This week’s episode of Reveal investigates shark fishing in Central America and a U.S.-based seafood company that claims to be a model of sustainability.

We start in the jungles of El Salvador, where reporter Sarah Blaskey and photojournalist Ben Feibleman investigate one of the largest shark-fishing operations in the region. The men who crew these boats are migrants from Vietnam who work under grueling conditions.

Next, we follow reporters from The Associated Press as they continue their award-winning investigation into the seafood industry. Robin McDowell, Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza look into one of the country’s leading sustainable seafood companies, Sea to Table.

The company provides seafood to restaurants, universities and private homes across the country, claiming all its fish are wild caught and directly traceable to a U.S. dock. The reporters examine whether those claims hold up.


Produced by Michael Montgomery. Edited by Brett Myers. Special thanks to The Associated Press, the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.  


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

 Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 – 00:18:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Al Letson:Hey, I’m Al Letson, host of Reveal. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about what’s going on behind the scenes.


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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we take you back to a show we first brought you in June of this year.


Al Letson:That’s the sound of a remotely controlled aircraft, a drone small enough to fit into a backpack. It can peer into a world some people don’t won’t you to see. The drone hovers over the jungle near the Gulf of Fonseca in southern El Salvador. It buzzes like a giant mosquito and then zips off.


Sarah Blaskey:There it goes.


Al Letson:At the controls are two young Americans, reporter Sarah Blaskey and photojournalist Ben Feibelman.


Sarah Blaskey:That’s some jungle.


Al Letson:They’re crouching low in the jungle’s thick vegetation near the water’s edge trying to keep a low profile.


Ben Feibleman:We’re at 100 meters. See it? Can you see it?


Sarah Blaskey:No, I don’t see anything.


Al Letson:The drone moves out over the water.


Ben Feibleman:Let me see if I can speed this thing up. Sport mode, got it. All right, there we go. Wow.


Sarah Blaskey:I can hear it.


Al Letson:Sarah and Ben track its video feed on a small screen.


Ben Feibleman:That’s the big port over there.


Al Letson:They’re looking for a ship. It has a Chinese name, a Vietnamese crew, and lucrative cargo; sharks and their fins. Shark fin soup is a status symbol in some Asian countries, a single bowl can go for $100 or more.


Al Letson:For the past decade, there’s been a global campaign to end the trade in shark fins. In Central America, despite new regulations, shark exports are on the rise. Some species like the hammerhead are being pushed to the brink of extinction.


Al Letson:Sarah spent years investigating the shark trade, traveling up and down the west coast of Central America to figure out who’s profiting from this destruction. What she found is a story that goes way beyond shark fishing. We pick up the journey before Sarah and Ben find themselves launching their drone in the Salvadoran jungle, about 400 miles south in Costa Rica.


Sarah Blaskey:The ocean’s right there to our left.


Ben Feibleman:Is this a little isthmus out to an island, a peninsula or something?


Sarah Blaskey:This is the peninsula. It’s a tiny, tiny little finger of land that sticks off of the Pacific coast.


Sarah Blaskey:Ben and I are driving into Puntarenas, the shark fishing capital of Central America. It’s home to multimillion dollar companies that export shark fins. More shark blood has been shed in this town than any other place in the region. I’m here to confront the owners of the oldest and biggest shark company around.


Sarah Blaskey:I’m not sure if this is one way.


Ben Feibleman:We’ll find out shortly.


Sarah Blaskey:Those companies are hidden behind high walls and covered docks. If you know where to look, you can still catch a glimpse.


Ben Feibleman:Those are fucking fins.


Sarah Blaskey:Right.


Sarah Blaskey:This is Ben’s first time here, and sometimes he’s a bit unfiltered.


Ben Feibleman:I don’t know shit about sharks, but that’s a fucking fin. I can see that.


Sarah Blaskey:Yes, those are fins.


Sarah Blaskey:Ben’s an ex-Marine, which makes him a good reporting partner here. The Costa Rican national police warned me that reporting on this industry can be dangerous. I learned that some of the boats are involved in poaching, drug running, and human trafficking.


Sarah Blaskey:Puntarenas used to be a sleepy port town with little boats fishing close to shore. Then in the 1980s, commercial fishing changed.


Randall Arauz:We live with our back towards the sea, we have that huge resource. Then the shark fin craze starts happening in Costa Rica, this was a huge party.


Sarah Blaskey:Costa Rican conservationist Randall Arauz says the shark fin craze was sparked by the arrival of longliners, a type of vessel that can pull in thousands of fish at a time. It was a delegation of fishing experts from Taiwan that brought them to Costa Rica. Some never went home.


Randall Arauz:They started the whole shark fin industry.


Sarah Blaskey:In Puntarenas, Taiwanese fisherman started businesses. They established the biggest long lining fleets in Central America. Randall suspected they were wiping out endangered sea life.


Randall Arauz:A friend of mine, he got a job on a longline boat in 1997 as a cook.


Sarah Blaskey:He gave his friend a video camera.


Randall Arauz:He was acting like it was a family video. Since he was from Puntarenas, he knew the fishermen. He’d walk around, “Hey man, say hi to the camera.” They all let their guard down.


Sarah Blaskey:In the grainy VHS footage, you see fishermen dragging in all sorts of creatures onto deck; sea lions, giant turtles, and at the very end, a blue shark. It’s still alive, gurgling, as the crew slices off its fins. Watching the creature writhe as huge chunks are hacked off its body, I have to fight the urge to throw up.


Sarah Blaskey:Then fisherman kick the shark overboard, back into the ocean to die. This way they fill up the ship’s freezers with only the most valuable part of the shark. This practice has led to massive overfishing.


Randall Arauz:I saw that and I was like, “What the hell?”


Sarah Blaskey:This was some of the first footage people had ever seen of a shark being finned alive. It helped spark outrage and international bans on hacking off fins from live sharks. Costa Rica also outlawed live finning and imposed other restrictions. Catching sharks and exporting fins, that’s still legal, so there’s still money to be made here.


Sarah Blaskey:It looks like a bunker.


Ben Feibleman:It looks like a frigging embassy.


Sarah Blaskey:Yes. It looks like an embassy, exactly.


Sarah Blaskey:Ben and I arrive at a huge compound surrounded by tall sand colored walls. This is the headquarters for the Wang Group. Documents indicate its fleet is responsible for more than 60,000 shark deaths a year.


Sarah Blaskey:The dock’s blocked by a thick metal gate that a guard opens for us. We’re here to meet Fabio Wang, he’s the son of one of those Taiwanese fishing experts who came to Puntarenas back in the 1980s. Randall calls Fabio “The Godfather of Shark Fishing” in the region. I’ve been trying to nail down an interview with him for months.


Sarah Blaskey:He’s finally agreed, but only after I’ve told him I’ve uncovered documents about him in the Panama Papers. They’ve helped me figure out that he and his brothers seem to be operating a business behind a bunch of shell companies.


Sarah Blaskey:With shark populations in steep decline, the Wang Group is the only company we found in Central America that has its hands in every part of the supply chain. That’s what I’m here to confront Fabio about.


Sarah Blaskey:He greets us at the entrance wearing jeans and a blue polo short. Fabio puts on a bit of a show walking me through a huge empty freezer and barren warehouse.


Sarah Blaskey:This is really a huge operation, but mostly empty at this point.


Sarah Blaskey:Then we walk past six resting longliners tied up at his dock. Fabio tells me the boats aren’t working and neither is he. He says he’s folded, closed up shop.


Sarah Blaskey:We move to a big echoey room, we sit beside each other at a huge table. That’s where I show him those documents I’ve brought along. I point to one ship as an example, the Hung Chi Fu.


Sarah Blaskey:Fabio keeps telling me the same thing; that the family business broke up, the fleet left, and he doesn’t know what happened to it. What Fabio’s saying doesn’t add up. The records I’ve uncovered show he and his brothers are still the owners and that they’re still fishing. But where?


Sarah Blaskey:Ben and I go see someone who might have some answers.


Sarah Blaskey:We’re here in a small dock down a dirt road, at a dock called Mesita where Sergio rents a space for his boat.


Sarah Blaskey:Sergio Soto Peña used to work for the Wang Group. He’s only in his 30s, but already he spent more than two decades shark fishing. He walks us towards one of his boats, the Tarzan VI. Like other international longliners, most of the space is taken up with giant freezers. The whole crew sleeps in a tiny nook the size of a closet.


Sarah Blaskey:The first thing we see on board is a huge reel spooled tight with fishing line, hooked up to a giant winch. The lines on these boats stretch for miles, fitted with thousands of steel hooks.


Sarah Blaskey:That’s a long line right there. That’s about a 50 mile long line. Look how thick that is.


Sarah Blaskey:Sergio says he follows the law; he flies a Costa Rican flag, doesn’t cut fins from live sharks, and doesn’t sell endangered species like hammerheads. He says following those laws cuts into profits, and thinks that has a lot to do with why Fabio left.


Sergio SotoPena:I think it’s because he didn’t want to follow regulations. Fishing is still happening out there and there are still sharks.


Sarah Blaskey:Sergio says the Wang boats are still fishing sharks. They fly the flag of Belize, a country widely criticized for failing to enforce maritime laws. They stick to international waters, staying at sea for months at a time. They do that, Sergio says, by transferring their catch to another boat that then delivers the sharks to remote ports. These types of transfers are illegal in Costa Rica without a special permit.


Sergio SotoPena:You see that a lot in international waters. We have regulations in Costa Rica, but who regulates those people?


Sarah Blaskey:The Sergio tells me something I don’t expect, he says it’s not just sharks and overfishing. For the Wang ships to stay out at sea so long, they rely on cheap labor; migrants from Asia who work under terrible conditions.


Sergio SotoPena:The captain is their owner. To me, it’s modern day slavery.


Sarah Blaskey:Slavery and human trafficking are well documented in the fishing and sea food industry. It turns out that local prosecutors once investigated the Wangs for trafficking migrant workers from Asia. They couldn’t bring a case because the crew wouldn’t testify.


Sarah Blaskey:I started circling back to my sources, and almost everyone seemed to have a story about the crews on those Wang vessels. Randall Arauz, the conservationist behind that shark fin video, says out in international waters there’s no real oversight.


Randall Arauz:We need some kind of rules, but there are no rules right now at the high seas.


Sarah Blaskey:Overfishing, human trafficking. To really know what’s going on, I need to find those boats.


Sarah Blaskey:How do you find a boat in the Pacific that doesn’t want to be found?


Randall Arauz:That’s the difficult part. Many times the only thing we can rely on to see these boats is satellite telemetry, but then how can you identify it? It’s working on the high seas does pose a lot of problems.


Sarah Blaskey:No boat can stay at sea forever, it has to come in to port somewhere at some time. After months of searching, we get really, really lucky. A source tells me a Wang vessel might be offloading sharks in southern El Salvador. Three days later, Ben and I are there.


Sarah Blaskey:We’re hiking along the Gulf of Fonseca, a spot where the dense jungle meets the water.


Ben Feibleman:One thing I wish we had is a machete.


Sarah Blaskey:Yes, same thought.


Sarah Blaskey:Earlier we tried to get into a small private port in the town of La Union. It’s protected by huge walls and security guards who wouldn’t let us in. Instead we’re trying to get close enough to launch a drone to try help find the ship. It’s a last resort, the only way we’re going to get a look at what’s happening in that port.


Sarah Blaskey:A boat passes. It’s occupants wave and I wave back. Ben doesn’t.


Ben Feibleman:Keep interactions down to a minimum if you can.


Sarah Blaskey:Do you think that’s a bad idea?


Ben Feibleman:Yes. There’s gringo, and then there’s fucking spy.


Sarah Blaskey:He has a point. In just the short time we’ve been here, we’ve been followed around town and pulled over by police at gunpoint wanting to know what we’re up to. This area in particular is known for drugs and gangs, and it’s not the kind of place you want to get caught snooping. We move further into the jungle.


Sarah Blaskey:We should have stayed on the rocks, there’s no way through.


Ben Feibleman:We don’t need a way through, we just need a way up.


Sarah Blaskey:Do we have a way up?


Ben Feibleman:Look up.


Sarah Blaskey:We are in the smallest clearing in the jungle I have ever seen. This doesn’t look like a way up to me.


Ben Feibleman:Ten feet wide, this is a great place. Let me check down by the wire.


Sarah Blaskey:Ben positions the drone carefully, there are branches and vines everywhere.


Ben Feibleman:We are-


Sarah Blaskey:There it goes.


Sarah Blaskey:We launch the drone out over the gulf and then double back toward the port, making sure to keep a legal flight path.


Ben Feibleman:Okay. The plan is we’re going to go to a really high altitude so that we can see everything, kind of like U-2 spy planes of old.


Sarah Blaskey:Looking through a small video feed, we zero in on the port.


Ben Feibleman:There it is.


Sarah Blaskey:That’s it.


Sarah Blaskey:A longliner, it’s flying the Belize flag. There’s a name written on the side.


Ben Feibleman:You can read it.


Sarah Blaskey:What’s it say?


Ben Feibleman:It says, get a little bit closer.


Sarah Blaskey:It says Hung Chi Fu doesn’t it.


Ben Feibleman:Hung Chi Fu.


Sarah Blaskey:Hung Chi Fu, the boat Fabio Wang said he knew nothing about.


Ben Feibleman:All right, we’re getting out of here.


Sarah Blaskey:Okay, let’s go.


Sarah Blaskey:The fleet is still active and still bringing in lots of sharks. I’ve confirmed through ship registries that the Hung Chi Fu is owned by Fabio’s brother and managed through the Wang Group in Costa Rica. What about the crew and those trafficking allegations?


Sarah Blaskey:La Union port number 7729. Okay, here we go. Please answer.


Sarah Blaskey:To get some answers, I call a guy named Pablo. I learned he managed the Hung Chi Fu while its in port. My conversation with Pablo goes like this. He says he can’t give me access to the boat or crew since he’s not the owner. I ask him who is. Pablo dodges and says the Wang Group. “Fabio?”, I ask.


Sarah Blaskey:He says yes, then his tone shifts. He tells me word’s out around town that I’m looking for him. Why so many questions, what am I really after? All of this makes me really nervous.


Sarah Blaskey:That wasn’t good.


Ben Feibleman:Why?


Sarah Blaskey:I don’t think that we’re safe here anymore.


Ben Feibleman:Then the clock’s ticking.


Sarah Blaskey:I don’t know who might be watching us. Before we came here, Ben and I made a deal. We really wanted to find the boat, but given the dangers, we’d get out of town at the first sign of trouble. To me, Pablo’s reaction is trouble.


Sarah Blaskey:We have one thing left to do, we’ve just landed an official tour of the port and we want to make one last shot at getting to the crew. I hear they only speak Vietnamese, so I write a note and have it translated. I keep it simple in case the captain sees it. I say, “I have questions about the Hung Chi Fu” and tell them how they can contact me.


Sarah Blaskey:The next day, it’s a hundred degrees when Ben and I tour the port. It looks like a big parking lot with a couple of metal warehouses. As we round one of the buildings, we run straight into a man getting off the Hung Chi Fu. He’s young, thin, wearing a pink shirt that looks stiff from months of washing it in sea water.


Sarah Blaskey:I try English and Spanish, the only two languages I’ve got. Our guide laughs at me when the young man doesn’t seem to understand what I’m saying. Then I reach into my purse and pull out-


 Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 – 00:18:04]
 Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 – 00:36:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Sarah Blaskey:They don’t seem to understand what I’m saying, and then I reach into my purse and pull out the note. When he unfolds it and sees it’s written in Vietnamese his eyes widen. Quickly he walks away stuffing the note in his pocket. And then Ben and I honor our deal and we leave. The note gets passed around. Within a week, crew members start messaging me. They say conditions on the ships are terrible, and that some want to get off, but they can’t.


Al Letson:When we come back Sara helps describe one particularly chilling message. It says, “Help me.” That’s coming up on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Al Letson:The best way to get all of our stories without anything in between is just an email in your inbox. Our investigations change laws, minds, and sure, we’d like to say it, the world. Be among the first to read them. To sign up just text newsletter to 63735. Again, text the word newsletter to 63735. I’ll see you in your inbox.


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today, we’re re-airing a story from reporter [Sara Blasky 00:19:42]. She spent more than a year searching for an elusive fleet of shark fishing boats in Central America. She got tips that the boats were crewed by Asian men forced to work against their will. Before the break, Sara along with photojournalist Ben [Fibilmen 00:19:58] were at a remote port in Southern El Salvador. They just slipped a note translated into Vietnamese into the hands of one of those crew members. Now, weeks later some of the men are beginning to reach out. Sara picks up the story from here.


Sarah Blaskey:I’m back in the US when my phone pings with a message. I use an app to translate it from Vietnamese. It’s a guy name [Taun Win 00:20:21]. It reads, “I’m on a boat in El Salvador. I want to leave. Can you help me?” I get him on the line along with a female interpreter.


Translator 1:Hello.


Sarah Blaskey:That’s the translator? Taun’s talking to us from the boat, which has just arrived at port. Can you explain?


Translator 1:Yeah. Hello, Taun. He is a little bit busy. Can you call back to him in about 10 minutes?


Sarah Blaskey:Of course. He’s worried someone might find out he’s talking to us.


Translator 1:I asked him is it a safe place to talk? He want to wait for five minutes because there are many people there.


Sarah Blaskey:He slips on to the dock to get away from the crew. When we talk with him he says his back is injured, and his bosses won’t let him go home, or even see a doctor.


Translator 1:The pain has been for four months and it doesn’t disappear. It doesn’t heal.


Sarah Blaskey:Through the translator I learn that Taun is 19. He works on a boat called, The Dragon 12 owned by The Wong Group. It’s part of the oldest shark fishing operation in Central America. How long has he been fishing on this boat?


Translator 1:Yeah, in that boat eight months. Not yet coming back to the shore.


Sarah Blaskey:Eight months at sea.


Translator 1:At the beginning when he had just started the journey from shore the food supply was still good, but after sometime the food is going less and less, and he has less to eat now.


Sarah Blaskey:A supply boat brings them food and takes their catch back to shore allowing them to fish continuously. Taun says the crew sometimes goes for days with little food or water while they wait for that boat to arrive.


Translator 1:Yeah, he drinks water from the air conditioning.


Sarah Blaskey:He says sometimes all they have to drink is water they collected from the air conditioning unit outside the captain’s quarters. Over a three day period we exchange a flurry of messages and calls, but never for very long. Sometimes it’s because Taun gets nervous.


Sarah Blaskey:Five other current and former crew members tell Ben and me similar stories. I want to put these allegations to The Wong Group, the company that owns the boats, but representatives didn’t respond. However, the problems didn’t just start on the boat. [Tung Tao 00:22:54], who we speak to through another interpreter, says his problems began with a recruitment agency back in Vietnam.


Translator 2:So, when he signed a contract he thought he was just going to Taiwan to fish. He didn’t know that they were gonna go to Central America.


Sarah Blaskey:Tung and the others say they signed two year contracts with a company called [Servico Hanoi 00:23:23]. It recruits Vietnamese men to work on fishing boats around the world. Crew members tells me the company promises to send $450 per month to their families. But they say there were lots of things that they didn’t know about the work, even really basic things like that they’d be fishing sharks, or out at sea sometimes for more than a year at a time working 17 hour days with no breaks.


Translator 2:If they fish in a location and there’s a lot of fish then they just keep on working.


Sarah Blaskey:And when they finally make it to port they don’t have their documents.


Translator 2:The captain keeps their passport.


Sarah Blaskey:This is something they all told me whether they’re on land or at sea they never get their hands on their passports. Some of the guys post videos online, and I dug up a few. In this one it’s nighttime and three men are sliding around the deck of a long liner in heavy winds. They’re pulling in a shark that’s still alive and fighting hard. They kill it with an electric shock. 24,000 people die every year fishing on the high seas. Tung says those 50 mile long lines barbed with thousands of steel hooks are a constant danger.


Translator 2:If they’re not careful when they fish the shark they can get hooked, and then they can get pulled into the sea.


Sarah Blaskey:What’s more, many of the crew tell me they can’t swim and got no training before heading out to sea. So, if it’s so dangerous and the pay is so low why don’t they just quit? It’s a question Ben posed through an interpreter to another crewmen.


Ben:Why don’t people just say to hell with you, I’m going home. I want to go home?


Translator 3:I cannot break out of the contract because I would have to pay him back.


Sarah Blaskey:He’s talking about a penalty, a fine. Here’s how the guys say it works. Servico Hanoi requires a deposit of three month’s wages to guarantee the fishermen finish out their contracts. If they try to quit the company keeps the deposit plus a fine of another three months pay. Six months total payable in cash, or in labor. And if they try to jump ship the fines are even higher.


Ben:Let me get this straight. If you quit now they won’t send you home until your family pays, or you work for three more months. Is that how you get out?


Translator 3:Yes, that is correct.


Sarah Blaskey:Tung tells us the fine is the only reason he and some of the other crew stay. They want to go home to Vietnam, but they don’t have the money to pay the company to release them from their contract. We reached out to Servico Hanoi about these allegations. Speaking through an interpreter, company representatives pointed to yearly inspections by the Vietnamese government and said they’ve never been penalized. They said the company does impose fines in some situations, but would not provide specific details.


Sarah Blaskey:A few days after Taun first contacted us for help he reaches out to Ben. He says his boat is headed it back to sea soon, and it could be months before he’s back on shore. Ben calls me to read Taun’s message.


Ben:He said, “I cannot go.” I said, “What happens if they make you go?” He said he does not know what to do if they make him go back out.


Sarah Blaskey:We tell Taun we’ll try to find help. So, I reach out to the International Organization on Migration, The U.N. agency that deals with human trafficking. The IOM’s documented trafficking and other abuses among Vietnamese fishermen on foreign fleets. A lot of it’s similar to what I’m hearing. I get on the phone to lay out Taun’s story to [Royland DeWiled 00:27:29]. He works for the IOM in Central America. Is there precedent for this situation?


Royland:I’m not actually aware of a situation exactly like this.


Sarah Blaskey:Based on what I tell him about Taun, Royland says he’s probably a victim of human trafficking and that we need to act fast to try to get him off the boat.


Royland:The contract is illegal. It can’t be enforced in Vietnam, so that’s one thing. His parents cannot be forced to pay them.


Sarah Blaskey:Laws on trafficking vary. What’s illegal in one country could be legal in another. And regardless of whether Taun’s contract is lawful in Vietnam, some men told me that families have paid to free their sons from these boats. Taun says his family doesn’t have the money. He’s from a poor family. They’re not gonna be able to get a lawyer and fight that.


Royland:Exactly. I’m waiting on a response for the mechanics of all of that from my colleagues in Vietnam.


Sarah Blaskey:The next few days are a blur of phone calls trying to figure out what to do. I connect with another IOM rep Mark Brown, the country director in Vietnam. He says they might have a way to get Taun home and protect him from the fine, but they’ll need someone to carry the message.


Mark Brown:At this point it’s just a matter of convincing him that our offer is genuine. He might turn it down in the end, but he needs to turn it down with full information. It sounds like he’s not doing so, but we’ll help you if you are more trustworthy to speak with him.


Sarah Blaskey:We need to talk with Taun, not over some messaging app, but face to face.


App:Xin chao.


Sarah Blaskey:Do you hear?


App:Xin chao.


Sarah Blaskey:Xin chao.


Ben:Xin chao.


Sarah Blaskey:Xin chao.


Ben:Xin chao. What’s that?


Sarah Blaskey:Hello.


Ben:Hello, oh.


Sarah Blaskey:Xin chao.


Ben:Xin chao.


Sarah Blaskey:Three days later Ben and I are back in El Salvador practicing basic Vietnamese, so we can at least say hi when we meet Taun. We’re headed to the port of [Lauyon 00:29:32] back where we flew that [inaudible 00:29:35]. We’re driving in a caravan with a rep from IOM and two Salvadoran immigration officials, and we’re going over the plan. The idea is that Taun will leave the port to go by cigarettes, so his captain and crew mates won’t get suspicious. Ben and I will meet Taun alone because he trusts us. We’ll take him back to the hotel and talk to him through an interpreter on the phone. If he decides to accept help the IOM and the immigration officials will be waiting nearby. The key is for us to wait and let Taun make the first move, but that’s not what happens. When we get to the hotel one of the Salvadoran immigration officials, a muscle bound guy with a goatee, seems impatient with waiting. And that’s when everything go sideways.


Speaker 1:They’re going to the port.


Sarah Blaskey:Why? The Salvadoran immigration official is heading to the port to try to rescue Taun in front of everyone, the rest of the crew, even Taun’s captain. He doesn’t speak Vietnamese or even have access to a translator. Tung has no idea he’s coming.


Sarah Blaskey:No, we’re not leaving yet. He’s not ready. We don’t even know how we’re making contact. This is what’s fucking insane.


Ben:Yes, it is.


Sarah Blaskey:I actually am like fucking … We’re kind of freaking out here because we’re the ones that told Taun we could meet up with him without causing a scene. I need you to go tell them that they’re making a big mistake because we don’t even know where we’re meeting him yet. We may meet him in the migration office. I’m giving him the options now. Ben and I are still at the hotel when the IOM messages us.


Ben:They left.


Sarah Blaskey:They’re at the port and they say we can still interview Taun there at a small immigration office. It’s the opposite of the low profile plan agreed upon just a few hours before. Then my phone rings. It’s Taun. He’s calling. He’s calling, and he’s wondering where we are. He thinks we forgot about him. He wants to know if we’re coming. Fuck it. Let’s get in the fucking car.


Ben:All right. Can you take this?


Sarah Blaskey:When we pull up to port we see the whole crew swarming around the office. Everyone’s talking. There’s a translator on the phone trying to help us make sense of it. Jesus Christ.


Speaker 2:[Foregin Language hh:mm:ss 00:32:09].


Speaker 3:Did he say anything?


Ben:Yeah, the ship owner knows.


Sarah Blaskey:Taun’s sitting on the curve head down. He looks like a kid who’s getting busted by the cops. I try to say hi, and he barely looks up. Taun, Taun. The immigration official stands over Taun taking pictures with his cell phone. He says Taun looks fine and is probably faking it to get off the ship. It’s chaos, and Taun seems despondent.


Speaker 3:He says he wants to talk to [inaudible 00:32:39].


Sarah Blaskey:We negotiate a 24 hour shore pass. Taun and an older crew member who he seems to trust pile into the car with Ben and me. Will you just drive us out of here because I think they’re getting nervous.


Ben:All right.


Sarah Blaskey:All right. The IOM and immigration officials follow behind us. They agree to wait downstairs while we try to calm Taun in our hotel room. I can’t help worrying we’ve already made things worse for him. Taun just stares at the floor. He’s so quiet that Ben has to explaining his silence to the interpreter on the phone.


Ben:Taun is shy to the point of I can’t even hear his voice. He hasn’t said a word that I can remember in the last hour.


Sarah Blaskey:Taun messages me from across the room. He wants to talk alone, so we go outside. I don’t smoke, but I know Taun does, so I offer him a cigarette. We never actually say anything out loud. Sitting near the hotel pool, Tung and I pass my phone back and forth typing messages into a translation app we managed to have our first real human conversation. He tells me he misses Vietnam. A few cigarettes later, Tung confides something. His back does hurt, but it’s not the real reason he needs to get home. When he came to port he says he found out his mother was very ill. He tells me he’s trying to get back to be with her. At this point we’re just waiting for a call from IOM Vietnam, so Taun can learn more about his options.


Sarah Blaskey:But another message comes first. “Please bring the two sailors of our ship back on board urgently.” It’s from another fisherman on the boat. “Our owners ask for it, so please bring our two sailors on. It’s an emergency. Thank you.” Taun looks terrified when I show him the message. He’s no long interested in the call with the IOM and wants to go back to the boat immediately. He’s worried that this will make everything worse, and that the fine will even been steeper. He had to go back because they’re in trouble.


Ben:That’s why the phone was ringing this whole time?


Sarah Blaskey:Yeah.


Ben:It’s a warning?


Sarah Blaskey:Yeah.


Ben:As in get back now before things get bad.


Sarah Blaskey:It’s already bad.


Ben:It’s already bad.


Sarah Blaskey:Outside with the interpreter on the phone we decide how to return Taun and his friend to port without making things more complicated.


Ben:All right, so we’re gonna drive him back?


Sarah Blaskey:Yeah.


Ben:All right.


Sarah Blaskey:In the car Taun just stares at the floor. His friend tells Ben not to worry that they’re going to be fine. But he has Ben drop them off outside the docks, so they can walk back alone.


Ben:All right, guys. Good night. All right. They’re gone.


Sarah Blaskey:Ben’s still on the line with the interpreter.


Ben:Shit got really weird at the end. Honestly, Taun looks scared to death. He looks super not happy to be involved in this.


 Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 – 00:36:04]
 Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 – 00:52:54]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Sarah Blaskey:The next day, [Ton 00:36:08] sends me a message saying, “Tomorrow my master will come here.” I guess he means someone from the Wang Group, the company that owns the shark boat. The IOM tries to contact Ton over the next few days, but he becomes less and less responsive. It’s over. All that’s left is to say goodbye.


Sarah Blaskey:All right, so do we agree that this is what I want to say? Ton, I really hope the best for you. I hope you get home soon. I cannot do anything more for you. I’m going home tomorrow. Let me know when you get home. Best, Sarah.


Speaker 4:Yeah. He’s basically said already that this is what he wants, right?


Sarah Blaskey:Yeah. I’m sending it.


Speaker 4:Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Al Letson:About a month after Sarah said goodbye to Ton, we got word that he returned to Vietnam. Crew members tell Sarah that he bought his way out of his contract, paying more than twenty four hundred dollars in fees to [Cervical 00:37:25] [Hanoi 00:37:26], a Vietnamese labor company. Now, that’s more than five months’ worth of wages.


Al Letson:As for those shark boats controlled by the Wang Group, just as we were wrapping up this story, the vessels disappeared from international fishing registries. That means the boats can no longer operate legally anywhere in the world. In other words, the fleet has gone dark.


Al Letson:Thanks to Sarah [Blaskey 00:37:52] for that story. Ben [Fivelman 00:37:53] contributed to the reporting. We’ve posted some of Ben’s outstanding photos on our website. You can see portraits of some of the people in this story and much more at


Al Letson:When we come back, a leading sustainable seafood company said one thing and sold something else. That’s next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m [Al 00:38:38] [Ledson 00:38:38]. Today, a show we first brought you back in June, looking at human trafficking and slavery on the high seas and how these problems taint the world’s food pipeline. It’s something a team of reporters from the Associated Press has been investigating over the past few years. They’ve exposed abuses in the seafood industry from forced labor to migrant workers locked in a cage. Yeah, in a cage.


Al Letson:What you’re hearing is a man speaking through rusted bars on a tiny island in Indonesia about three years ago. He’s thousands of miles from home, locked up with other migrants. The man says he was forced to work on a fishing boat, and when he told his captain he couldn’t take it anymore, he was put in a cage.


Al Letson:Just a few yards away, other men are loading cargo ships with seafood caught by slaves. Some of it is heading into supply networks of major US supermarkets and restaurants.


Robin:We weren’t expecting to find a slave island and, in effect, that’s what we did.


Al Letson:Robin McDowell was a part of AP’s reporting team along with Margie Mason, Martha Mendoza, and Esther Tucson.


Robin:I think those images were really incredibly powerful and really prompted an immediate reaction.


Al Letson:When these stories were first published, they led to the rescue of more than two thousand men. There were arrests, seizures of millions of dollars in goods, and calls for big changes in the industry. The AP’s investigation Seafood from Slaves earned a Pulitzer Prize, but it wasn’t over. The reporters and their editors asked themselves, “If the global seafood industry is this abusive and corrupt, what are some solution?”


Robin:It was really a question that had been nagging at us for a long time and at a certain point we decided to look at the obvious answer which is sustainable seafood, local American-caught seafood.


Al Letson:Sustainable seafood. Harvesting food from the sea in a way that preserves fish stocks and the environment. It’s a growing portion of the seventeen billion dollar seafood market in the US.


Speaker 6:[inaudible 00:40:43] as well as any creative-


Al Letson:It’s an idea that brought together a couple hundred people back in April at a microbrewery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Young people, foodies, techies listening to talks on the future of sustainable seafood.


Sean:Seafood is fucked up.


Al Letson:Holding a microphone and dressed in jeans and a casual button down is Sean Dimmon. He’s the owner of Sea to Table. It’s a business built on trust that consumers can know where their fish is coming from, down to the body of water, the boat, sometimes even the captain.


Sean:There’s a lot going on in seafood. It’s a big international commoditized market with lots of bad players, bad actors, misinformation. What we do, everything, US wild-caught, sustainable and traceable. That’s it.


Al Letson:Sean’s business is trying to take the experience of buying fish straight off the docks and make it accessible to everyone. They call it From Dock to Doorstep. You order online and it arrives usually the next day packed in eco friendly insulation.


Sean:We can’t just be Brooklyn hipsters that hang out and talk about the name of the fish, a single fish coming from a single fisherman. We have to be able to put this into scale. We have to be able to do it an national distribution. We have to create a new model.


Speaker 7:He’s saying exactly what people want to hear. They want to know exactly where their food is coming from and that they’re paying for something that they really believe in.


Al Letson:Sea to Table is a darling in the food world, embraced by celebrity chefs and environmental groups, but the AP heard something very different from sources inside the industry. As its business grew, Sea to Table was saying one thing and selling something else. Fisherman Eric Hodge is one of those sources.


Eric:Oh, that sun feels good, huh?


Al Letson:We caught up with Eric at the harbor in Santa Barbara where he was unloading his day’s catch from a sixteen foot aluminum skiff.


Eric:We probably got about four hundred and fifty pounds of fish by noon, so for us that’s a good day.


Al Letson:Eric’s got bleach blond hair down to his shoulders. His red jacket is faded pink from so much time in the sun. He’s been fishing his whole life, small scale. Calls himself a local direct fisherman.


Eric:Hey, Miguel. What’s going on?


Al Letson:Miguel is Eric’s broker.


Eric:I got like eighty pounds for you. Got like really big coppers and some reds.


Al Letson:He’ll deliver some of this fish directly to Los Angeles and into the hands of top chefs.


Al Letson:Today Eric’s fish are in high demand but three years ago he was struggling with distribution. That’s when he heard about sea to table.


Eric:They said, you know, on their website, “We connect restaurants with small time fisherman.” I’m like, “Hey, that’s me. I want to be a part of that.”


Al Letson:He says right from the start there were red flags. Sea to Table’s website was offering fresh canary rock fish from Santa Barbara, something that was illegal to catch at the time.


Eric:I was like how are you getting fish that we can’t even harvest in Southern California? How are you getting this fish that’s illegal for take here?


Al Letson:Another time Eric says he suspected Sea to Table was mixing his fish with cheaper imports and marketing the entire batch under Eric’s own name.


Eric:I felt like I was like the token local little boat fisherman for their movement, right?


Al Letson:Soon after, Eric cut ties with the company.


Robin:These kind of real small scale independent fishermen were very angry. Sea to Table, because it was bending the rules and getting so much publicity, these guys who were really doing it legitimately could barely earn a living.


Al Letson:Robin [McDowell 00:44:23] and fellow reporters found problems across Sea to Table’s national operations. Take the case of sushi grade tuna. Sea to Table was offering fresh off the boat from Montauk out of Long Island in the dead of winter when no tuna boats were landing there. Robin and Margie Mason wanted to figure out where this fresh Montauk tuna was really coming from. They started looking into one of Sea to Table’s supply chains, picking it up at a big warehouse in the Bronx.


Robin:The new Fulton fish market is one of the biggest fish markets in the world. It is just a bustle of activity. There’s forklifts that are kind of zigzagging around and trying to avoid everyone. It’s very chaotic. Most of it is occurring in the middle of the night.


Al Letson:Ninety percent of the seafood sold in America is imported, and a lot of it comes through here.


Robin:Everything that ends up at Fulton Fish Market gets mixed together. This is where you really lose track of where your fish is coming from.


Al Letson:The reporters did all night stakeouts. At the market, they spotted boxes of fish from other parts of the world, including tuna getting loaded onto delivery trucks for a Sea to Table wholesaler in Montauk. Like a scene out of a cop movie, Robin and Margie tailed the trucks from the fish market in the Bronx across long island.


Robin:Where do I go? I don’t want to drive up on him.


Margie:Go ahead and drive up on him.


Robin:For me personally, one of my favorite things is following trucks.


Robin:I can’t just drive right up on him. He’s looking straight at us.


Al Letson:Arriving in Montauk they watched the boxes being delivered to the wholesaler. It was an important clue but they didn’t know for sure if these supplies of important fish would go to sea to table and get passed of as locally caught. They turned to the emerging science of marine DNA testing. The reporters had a chef order over five hundred dollars worth of yellow fin tuna that Sea to Table was offering as fresh caught from Montauk. Then they sent the fish out to a lab to have it analyzed.


Robin:It turned out that that fish looked like it came from the Indian Ocean or the West Central Pacific.


Al Letson:In other words, not from the United States according to preliminary results. Remember, Sea to Table guarantees a clean, traceable US supply chain, but Robin and Margie found something else. That companies feeding into Sea to Table’s supply networks were running fleets that rely on migrant fisherman, men sometimes working under brutal conditions for as little as a dollar fifty a day.


Speaker 8:Okay.


Al Letson:At a busy port in Jakarta, Margie spoke to one of these men through an interpreter.


Al Letson:His name is [Selisio 00:47:00], and he says he spent nearly a year working on a foreign trawler for a company that sells fish to Sea to Table’s wholesaler in Montauk. He and other men filed complaints against the company. He says he felt like a slave.


Robin:To find the men who were working on those boats really brings it full circle for us and elevated it to a different level.


Al Letson:Sea to Table charges a premium for seafood that’s wild caught, sustainable, domestic, and traceable. The AP investigation found problems with each one of those claims. At Sea to Table’s offices in Brooklyn, Robin sat down with owner Sean Dimmon.


Robin:All your seafood is wild, right?




Robin:It’s not all wild?


Sean:We do work with some mariculture operations for shellfish.


Al Letson:My mariculture he’s talking about farmed shellfish.


Robin:Why don’t you just say that when you’re pitching all this stuff? I mean everything I see in here is wild wild wild. You’re very clear about that.


Sean:We’re very clear about carrying shellfish.


Robin:That is farmed.


Sean:That is raised in mariculture.


Robin:You are?




Robin:In this report are you clear about that? The investors report? Wild caught, domestic, wild caught. I mean, it’s all over the place. Who are you honest about on that subject? Who? I’ve never heard you say anything about farmed anything.


Robin:I just felt like how? How? How can you say this. It’s so easy to disprove. I have this document here. This is what you’re telling your investors. Now you’re telling me something directly opposite. Then a few days later I got an email from him saying they have decided to discontinue the use of all aquaculture because it goes against their wild only message, or something to that effect.


Al Letson:When it comes to allegations of forced labor, Sean said Sea to Table insists on maintaining a clean supply chain.


Sean:I think it’s abhorrent and everything we stand against. I think it’s something we stay vigilant about, and if anything ever came to light of our suppliers doing anything against our agreements, understanding, they’d be immediately removed from our supply network.


Al Letson:As for the other problems like that fresh Montauk tuna that wasn’t really from Montauk, Sean told Robin they were the result of mistakes, poor communication, or possibly the fault of one of the company’s suppliers.


Robin:I think if you are going to have a company that is built on sustainability and American caught fish, ultimately it is your responsibility to make sure your supply chain is clean. You should definitely know what fish are in season, what things might be illegal to catch. I mean, ultimately I think the responsibility lies with him.


Al Letson:Still, to fix all the problems in the industry, Robin says sustainable seafood could be the best answer we have. It’s just that nobody has fully cracked the code yet, doing it on a large scale with a transparent supply chain. If it’s going to happen anywhere, Robin says, here, the US, is as good a place as any.


Robin:One of the reasons that American seafood is so attractive and should be the answer is because it is so highly regulated. Our oceans are managed to a higher degree than any other in the world. This should be the one place that you can get a fish and know and feel good about it.


Al Letson:That was Robin [McDowell 00:50:53]. She reported that story with Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza, and a lot has happened since the AP first published that investigation. In a statement, Sea to Table called some of the allegations misleading or unsubstantiated. They also said they terminated their agreement with that fish wholesaler in Montauk. Meanwhile, four former Sea to Table employees have come forward claiming they raised concerns about mislabeled fish and deceptive marketing practices but say the company management either ignored or silenced them.


Al Letson:Thanks for listening. Michael Montgomery produced this week’s show. It was edited by Brett Meyers. Sarah Blaskey’s reporting was supported by the Tony [Stabile 00:51:32] Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University and by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Special thanks to Sheila [Coronel 00:51:40], Steve Cole, and Zhang Doh.


Al Letson:Our production managers, [Mwenday 00:51:48] and [Osa 00:51:49], original scoring for this week’s episode and sound design is by the dynamic duo, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando my man yo Aruda, with help from Katherine Ray Mondo. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Comarado 00:52:02] Lightning. Support for reveal is provided by the Riva and David Logan foundation, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al [Ledson 00:52:23] and remember, there is always more to the story.


Speaker 10:From PRX.


 Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 – 00:52:54]

Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others.

Previously, Montgomery was a senior reporter at American Public Media, a special correspondent for the BBC and an associate producer with CBS News. He began his career in eastern Europe, covering the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for the Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and creation of a new war crimes court based in The Hague. Montgomery’s honors include Murrow, Peabody, IRE, duPont, Third Coast and Overseas Press Club awards. He is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Brett Myers is an interim executive producer for Reveal. His work has received more than 20 national honors, including a George Foster Peabody Award, four nationalEdward R. Murrow Awards and multipleThird Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Competition awards. Before joining Reveal, he was a senior producer at Youth Radio, where he collaborated with teenage reporters to file stories for "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace." 

Prior to becoming an audio producer, Myers trained as a documentary photographer and was named one of the 25 best American photographers under the age of 25. He loves bikes, California and his family. Before that, he was an independent radio producer and worked with StoryCorps, Sound Portraits and The Kitchen Sisters. Myers is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.