SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand, and PREY VENG, Cambodia — The laundering begins in a sub-zero chamber floating far from civilization. It is filled with heaps of fish, and men dressed like eskimos.
This is the fridge room on a vessel known as a "mothership." These hulking vessels serve as deep-sea resupply stations for trawlers seeking fuel, meat, medicine, spare parts and even laborers to replace men lost at sea.
The ship's most important function, however, is receiving wild catch into its icy bowels and ferrying it to onshore fishmongers. Some motherships and fishing boats operate under the same syndicate. Motherships that don't collect a fee for transporting catch to the buyer, typically a fishmonger stationed at a specific dock. Once a squid or sardine comes aboard the mothership, there is almost no way to know whether it was netted by paid fishermen or sea slaves.
"Motherships have freezing capacity to hold high-value fish for long periods of time," said Lisa Rende Taylor, chief technical specialist with the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. "The fish is taken back to Thai ports for sale and, most likely, export if the fish is of high value."
"The boat that caught it may or may not have used slave labor," she said. "There's just no way to know who actually caught these fish because of the way unregistered boats work with motherships many kilometers away from the shore."
Most of the fisheries supply chain between the US and Thailand, America's second-largest supplier of foreign seafood, can be traced. These are the links that can't.
Slavery in Thailand's deep-sea fishing trade is an open secret, acknowledged by the US, the UN and some within the Thai government. It is not all-pervasive. Thailand's biggest seafood export, shrimp, is sourced from coastal farms subject to spot checks. Most "Thai" tuna, the nation's second-largest seafood export, is actually imported from abroad and processed for re-export.
But in the wild-caught seafood industry, forced labor persists because the first crucial supply-chain steps — catch and transport — take place in a lawless, saltwater abyss.
"It's brutal out there," said Bpa Ouan, a fishing syndicate chief based in Samut Sakhon, the Thai seafood industry's industrial hub. His name is a nom de guerre that means "Poppa Fatty."
"The law is soft," he said. "We have to handle problems ourselves."
Overfishing in Thai waters has drawn the nation's vessels into increasingly distant seas. A UN report estimates that 40 percent of Thailand's seafood output is caught in foreign territory. Thai vessels now ply the near waters of Malaysia and Indonesia as well as the far seas by Bangladesh and even Somalia.
Bpa Ouan, now 50, began as a 16-year-old deckhand. Later, as a captain, he earned a reputation for fearlessness by illegally trawling Vietnamese waters in the 1990s.
"Their navy sucked but they'd always fire on sight," he said. "I saw lots of guys get shot up. They'd wait until we anchored and start blasting. You'd have to yank the anchor quick or just cut it and tear out of there."
The trade has always rewarded men who inspire fear and obedience. Before he swore off alcohol, Bpa Ouan boozed for free in Thailand's port-side karaoke dens. As a syndicate boss, he now administers rewards and punishments, payments and fees. He is surrounded by tattooed bruisers who call him "daddy," an honorific for powerful men in Thailand.
"I'm like the master and they are my students," said Bpa Ouan, his coiffed hair tinged with pewter-gray streaks. "They're like my children."
For his five biological offspring, however, the fish trade is off limits. "No way," he said. "You don't want your kids doing this."
Most deep-sea fish — legit or caught by slaves — travels through the same steps: trawler, mothership, onshore fishmonger, processing plant, exporter, importer and, finally, supermarket or restaurant.
The world of Thai trawlers is particularly opaque. "Not all of these fishing boats are bad," Rende Taylor said. "There are good ones as well. But picking out the bad seeds is very difficult."
Reckoning the number of men in slavery on Thai vessels is almost impossible, she said. "Thousands" is a common estimate among anti-trafficking agencies.
Attempting to measure the trade's criminality is exasperating: even figures on legal operations are elusive. The trade is so badly regulated that officials are unsure just how many Thai boats and fishermen ply the seas.
The Mirror Foundation, a Bangkok-based anti-trafficking NGO, estimates around 250,000 fishermen labor on long-haul boats with the percentage of captives "far greater than anyone imagines."
Thailand claims one of the world's largest commercial fishing fleets. In its last public census, the Thai Fisheries Department counted more than 25,000 mid- to large-sized vessels. But this picture is further muddled by "ghost boats," Thai boatman lingo for unregistered deep-sea vessels.
They are rampant. Numerous officials cited in a 2011 International Organization for Migration report estimate that more than half of all fishing boats are unregistered.
Many ghost boats are actually full-on clones of registered boats mimicking everything from the paperwork to the paint job, according to investigations by the Labor Rights Promotion Network, a Thai NGO based in Samut Sakhon.
"A boat owner might have a fleet of 10 boats," said Piyakrai Seelakort, a caseworker with the network. "Four will be legitimate. Six will be clones."
If approached by marine police, a Thai captain is required to provide the boat's registration and "seafarer" books, government-issued documents that include each fisherman's name and photo.
"All of this is easy to fake," Bpa Ouan said. The veteran captain depicted his interactions with various marine authorities as negotiated shakedowns.
"If the Indonesian navy wants to drag you in, you bribe them 10 million rupiah [$1,090]. In Thailand, it's about 20,000 baht [$646]. You can bribe them on the spot, and keep fishing, or bribe them once you're tugged ashore," he said. "But you're going to end up bribing them."
Trawling under the radar
Under such an anarchic approach to regulation, the number of sea slaves remains a mystery. What they catch is not. All escaped slaves interviewed by GlobalPost, and most ex-captives profiled by anti-trafficking agencies, describe laboring on a particular style of vessel: the trawler.
Sturdy and ubiquitous on Southeast Asia's seas, the trawler is the ideal deep-sea slave ship. Nearly 60 percent of all Thai vessels' catch is pulled aboard a trawler, according to a UN fisheries report. Manning nets on the roughly 50-foot boats is a job for at least 15 people. But on ghost boats, ex-slaves report, captives often squeeze all that labor from seven or eight men.
If a fishing pole is a sniper rifle, a trawler net is a Dresden-style bombardment. Heavily weighted mesh nets dredge the sea floor and scoop up everything in their path. Another less-popular technique — the "purse seine" method — captures fish that swim in the warmer zones between the waves and the ocean floor.
Either way, more than half of a typical trawler's catch amounts to "trash fish": tiny fish and unpalatable species. Trash fish, however, are not trash per se: they're sold to processors that grind them up bones and all to make fish oil, livestock feed, fertilizer, pet food and low-quality edible nuggets.
"The biggest thing in the net could be nearly 90 kilos [nearly 200 pounds]," said Kim Net, a 26-year-old former slave from Cambodia. "The smallest are as little as your fist."
A typical Thai trawler's high-value catch consists of snapper, sardines, squid, anchovies and mackerel, according to multiple sources including the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.
Not only do these species match ex-slaves' descriptions of their trawler's catch, they make up for many of the breeds shipped en masse to America.
In 2011, according to National Marine Fisheries Service stats, Thailand's US exports included the same species associated with illicit trawlers: sardines (12.4 million pounds), processed fish balls and cakes (10.2 million pounds), mackerel (9 million pounds), squid (8.8 million pounds), cuttlefish (1.2 million pounds), snapper (237,500 pounds), anchovies (167,000 pounds) and so on. The US imports 5.3 billion pounds of edible seafood every year.
Claiming that no slave-harvested seafood finds its way into America's anchovy salads, squid linguine or sardine sandwiches is highly dubious. Once a slave-caught fish leaves a ghost boat and comes aboard the mothership, it becomes nearly impossible to trace back to the original boat.
Captains, beholden to their syndicate's owners, radio a description of their catch to supervisors on land. When they locate their mothership, the boat's haul is transferred to a stall inside its ice room. Those who enter must first don an industrial suit.
"If you take your gloves off in there, your fingernails will turn green and fall out," said Da, a 38-year-old Thai boatman. "If you took your suit off, you'd die."
Such extreme temperatures keep fish unspoiled for their onshore recipient, the fishmongering Yi Bua. This job title, a loanword from Southeast Asia's ethnic Chinese merchant class, roughly translates as "middleman." They are paid to serve as a conduit between the syndicates that catch fish and the processing plant.
"The big businesses need fish and the Yi Bua has them. They're skilled negotiators just like any broker selling real estate or cars," said Sompong Sakaew of the Labor Rights Promotion Network. "It's considered a good job. If a big fish costs $2, he'll charge the factory $2.10."
Any hope of distinguishing slave-caught fish from the rest evaporates with the Yi Bua, who intermingle fish from many different boats.
"The Yi Bua are businessmen. It's not their job to ask questions about conditions on the boat," Piyakrai said. "The big company he's contracted under can stress that he shouldn't buy from ghost ships. But no one really knows how they were caught out there on the ocean. Not even the Yi Bua."
Last August, at the government's invitation, a UN special rapporteur arrived in Thailand to scrutinize the country's struggle against human trafficking. The assessment of their guest, a Nigerian human rights lawyer named Joy Ezeilo, was blunt. By diplomatic standards, it was eviscerating.
Captivity on fishing vessels, Ezeilo said, has become "notoriously common."
She laid the blame not just on criminals but on the government itself. Anti-trafficking laws, she said, are "weak and fragmented" and "hampered by deep-rooted corruption, especially among the low-cadre law enforcement officers at provincial and local levels."
Awkwardness peaked when Ezeilo, at a gathering inside the government's own ministerial chambers, asked all Thai bureaucrats to clear the room so she could speak privately with NGOs, said Chutintorn Gongsakdi, a deputy director general with Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"There's an inherent mistrust," he said. "She doesn't trust any government data. But that means, from our point of view, that the data she trusts isn't government data. It makes us a bit frustrated. Some of this evidence is hearsay."
Thai bureaucrats, Chutintorn said, want export partners to gently encourage the fight against Thailand's forced labor woes. Instead, in the eyes of some officials, the bigger partner rubs Thailand's nose in it.
Though the UN's critique is tough, it does not pose the economic threat wielded by the US State Department's three-tier "Trafficking in Persons" ranking. Thailand currently occupies the "tier two watch list," a next-to-last grade shared with Afghanistan and Angola.
Washington may decide that Thai anti-trafficking efforts this year are on the upswing. But if it doesn't — a strong possibility — Thailand will be knocked down to tier three in the company of Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
By law, that ranking will force President Barack Obama to consider aid sanctions against Thailand, one of America's oldest Asian allies. The new report is due this summer and Thai diplomats, Chutintorn said, are anxiously awaiting the verdict.
"Seriously," Chutintorn said, "this alienates friends, OK? If we're ranked in tier three, we consider that unjustified. It will make my colleagues lose heart. I've seen it. They just want to change their jobs. In Asia, maybe we're not strong. We need some encouragement. We're soft-hearted people."
Slipping through the cracks
The problem is not Thailand's law which, under a 2008 overhaul, now threatens traffickers with harsh prison terms. The problem, according to anti-trafficking experts, is that so few offenders are pursued and punished.
In all of 2010, authorities pursued fewer than one dozen alleged forced labor violations, according to the US State Department. The most high-profile case so far dates back to 2006, when a Thai fishing syndicate set 77 men adrift with no food, water or fuel near Indonesian waters, in lieu of paying their salaries. They drifted for months. Half died. The 38 who survived were, by court decree, awarded $4,170 per person from the boat's owner.
Police raids into safe houses filled with boat-bound captives remain infrequent. "It's kicking in doors and finding 10, 12, 15 guys," Rende Taylor said. "Again, we're talking about a problem in the thousands." Spot-check inspections of potential ghost ships are, in the US trafficking report's estimation, "practically nonexistent."
Were police to rescue more seafood slaves, they would have food to eat and a place to stay. In recent years, the Thai government built four shelters for male forced labor victims. Half are located in bustling port areas prone to sea slavery: Songkhla and Ranong. But none are filled to capacity.
The accounts of former captives portray local police as vultures, not liberators. "The Thai government must address the fact that most Thai police at local and provincial levels are predators of migrants," said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.
"Let me use that word clearly," Robertson said. "Predators. Who will extort and abuse migrants. If a migrant goes to make a report at the local police station, they will not be listened to and, in fact, will likely be arrested."
American seafood importers can only do so much to compensate for Thai police apathy, said Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, America's chief seafood trade organization and lobbying group based outside Washington D.C. The institute urges all seafood corporations to hire outside inspectors. In 2008, when an International Labor Organization-funded report alleged forced labor in Thailand's shrimp trade, the group pushed for a thorough investigation, he said. "Our members," Gibbons said, "have no interest in sourcing seafood from companies that use illegal and exploitative labor practices."
The institute has considered whether "dockside audits" could help spot abuses in Thailand. But monitoring the open seas, Gibbons said, is far more challenging than investigating shrimp farms and factories. "When we see companies named and boats singled out," Gibbons said, "we have a better chance of playing a role."
Plausible deniability of Thailand's deep-sea forced labor is no longer an easy defense for importers in one of America's biggest markets. This year, California enacted an ambitious law forcing any business with at least $500,000 in sales within the state economy to prove its supply chain is free of slavery. Those that can't are made to publicly admit potential complicity in overseas forced labor.
If placing the burden of proof on suppliers is the trend, Thailand's seafood industry may face a reckoning. "They stand to lose a lot of money if they can't look into their supply chains and prove they're clean," Rende Taylor said.
"Perhaps the industry could help regulate itself," she said. "Why can't good businesses put pressure on bad ones and say, 'We don't want to mar the global reputation of our industry. We want to export clean, good products to the world. Don't ruin it for us.'"
With additional reporting by Parinee Chantaharn.