JAKARTA — A massive refrigerated cargo ship believed to be loaded with slave-caught fish has been seized by Indonesia’s navy and brought to shore after an Associated Press report alerted authorities about its presence in the country’s waters, officials said Thursday.
The Thai-owned Silver Sea 2 was located late Wednesday and escorted about 80 miles (130 kilometers) to a naval base in Sabang on the Indonesian archipelago’s northwestern tip, said Col. Sujatmiko, the regional naval chief.
The AP used a satellite beacon signal to trace its path from Papua New Guinea waters, where it was also being sought, into neighboring Indonesia. The navy then spent a week trying to catch it.
“I’m so overwhelmed with happiness,” said Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti. “It was almost impossible, but we did it.”
It is the same 2,285-ton vessel captured in a high-resolution satellite photo last month in Papua New Guinea showing its hold open and two fishing trawlers tethered to each side, loading fish. The smaller wooden vessels were identified as the ones that fled a remote Indonesian island earlier this year, crewed by enslaved men from poor Southeast Asian countries who are routinely beaten and forced to work nearly nonstop with little or no pay.
An AP investigation revealed that their catch reaches the supply chains of some of the biggest grocery stores and food companies in the United States.
Pudjiastuti freed hundreds of men earlier this year after the AP exposed they were trapped—including some locked in a cage—on the island village of Benjina. But 34 boats loaded with slaves escaped before authorities arrived. They remain missing.
Pudjiastuti, who put a moratorium on all foreign fishing last year, said the Silver Sea 2 captain will be questioned, and an investigation will be launched into suspected human trafficking, offloading at sea and transport of illegal fish.
Workers who recently returned home to Burma after being enslaved on one of the trawlers that fled to Papua New Guinea said they regularly loaded fish onto Silver Sea cargo ships, which ferry the catch back to Thailand, where it was processed and fed into the country’s $7 billion annual seafood export business.
The industry runs off the backs of poor people from its own country and migrants from Burma, Cambodia and Laos who are often sold, kidnapped and tricked onto trawlers.
In addition, Burmese slaves rescued from Benjina, who were among hundreds interviewed by AP in person or in writing, said they were trafficked in Thailand and brought to fish in Indonesia aboard the Silver Sea 2 with no way to return home.
Silver Sea Reefer Co., which owns at least nine refrigerated cargo ships in Thailand, has said it is not involved with the fishermen.