laid eyes on the Long Xing 629, he felt a jolt of excitement. The boat, anchored in the harbor of Busan, South Korea, was huge, twice as long and five times as heavy as any he’d worked on previously. This was sure to be a new experience, he thought as he gazed at its red-and-white hull from his seat in a small transport craft ferrying his group of recruits out to meet the vessel on the frigid night of Feb. 14, 2019.

Nur (who asked us to use only his first name), sitting near Rizky, had a different first impression. As the then 19-year-old clambered onto the longliner to get his bearings, the temperature hovering slightly above freezing, a sense of unease crept up on him as he realized how unprepared he was for the job. 

The previous summer, Nur’s instructor at a maritime academy in his native South Sulawesi province had offered to help him and some classmates find jobs on foreign fishing boats. After graduation, six of them traveled to Java to sign up with a crewing agency. But, like most of the 22 Indonesians now boarding the Long Xing 629, Nur had received no training from his agency. Learning on the job would be complicated by the lack of a common language between the Indonesian deckhands and the eight senior crew members, all of whom were Chinese. They could only communicate through the Google Translate app on Rizky’s phone, for which he had downloaded a Chinese-Indonesian dictionary before leaving home.

A mid-2018 graduation ceremony at Nur’s maritime academy, SMK Pelayaran Lintas Nusantara Barru.

As the boat began its two-week journey to the Western Pacific Ocean, Rizky was asked to train his colleagues. Their main tasks would be "setting" and "hauling." Setting was hooking bait onto the thousands of branch lines spaced out along a mainline, which could stretch for dozens of kilometers. Hauling was lugging in the buoys attached to the branch lines and any fish attached to them. Because the new recruits struggled to work efficiently, the rounds of setting and hauling could take 12 hours each.

It wasn’t long before the senior crew members became physically abusive, two of our interviewees said. When the Indonesians worked slowly, the deputy foreman would hit or kick them. Sometimes he would beat them with an iron rod, hard enough to leave bruises. Ari, the South Sumatran, was a frequent target. Usually soft-spoken, one day he shoved the deputy foreman back. Ari had been struggling to untangle a mess of branch lines, and he happened to be holding a pair of scissors. The deputy foreman had a knife. Sensing that things could escalate, Rizky moved quickly to intervene. “The contract says that if you fight with the captain or others, it’s broken, and you go home with nothing, and feel shame in front of your family,” Rizky told us.

Deckhands handle fishing lines on another DOF boat in the Pacific. Video: Raswin, from Long Xing 601.

The deckhands typically worked 18 hours straight, or more, seven days a week, with occasional 10-minute breaks for meals. During their roughly six hours of rest, they could shower, wash their clothes and sleep. 

They usually caught 15-20 tuna per day, weighing around 30-40 kilograms (66-88 pounds) each, but if they encountered a school of tuna, as happened a few times a month, the captain pushed them harder, making them work for up to 30 hours straight. At such times, when they could land 50 tuna a day, the captain would have them cut the mainline in two so that setting and hauling could proceed simultaneously. Sometimes he’d toss candies down at them from the boat’s upper level as they toiled below. “The captain was like a pharaoh, and we were his slaves,” Rizky said.

Shark fins strewn about the deck on the Long Xing 629. During their 13 months on the vessel, the deckhands filled around 20 large, plastic containers with shark fins, each container weighing around 40 to 50 kilograms (88 to 110 pounds) for a total of nearly 1 ton of fins, according to Rizky Fauzan Alvian.

Besides rice and noodles, the deckhands said they were fed bait fish, rotten, discolored chicken, and old vegetables. “For the rice, we could take as much as we wanted, but for everything else, there was often not enough,” Yudha Pratama, now 21, another sailor school graduate, told us. “We worked hard together, and if someone didn’t get any, we would feel so bad.”

From left, Muhamad Alfatah, Aldi Renaldi and Efendi Pasaribu eat a meal aboard the Long Xing 629, where they ate a great deal of bait fish. Rossen Karavatchev, fisheries section coordinator at the International Transport Workers Federation, likened bait fish to 'animal feed', saying that it likely consists of 'all unsold small fish from fishing ports or fish markets, ones no one wants to buy or eat, that is sold to whole traders to deep freeze and sell as bait'.

While the Chinese crew members drank bottled water, the Indonesians only got distilled seawater from a desalination machine on board. “The water had a salty taste, and smelled of rust,” said Bernardus Maturbongs, the former merchant ship crew member. Yudha said, “The more we drank it, the more we felt thirsty in our throats.” 

“Nobody could stand it on the Long Xing 629, and we wanted to go home,” Rizky told us. “Everyone said, ‘If this weren’t water, I’d run away’.”

Six months into their journey, some deckhands managed to connect to a Wi-Fi signal broadcast by a tanker vessel with which the Long Xing 629 was refueling. Nur, the teenager, texted his mother over a messaging app, and she wrote back immediately, asking how he was doing. It was the first time any of the Indonesians had had access to a phone or internet signal since boarding the boat. 

Nur didn’t want to worry his mother. He didn’t explain about the horrible conditions or ask for help. He just told her he was already at sea. After five minutes, he lost the connection.

‘If I make it out alive, I want to get married’

In December 2019, Sepri began to have difficulty breathing. The Chinese crew gave him bottled water for the first time, but his condition failed to improve, interviewees said. His face turned sallow and swollen, his appetite weakened and he slept fitfully. His bunkmates took turns watching over him by night, reciting Quranic verses they knew by heart as the Long Xing 629 floated through the western Pacific.

Shortly before sunrise on Dec. 21, Sepri collapsed while trying to go to the bathroom. The deckhands carried him into the dining area, but they could not revive him. By 7 a.m., he was dead.

“He was like my own brother,” Bernardus Maturbongs said. “I cried so hard — I felt completely lost.”

Sepri was the first to die on board the Long Xing 629, but he was not the first or last to fall ill.

Around September, Yudha Pratama, the maritime school graduate, had watched as his own legs became more and more distended. “I told my friends if I don’t make it out alive, please let my family know,” he told us.

Yudha Pratama, photographed in August 2021. Photo: Febriansyah/Mongabay.

Yudha’s condition improved, but about half of the 20 deckhands — two of the original crew of 22 had been transferred to another boat — had developed similar symptoms by November, a month before Sepri collapsed in the boat’s head. 

Those afflicted could barely stand up. The swelling advanced up their bodies so that their pants no longer fit. Rizky Fauzan Alvian, the experienced deckhand, had heard rumors of such an illness before. “Your feet swell up, and then suddenly you die,” he said. Some crew members from his previous boats had spoken of beriberi, the malnutrition disease, or elephantiasis, but no one knew for sure. “It was just hearsay.”

The deckhands on the Long Xing 629, and other DOF boats, may have suffered from multiple illnesses related to the food and water, according to the five clinicians we asked to review our interviewees’ accounts. Most cited beriberi as a possible cause. 

Once a ubiquitous threat to sailors on long voyages, beriberi became less common in the 19th century after a Japanese naval surgeon discovered it could be prevented with simple dietary adjustments. 

But beriberi continues to be documented in refugee camps, migrant detention centers and other severe settings. 

It has also been found on distant-water fishing boats. Thailand’s Bureau of Epidemiology documented several recent outbreaks on Thai trawlers crewed by men from Cambodia and Myanmar. Greenpeace, which investigated the incidents, said in 2016 that they were “caused by poor nutrition, overwork and long periods without return to port, enabled by transshipping at sea.”

Frozen fish are transferred from a Taiwanese longliner to a Panama-flagged collecting vessel operating out of Tokyo in 2019, in an example of transshipment on the high seas. Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Greenpeace.

Beriberi results from a deficiency of thiamine, or vitamin B1, which plays a role in the metabolism of carbohydrates into energy.

Hard labor and an unbalanced diet can deplete the body’s thiamine stores. While beriberi requires a lab test to diagnose with 100% certainty, most of the clinicians said the risk factors and symptoms experienced by the deckhands on DOF’s boats were consistent with a form of the disease known as “wet” beriberi, which can cause swelling, shortness of breath and even heart failure.

“My guess is that they had a number of illnesses, but the dominant one was beriberi,” Dr. Richard Johnson, head of the Division of Kidney Diseases and Hypertension at the University of Colorado-Denver, said by phone.

Dr. Hanni Stoklosa, founder of HEAL Trafficking, a U.S.-based group that advocates for human trafficking survivors from a public health perspective, expressed a similar view. “I can say that the pattern does SEEM to fit beriberi in some aspects, and not in others,” she wrote in an email. “Which makes me think their clinical picture is MULTI-FACTORIAL (beri beri + other disease states).”

Two of the clinicians thought the illnesses were most likely to have resulted from toxic drinking water, perhaps contaminated due to a defective desalination unit or holding tank. 

“A defective [desalination] unit could be a source of, say, iron oxides, which would be yellow-orange; or iron sulfates, which would be more yellowish,” Dr. Allen, the community health program coordinator, wrote in an email. 

A defective holding tank, he added, may have also resulted in heavy metal contamination. “Placing salt water in such vessels for extended periods causes corrosion and would explain the abnormal taste and color.” If a heavy metal was in the bad-tasting water, he said, it may have caused a heart condition called cardiomyopathy, which can lead to severe swelling and even death. 

Dr. Noah Rosenberg, an emergency room physician who has worked in the U.S. and Africa, said his best guess would be salt overload from insufficiently desalinated water, which could result in kidney problems. “The kidney can only get rid of salt if it has sufficient free water (fresh water), which is why you can’t survive drinking sea water,” he wrote in an email.

Efendi Pasaribu, one of the Long Xing 629 deckhands who experienced severe swelling and difficulty breathing, pictured before and after he fell ill. Image: Advocates for Public Interest Law

Sepri’s death gave rise to a conflict on board the Long Xing 629 over what to do with his body. Islam dictates that a proper burial must take place as quickly as possible. And the deckhands’ contracts said that if a crew member dies, the body must be brought to shore. When Sepri died, the captain initially agreed to go to port, the deckhands told us. But after making some calls on his satellite phone, the captain told the Indonesians that Sepri’s family had given permission to bury him at sea. Sepri’s family would later challenge that claim: His sister Rika said it was only days later that the crewing agency had asked her family to travel to its office in Pantura, where Rika and her husband were finally told Sepri had died.

Rizky and Bernardus tried to argue with the captain, but they ultimately felt powerless to change the course of events. “I was afraid that if I fought, my contract would be broken,” Rizky said. On the same night as Sepri’s death, his corpse, packed into a makeshift coffin, was dumped into the ocean. Without ballast, it was unable to sink. The deckhands watched it drift away.

After Sepri died, the captain set a course for Samoa. By now, several other deckhands were seriously ill. They included Yudha Pratama, whose symptoms had returned. On Dec. 26, the Long Xing 629 picked up a similarly ill Indonesian from another DOF boat. The next day, it rendezvoused with a third DOF longliner, the Long Xing 802, in international waters and transferred Yudha, the newcomer, and two other sick deckhands — Muhamad Alfatah and Karman, both fresh graduates of the South Sulawesi maritime academy — to the vessel. The Long Xing 802, which had come from the port of Apia, the Samoan capital, now headed back to the island, while the Long Xing 629 motored back out to sea.

By now, Alfatah was having trouble breathing. That same night, he died. 

“‘If I die, please let my family know’,” Yudha said, recalling Alfatah’s last words. “‘But if I make it out alive, I want to get married. Please pray for me, Yud.’ 

“And I said, ‘Yes, I will pray for you, but don’t say things like that.’” 

Alfatah, too, was buried at sea. A few days later, Yudha, Karman and the third deckhand were dropped off at the port of Apia. The captain handed them their passports, plane tickets home and a handful of local currency so they could buy some food and take a taxi to the airport. The boat barely touched land before making a beeline for international waters.

Satellite imagery shows the Long Xing 629, blue, picking up a sick deckhand from the Long Xing 630, red, and then meeting the Long Xing 802, yellow, in late December 2019.

At the airport, dragging his swollen legs through the terminal and pushing the third deckhand in a wheelchair, Yudha was terrified of missing their flight. Luckily, the airport officers took care of them until they boarded the plane. “Thank God they were kind,” he said.

When they landed in Jakarta, no one picked them up. Yudha had no relatives in the city. His hometown was halfway across the country, but DOF hadn’t given them any money for transport back home, and he didn’t have a debit card with him. He ended up spending the night at Karman’s crewing agency, where he could call his mother and arrange a flight home.

“I felt so angry,” he told us, “because I was treated like an animal.”

Universal jurisdiction

On April 26, 2020, South Korean public interest lawyer Jong-Chul Kim received a startling video on his phone. Taken earlier that day, it showed Efendi Pasaribu, another Long Xing 629 deckhand, wheezing violently in the back seat of a van on his way to a hospital in the port city of Busan.

Several weeks earlier, after more of the deckhands fell ill, the 16 remaining, now more afraid of death than the penalties in their contracts, had collectively demanded to return to shore. At first, the captain only seemed to give empty promises. Then, after they threatened to mutiny, he finally transferred them to another DOF longliner headed to port. But Ari didn’t make it. Gasping for breath, his body swollen, he died en route and was buried at sea.

When the deckhands finally touched land in Busan on April 24, they learned the world had been overtaken by something called the coronavirus. Greeted by officials wearing personal protective gear, they were hustled through customs, tested for COVID-19 and brought to a Ramada hotel to spend the next two weeks under quarantine before they could return to Indonesia.

Kim, who had some experience advocating to improve conditions for migrant fishers on South Korean boats, wanted to help however he could. He also recognized a unique opportunity. Migrant fishers often passed through Busan after completing their work term, but they typically stayed for no more than a day or two before flying out. Because of the pandemic, however, the Long Xing 629 deckhands would not be leaving so soon. For Kim, whose efforts had led to real reforms in South Korea, it was a rare chance to speak with fishers who had survived a near-death experience at sea.

Jong-Chul Kim at the office of Advocates for Public Interest Law, the nonprofit law firm he founded in 2011. The financial model was based on donations, something “unimaginable” for a lawyer in South Korea, he said. Photo: Jinsub Cho/Mongabay.

It was too late to help Efendi, who died at the age of 21 on the morning after his hospital admission. (His family in Indonesia declined to allow an autopsy.) But thanks to the hotel Wi-Fi, Kim was able to hold a series of video calls with the other deckhands. “They were eager to share what they experienced, but they didn’t have much confidence that their voices would be heard by the world,” Kim told us. 

Over the next few days, the deckhands recounted their stories through Kim’s Korean-Indonesian translator. Shocked by their accounts, Kim asked the Korean Coast Guard to investigate. But the agency told him there was nothing it could do — DOF’s boats had already left South Korean waters. 

Kim still believed he could compel the authorities to act. As he continued to interview the deckhands, he compiled a report arguing they were victims of human trafficking, citing a provision he himself had worked with lawmakers to insert into South Korea’s penal code, which grants law enforcers “universal jurisdiction” to pursue human traffickers whether or not they are South Korean citizens or operating within its territory. Kim had originally viewed the provision as a tool to combat sex trafficking, but now he thought it could apply here. “They faced all of these human rights abuses, but they couldn’t leave the vessel,” Kim told us. “That’s why I believe it was not only labor exploitation, but human trafficking.”

Kim also brought the story to MBC, a leading South Korean news broadcaster. On May 5, the network covered the story on its main news program, featuring cellphone video of Ari being dumped overboard. The next day, as the story began to trend, a bilingual South Korean YouTuber explained the controversy for his Indonesian audience. “The work environment is no different from slavery,” the 25-year-old said in a video. The video received millions of views, leading to extensive media coverage in Indonesia, where members of parliament called for the perpetrators to be held accountable.

Footage of Ari’s burial at sea, as covered by Korean broadcaster MBC. The video was taken by another deckhand on the boat.

With the story making headlines, South Korean authorities acted on Kim’s report. The coast guard conducted its own interviews with the deckhands, who were still under quarantine, and referred the case to the national prosecutor’s office. For an investigation to proceed, however, the Indonesians would have to remain in South Korea. Divided on what to do, they took a vote. Rizky Fauzan Alvian thought they should stay. But in the end, almost all of them voted to go home quickly. In early May, they all flew out of Busan together, ending the possibility of an investigation by South Korean authorities.

“They were traumatized and afraid,” said Ari Purboyo, the head of the South Korea chapter of the Indonesia Fisheries Workers Union, known as the SPPI, who was in touch with the deckhands during their time in Busan. “They saw their friends die on that ship. It was a psychological burden for them to remain in Korea any longer.”

From left: M. Yusuf, A. Faisal, Aldi Renaldi, Efendi Pasaribu, Yudha Pratama and Aditya Purnomo. Some of them were only 18 when they boarded the vessel.

‘No money’

The deckhands’ arrival in Busan meant they could finally check their bank accounts. That’s when they realized they had received, on average, just 11% of their promised wages, even accounting for the deductions stipulated in their contracts. Five had been paid as little as $120 for 13 months’ work. Those who managed to contact their recruiters heard the same explanation: DOF wasn’t paying.

Dozens of lawsuits filed in Chinese courts against Dalian Ocean Fishing by creditors, service providers and suppliers throughout 2019 and 2020 indicate the company faced financial difficulties even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused demand for sashimi-grade tuna to plummet. DOF’s failure to pay its bills affected not only the men who worked on its boats, but also the recruiters who dispatched them.

One such recruiter, Samuel Panjaitan, was a former cruise ship worker who had recently started his own crewing agency, hoping to climb the rungs of the maritime industry in one of the only ways available to former seafarers. One of his first acts as a businessman was to sign a contract with Hu Zhulian, a Chinese woman who ran a crewing agency out of Fiji that supplied DOF. They never met in person or even spoke by phone, Samuel said, communicating solely through text messages. “I’ve never heard that woman’s voice,” he told us. “I’ve never been able to call her phone. Whenever I call, it's rejected.”

Hu’s agency, Orient Commercial and Trade, sent deckhands to DOF from several Indonesian agencies, including the one that dispatched Sepri and Ari and the one founded by Joni Kasiyanto. Orient also supplied DOF with bait fish, taking payment through an account in Hong Kong, according to bank records seen by our reporting team.

Samuel Panjaitan at his office in North Jakarta. Recruits from his agency, PT Samuel Maritim Jaya, ended up on several DOF boats, though not the Long Xing 629. Photo: Wienda Parwitasari/Mongabay.

Things started well enough, but by early 2019, Samuel said, the money flow from the agencies through which he had supplied crew to DOF had slowed to a trickle. His clients, when he could get through to them at all, were telling him they couldn’t pay him because DOF hadn’t paid them. He tried to insist this was unacceptable, but found he had little leverage. Desperate to save his fledgling business, he wrote to several Indonesian embassies overseas, accusing DOF of running a “salary scam”, but got little in the way of a response. A lawyer in China told him suing the company would be difficult.

In November 2019, a month before Sepri’s death, Samuel learned that three DOF boats carrying four of his recruits had docked in Samoa. Over the phone, he told his recruits that DOF wasn’t paying their salaries and asked them to file a police report in hopes that local authorities would detain the ships, which sometimes happens when boat owners don’t pay wages. After a few days, though, the ships set sail again — without Samuel’s recruits, who had decided to leave. One of them, Ivan, told us he’d had to “beg” the captain for his passport so that he could fly home.

Around this time, the deckhands on DOF’s Pacific and Atlantic fleets, including the Long Xing 629, observed a striking change in their vessels’ behavior. Around September 2019, the boats suddenly stopped motoring around in search of tuna and proceeded to idle at sea. It went on like that for nearly a year, through the Long Xing 629 deckhands’ repatriation in May 2020 and beyond, deckhands told us.

Satellite imagery confirms their accounts:

Satellite imagery of two of DOF’s boats in the Pacific shows typical fishing patterns in early 2019, top, and apparent drifting behavior in 2020, above. 'The tracks of both vessels appear to have stopped operating normally around September 2019,' said Sarah Bladen, head of communications at Global Fishing Watch.

As the boats drifted through the western Pacific, they rarely fished for tuna, though the deckhands were still made to throw in the shark lines and caught many, they told us. While the captains occasionally gathered to drink, the Indonesians were in the dark about why they’d stopped operating normally. When they requested an explanation from the Chinese, all they got was broken English and hand gestures apparently meant to convey that DOF was experiencing some sort of turmoil. “We could only understand bits and pieces, but we did understand that there was ‘no money’,” said Rusnata, a now-39-year-old from West Java.

In August 2020, a group of DOF’s boats in the Pacific gathered in international waters, just outside the territory of the Marshall Islands, and set sail for China. Within a few weeks, they had arrived off the tip of China’s Shandong Peninsula in the Yellow Sea. For the first time in many months, even two years for some, the deckhands could see the shore, the mountains rising in the distance. 

The boats anchored there for 10 days, without touching land. When a tanker crewed by Indonesians came to refuel his vessel, Rusnata learned about the virus that had swept across the globe. Finally, the Indonesians, 155 in all, were gathered onto two DOF longliners that set sail for the Indonesian port of Bitung on the island of Sulawesi. When they arrived, they were met by officials clad from head to toe in personal protective gear. Rusnata could see them carrying two large objects from one of the longliners onto an Indonesian coast guard vessel. After watching for a while, he realized they were bodies.

One of the bodies being unloaded in Bitung upon the deckhands’ repatriation in November 2020. The bodies belonged to Saleh Anakota and Rudi Ardianto, whose deaths had taken place three months earlier in the Pacific Ocean. Both had succumbed to unknown illnesses, Indonesia’s foreign ministry said at the time. Image courtesy of the ministry.

Some crewing agents, including Samuel Panjaitan, who flew to Bitung to meet his recruits, wanted Indonesia to detain the two longliners until DOF paid out the salaries. But ahead of the boats’ arrival in Bitung, according to Samuel, the Indonesian foreign ministry’s director-general of citizen protection, Judha Nugraha, told recruiters that China’s ambassador had asked Indonesia not to impound the vessels, promising that DOF would pay out the wages within three months, or by February 2021. (Judha did not respond to a request for comment on this matter.) Seydina Keita, an associate of the International Transport Workers' Federation based in Dakar, through which 88 Indonesians from DOF’s Atlantic fleet were repatriated in late 2020, also said he’d heard from the local Indonesian embassy that China had promised DOF would pay no later than the end of February.

Samuel says he has yet to receive his money. He told us last week that he is owed a total of more than $100,000 by three agencies he has partnered with, including Hu Zhulian’s company, Orient Commercial and Trade, and that he has had to go deep into debt in order to pay his recruits.

Reached by email, Hu acknowledged owing about $10,000 to Samuel’s agency. But she blamed her failure to pay on DOF, which stopped paying wages in 2018, according to Hu. “Though we kept demanding them to pay, they delayed again and again,” she said. Though DOF finally made a payment in June 2021, it still owes her agency about $90,000, a balance she has spread among the different Indonesian agencies she has partnered with. Because DOF’s position is that it has paid her everything it owes, Hu said, she is not optimistic of recovering the funds anytime soon.

Some of the Long Xing 629 deckhands eventually received restitution payments from their crewing agencies. But most of the other fishers we interviewed say they have yet to receive even a dime of their salaries for the entire time they worked at sea. Rusnata says his agency owes him more than $11,000, a small fortune in Indonesia. A former construction worker, Rusnata initially went to sea in hopes of saving money to start a business, but since returning home he has struggled to find work amid the pandemic and has had to subsist on charity from relatives and the SPPI, the fisheries workers’ union. According to SPPI chairman Ilyas Pangestu, only about half of the fishers repatriated through Bitung have received their salaries.

“It feels like the Indonesian government is unable to engage in political dealing with the Chinese government,” Samuel told us. Indonesia, he said, had “failed to protect its citizens.”

‘Don’t let it keep happening’

In Indonesia, the Long Xing 629 tragedy opened the floodgates to a broader public reckoning over the plight of migrant fishers, especially on Chinese boats. Between March 2019 and November 2020, at least 30 Indonesians died on 19 fishing vessels belonging to eight different Chinese companies, according to our count of incidents surfaced mainly in news reports. Nineteen reportedly died from unknown illnesses, often characterized by edema or shortness of breath. 

The revelation of the abuses on the Long Xing 629 jolted Indonesian authorities into action. Within weeks of the story breaking in May 2020, recruiters from three of the four Indonesian crewing agencies linked to the vessel were arrested. They included Joni Kasiyanto, who was eventually sentenced to four and a half years in prison for human trafficking over his deceptive recruitment tactics, and Muamar Kadafi, the CEO of PT Lakemba Perkasa Bahari, who got one year behind bars for placing fishers in a situation that violated their contracts because of factors including the substandard food and water, excessive working hours and burials at sea. At least seven recruiters arrested in connection with deaths on other Chinese boats have also been imprisoned in the past year and a half — an “unprecedented” crackdown on Indonesian crewing agencies, according to Nono Sumarsono, director of the SAFE Seas project, which seeks to protect fishers from exploitation.

'Slavery of crew members on boats', reads the tagline of this MetroTV report from a police press conference in Central Java at which crewing agents Sustriyono and Muhammad Hoji were trotted out before cameras May 22, 2020. Their agency, PT Mandiri Tunggal Bahari, was linked to several of the cases that emerged in the wake of the Long Xing 629 scandal, though one of them said at the event that they weren’t aware of the conditions on the boats their recruits had worked on.

Del Agus, the head of the crewing agents’ business association, said he thought Indonesian recruiters had been “demonized” over the scandals involving foreign boats. He is among those calling on the Indonesian government to enact new regulatory powers overseeing recruitment agencies, as required by a 2017 migrant protection law. A draft regulation has been in limbo for over a year, said Fadilla Octaviani at the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative, an NGO. Faldo Maldini, a spokesman for the state secretariat, told us the regulation was still awaiting signatures from multiple ministries before it could be sent to the president.

Irham Ali Saifuddin, the ILO program officer in Jakarta, said the regulation, which incorporates the U.N.’s 2007 Work in Fishing Convention, would give Indonesia greater diplomatic clout when engaging China.

“We can’t [solely] blame the flag state of the ships” that abuse Indonesian fishers, Irham said. “We should blame ourselves for not preparing the optimal legal instruments.” 

Several observers, including activists from Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the SBMI, the migrant workers’ union, said they thought Indonesia was right to prosecute crewing agents. “From my informal talk with some crewing agencies, they said that those who are arrested are those who are unlucky, because there are many more who are doing the same things,” SAFE Seas’ Nono told us. But they also said punishing Indonesian recruiters was not enough. Because distant-water fishing is inherently transboundary in nature, they said, foreign crewing agencies and boat owners must also be held accountable. 

“The ones who committed the crime, who were discriminative, were the Chinese who drank bottled water while our people drank distilled water,” said Ilyas Pangestu, the fishers workers’ union chairman, referring to the Long Xing 629 case. “The one who did that was Dalian, yet the ones being punished are the crewing agencies. The problem is over there [in China], so why isn’t anything being done over there?” 

Three of DOF’s boats were grounded in Dakar by the end of September 2020, as shown in this image posted to Facebook.

In late 2020, after Indonesia’s foreign minister met with her Chinese counterpart to discuss the growing number of Indonesians dying on Chinese boats, the two nations signed a mutual legal assistance treaty to address the issue, including by sharing information pertaining to law enforcement, the foreign ministry’s Judha said at the time. But despite the prosecution of recruiters in Indonesia, it is unclear whether China has taken any steps to investigate the companies accused of mistreating Southeast Asian deckhands. China’s foreign ministry and embassy in Jakarta did not respond to requests for comment on the matter. China has not issued any official report on the cause of death of Indonesian fishers on board Chinese boats, according to Greenpeace East Asia. Basilio Dias Araujo, deputy to Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs, told us last week that “further coordination with the relevant parties about the development of the [Long Xing 629] case” was still necessary. 

In June, Basilio said, his ministry signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s foreign ministry to address maritime issues, which he called a "platform to push for policies that will better guarantee the protection of Indonesian sailors and fishing boat crews in China." Now, he said, it was a question of follow up. “Right now, we’re still trying to discuss strategic steps that must be taken by both the Indonesian and Chinese governments in order to make that agreement into a reality.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin at the May 2021 press conference.

Publicly, China has yet to acknowledge that any migrants were abused on DOF’s vessels. This past May, after U.S. Customs and Border Protection banned imports from DOF, citing its own investigation into the company’s labor practices, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing: “The so-called ‘abuse of crew members’ is totally unfounded.” Referring to the Long Xing 629 case, he said, “Last year saw some media hype-up of the issue; in response, the enterprise involved immediately checked with the Indonesian crew working on the ship, all of whom said they had never been treated unfairly, let alone abused.”

“I was never contacted by Dalian,” Rizky Fauzan Alvian, the Long Xing 629 deckhand, told us last month. “None of the 629 crew were ever contacted by them. But that’s to be expected that they denied what happened. Dalian is a big company.”

In December 2020, after more than a year of uncertainty over whether the merger would go ahead, Jiajia Food, the soy sauce maker, announced that its planned acquisition of DOF had been terminated. Since November 2019, Chinese courts have frozen tens of millions of dollars of assets belonging to DOF and other companies owned by Li Zhenyu as a result of various lawsuits, still wending their way through the nation’s legal system, public records show. The plaintiffs range from major corporations, including China’s largest shipbuilding firm, to dozens of DOF’s Chinese crew members, who are suing the company for unpaid wages. The captain of the Long Xing 629 is among them. 

Despite its apparent financial troubles, DOF does not appear to have closed its doors for good. A contact in Dalian who dropped by its office in January told us that it was still open. In March, a notice posted by one of its corporate shareholders invited other investors to buy into the company, saying it intended to acquire up to 10 more boats in the near future.

Several of the Long Xing 629 deckhands, including Yudha Pratama and Nur, have taken jobs on cargo ships plying Indonesian waters. Neither one wants to work on a foreign fishing boat again.

Yudha Pratama at a port call in Surabaya, East Java, in August 2021. 'If you’re hiring people, you should think about what if you’re in their position,' he said. 'I don’t mind hard work, but when you give food to other people, give them proper food.' Photo: Febriansyah/Mongabay.

Rizky Fauzan Alvian is living in a boarding house in East Jakarta. He works mornings at a delivery service and evenings cleaning at a facility where COVID-19 patients are treated, where he makes enough money that he can give some to his parents and children. 

Despite the “trauma” he says he suffered on DOF’s boat, he says he’d work on a foreign fishing vessel again. He can’t earn as much doing anything else. “You just have to find the right agency, the right ship,” he said.

Rizky Fauzan Alvian seen preparing for work in August.

Opportunities remain scarce in Serdang Menang, Sepri’s village, his sister Rika said. Still, since the Long Xing 629 tragedy, she said, no more villagers have gone to work on foreign fishing boats.

“If we were together, maybe it wouldn’t have happened,” Sepri’s cousin, who didn’t want to be named, told us. He had gone with Sepri and Ari to sign up with the crewing agency in Central Java, but didn’t end up taking a job. “They went first, and I was supposed to be the second batch. But I’m not going now.” 

The family received some compensation from the agency over Sepri’s death. But, Rika said, it can’t bring her little brother back. “If possible, let Sepri be the only one,” she said. “Don’t let it keep happening.”

This story was produced by Mongabay and Tansa as part of the Oceans Inc collaborative investigation organized by the ERC. Mongabay was supported by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.