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.

Dig Deeper

  • View: Slavery at sea: Sharks, fins and the migrants made to fish them


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.  

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight 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.


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, hey, hey, it’s Al’s podcast picks for the day. Listen, if you know me than you know that one of my all time favorite podcasts is Death, Sex & Money hosted by my girl Anna Sale. Now she’s taking on men.
Anna Sale:When you think about being a man today, do you think it’s gotten easier or harder?
Speaker 1:Yes.
Al Letson:On the podcast, they’ll be digging into shifting gender norms to hear how men are thinking about how they’re taught to be men and what they’re relearning now. Listen, I love the crew at Death, Sex & Money, they do amazing work and you have to check out this new episode called Manhood Now wherever you get your podcasts or at
Speaker 2:Support for Reveal comes from a new show from our friends at KUOW, Battle Tactics for your Sexist Workplace; the show that breaks down how sexism works in the modern workplace and with help from some badass experts brings you real tactics you can use to fight back.
On this podcast they’re taking on everything from the gender wage gap, to imposter syndrome, to manterruption, to being working moms. We’ve all experienced it, let’s figure out what we can do about it. Find Battle Tactics for your Sexist Workplace on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m 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 want you to see. The drone hovers over the jungle near the Gulf of Fonseca in southern El Salvador. It buzzes like a giant mosquito then zips off.
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 F.: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 F.:Let me see if I can speed this thing up. Sport mode, got it. There we go. Wow.
Sarah Blaskey:I can hear it.
Al Letson:Sarah and Ben track its video feed on a small screen.
Ben F.:That’s the big port over there.
Al Letson:They’re looking for a ship that 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. 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.
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 that drone in the Salvadorian jungle about 400 miles south of Costa Rica.


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


Ben F.:Is this a little isthmus out to an island or 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.


Ben and I are driving into Puntarenas, the shark fishing capital of Central America. It’s home to multi-million 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.


I’m not sure if this is one way.


Ben F.:We’ll find out shortly.


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


Ben F.:Those are fucking fins.


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


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


Sarah Blaskey:Yes, those are fins. 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.


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 long liners, 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 long line 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 fisherman, so 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 fisherman 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 of flesh are hacked off its body, I have to fight the urge to throw up.


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, but catching sharks and exporting fins, that’s still legal. There’s still money to be made here.


It looks like a bunker.


Ben F.:It looks like a frigging embassy.


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


Ben and I arrive at a huge compound surrounded by tall sand colored walls. This is the headquarters for the Wong Group. Documents indicate its fleet is responsible for more than 60,000 shark deaths a year. The dock’s blocked by a thick metal gate that a guard opens for us.


We’re here to meet Fabio Wong. 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.


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.


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


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


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


Then we walk towards six rusting long liners 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.


Fabio Wong:[foreign language 00:08:47]


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.


Fabio Wong:[foreign language 00:09:08]


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? Ben and I go see someone who might have some answers.


We’re here in a small dock down a dirt road, at a dock called Mesita where Sergio rents a space for his boat. Sergio [so-to-peña 00:09:49] used to work for the Wong Group. He’s only in his 30s, but already he’s spent more than two decades shark fishing. He walks us towards one of his boats, the Tarzan Six.


Like other international long liners, most of the space is taken up with giant freezers. The whole crew sleeps in a tiny nook the size of a closet. The first thing we see onboard 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.


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


Sergio says he follows the law. He flies the 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.


Fabio:I think it’s because he didn’t want to follow regulations because fishing is still happening out there and there’s still sharks.


Sarah Blaskey:Sergio says the Wong 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.


Fabio: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 Wong ships to stay out at sea so long, they rely on cheap labor, migrants from Asia who work under terrible conditions.


Fabio:The captain is they’re owner. To me, it’s modern day slavery.


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


I started circling back to my sources and almost everyone seemed to have a story about the crews on those Wong 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.


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. Then how can you identify it? 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 Wong vessel might be offloading sharks in southern El Salvador. Three days later, Ben and I are there.


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


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


Sarah Blaskey:Yes, same thought.


Earlier we tried to get into a small private port in the town of La Unión. 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 and 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.


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


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


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


Ben F.: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 at gunpoint by police 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.


We should have stayed on the rocks.


Ben F.:No.


Sarah Blaskey:There’s no way through.


Ben F.:You don’t need a way through, we just need a way up.


Sarah Blaskey:Do we have a way up?


Ben F.: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 F.:Ten feet wide. This is a great place, let me check down by the line.


Sarah Blaskey:Ben positions the drone carefully, there are branches and vines everywhere. We launch the drone out over the gulf and then double back toward the port, making sure to keep a legal flight path.


Ben F.: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 F.:There it is.


Sarah Blaskey:That’s it. A long liner, it’s flying the Belize flag and there’s a name written on the side.


Ben F.:You can read it.


Sarah Blaskey:What’s it say?


Ben F.:It says, let me get a little bit closer.


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


Ben F.:Hung Chi Fu.


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


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


Sarah Blaskey:Okay, let’s go.


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 Wong Group in Costa Rica. What about the crew and those trafficking allegations?


La Unión port number 7729. Here we go. Please answer.


To get some answers, I call a guy named Pablo. I learned he manages the Hung Chi Fu while it’s 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 Wong Group. “Fabio?” I ask.


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.


That wasn’t good.


Ben F.:Why?


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


Ben F.: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.


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.


The next day, it’s 100 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 …


 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: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 seawater.


Hi, cómo está?


I try English and Spanish, the only two languages I’ve got.


Hola, hablas Español?


Speaker 3:No, [inaudible 00:18:17] de Vietnam.


Sarah Blaskey:De Vietnam, eh?


Speaker 3:Yeah.


Sarah Blaskey: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 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, Sarah helps describe one particularly chilling message. It says, “Help me.” That’s coming up on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Byer Duncan:Byer Duncan here from Reveal’s audience team. Every so often, something happens that causes our entire newsroom to spring into action. Today, that issue is migrant children separated from their families by the government. These kids are detained along the U.S.-Mexico border, then sent to facilities across the country. We’ve assembled a team of reporters to spend the next few months exploring the effects of these policies. We’re calling this series “Kids on the Line.” The best way to follow along is by subscribing to our newsletter, and signing up is easy. Just text the word “newsletter” to 63735. Again, that’s “newsletter” to 63735. You can text “stop” or “help” at any time, and standard data rates apply.


Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Reporter Sarah Blaskey spent more than a year searching for an elusive fleet of shark-fishing boats in Central America, and she got tips that the boats were crewed by Asian men forced to work against their will. Before the break, Sarah, along with photojournalist Ben Feibleman, were at a remote port in southern El Salvador. They’d just slipped a note, translated in Vietnamese, into the hands of one of those crew members. Now, weeks later, some of the men are beginning to reach out. Sarah picks up the story from here.


Sarah Blaskey:I’m back in the U.S. when my phone pings with a message. I use an app to translate it from Vietnamese. It’s a guy named [Thanh Wen 00:20:51]. 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?


Thanh’s talking to us from the boat, which has just arrived at port.


Can you explain?


Translator 1:Yeah. Uh, hello Thanh.


He is a little bit busy. Can you call back to him in about ten 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 onto 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 Thanh 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 has just started the journey from shore, the food supply was still good. But after some time, the food is going less and less, and he has less to eat now.


Sarah Blaskey:A supply boat brings the food and takes their catch back to shore, allowing them to fish continuously. Thanh 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 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 Thanh gets nervous.


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 boats. [Tung Tao 00:23:24], who we speak to through another interpreter, says his problems began with a recruitment agency back in Vietnam.


Translator 2:So when he signed the 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. It recruits Vietnamese men to work on fishing boats around the world. Crew members tell me the company promises to send $450 per month to their families. But they say there were lots of things they didn’t know about the work. Even really basic things, like that they’d be fishing sharks, or out at sea for sometimes more than a year at a time, working 17-hour days with no breaks.


Translator 2:So 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 the 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, and 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 crewman.


Ben Feibleman: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 them 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 months’ 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 Feibleman:So 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.


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


Ben Feibleman: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 Thanh 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 Thanh’s story to Roeland de Wilde. He works for the IOM in Central America.


Is there precedent for this situation?


Roeland de Wild:I’m not actually aware of a situation exactly like this.


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


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


Sarah Blaskey:Laws on trafficking vary. What’s illegal in one country could be legal in another, and regardless of whether Thanh’s contract is lawful in Vietnam, some men told me families have paid to free their sons from these boats. Thanh says his family doesn’t have the money.


He’s from a family, like, they’re not gonna be able to get a lawyer and fight that, you know?


Roeland de Wild: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 Thanh 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 and 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 Thanh. Not over some messaging app but face-to-face.


Speaker 4:[Vietnamese 00:29:43]


Sarah Blaskey:Do you hear? [Vietnamese 00:29:47]


Ben Feibleman:[Vietnamese 00:29:48]


Sarah Blaskey:[Vietnamese 00:29:48]


Ben Feibleman:[Vietnamese 00:29:48]


Sarah Blaskey:[Vietnamese 00:29:48]


Ben Feibleman:What is that?


Sarah Blaskey:Hello.


Ben Feibleman:Hello, oh.


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 Thanh. We’re headed to the port of La Union, back where we flew that drone. We’re driving in a caravan with a rep from the IOM and two Salvadoran immigration officials and we’re going over the plan.


The idea is that Thanh will leave the port to go buy cigarettes so his captain and crew mates won’t get suspicious. Ben and I will meet Thanh 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 Thanh 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 goes sideways.


They’re going to the port. Why?


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


No, we’re not leaving yet, he’s not ready, we don’t even know how we’re making contact yet.


Ben Feibleman:I know.


Sarah Blaskey:This is what’s fucking insane.


I actually am like fucking [inaudible 00:31:30].


We’re kind of freaking out here because we’re the ones that told Thanh 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 Feibleman:They left.


Sarah Blaskey:They’re at the port and they say we can still interview Thanh 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 Thanh.


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 Feibleman:All right. 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 all.




Ben Feibleman:Did he say anything?




The ship owner knows.


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


So he said he wants to talk to you, right?


We negotiate a 24-hour shore pass. Thanh 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, cause I think they’re getting nervous.


Ben Feibleman:All right.


Sarah Blaskey:All right.


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


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


Sarah Blaskey:Thanh messages me from across the room. He wants to talk, alone, so we go outside. I don’t smoke, but I know Thanh does. So I offer him a cigarette. We never actually say anything out loud. Sitting near the hotel pool, Thanh and I pass my phone back and forth. Typing messages into a translation app, we manage to have our first real, human conversation. He tells me he misses Vietnam.


A few cigarettes later, Thanh 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 Thanh can learn more about his options, 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.”


Thanh looks terrified when I show him the message. He’s no longer interested in the call with the IOM and wants to go back to the boat immediately. He’s worried this will make everything worse and that the fine will be even steeper.


They have to go back. They’re in trouble.


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


Sarah Blaskey:Yeah.


Ben Feibleman:It’s like a warning?


Sarah Blaskey:Yeah.


Ben Feibleman:As in, get back now before you take back?


Sarah Blaskey:It’s already back.


Ben Feibleman:Ah, it’s already back.


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


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


Sarah Blaskey:Yeah.


Ben Feibleman:All right.


Sarah Blaskey:In the car, Thanh 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 Feibleman:All right guys, good-


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


Sarah Blaskey:… off outside the dock so they can walk back alone.


Ben Feibleman:All right, guys, goodnight.


Translator:[Vietnamese 00:36:04].


Ben Feibleman:All right, they’re gone.




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


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


Sarah Blaskey:The next day, Thong 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 Thong over the next few days, but he becomes less and less responsive. It’s over. All that’s left is to say goodbye.


All right, so do we agree that this is what I want to say? Thong, 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.


Ben Feibleman:Yeah, he’s basically said already that this is what he wants, right?


Sarah Blaskey:Yeah. I’m sending it.


Ben Feibleman:Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Al Letson:About a month after Sarah said goodbye to Thong, we got word that he returned to Vietnam. Crew members tell Sarah that he bought his way out of his contract, paying more than $2,400 in fees to Servico Hanoi, the Vietnamese labor company. Now that’s more than five months’ worth of wages. As for those shark boats, just as we were wrapping up this story, the vessels were removed from international fishing registries. Essentially the fleet has gone dark.


Thanks to Sarah Blaskey for that story. Ben Feibleman 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 the story and much more at When we come back, a leading sustainable seafood company that says one thing and sells something else. That’s next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’re 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, a cage.


Speaker 5:[foreign language 00:39:18].


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 the cage. Just a few yards away, other men are loading cargo ships with seafood caught by slaves. Some of it’s heading into supply networks of major U.S. supermarkets and restaurants.


Robin McDowell: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 Htu San.


Robin McDowell: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 2,000 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 editors asked themselves if the global seafood industry is this abusive and corrupt, what are some solutions?


Robin McDowell: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 $17 billion dollar seafood market in the US. It’s an idea that recently brought together a couple of hundred people at a microbrewery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, young people, foodies, techies, listening to talks on the future of seafood.


Sean Dimin:Seafood’s fucked up.


Al Letson:Holding a microphone and dressed in jeans and a casual button down as Sean Dimin. 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 Dimin:There’s a lot going on in seafood. It’s a big, international, commoditized market with lots of bad players, bad actors, misinformation and what we do, everything U.S., 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 ecofriendly insulation.


Sean Dimin: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 at national distribution. We have to create a new model.


Robin McDowell: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. Fishermen Eric Hodge is one of those sources.


Eric Hodge:Oh, that sun feels good, huh?


Al Letson:We caught up with Eric a few weeks ago at the harbor in Santa Barbara where he was unloading his day’s catch from a 16-foot aluminum skiff.


Eric Hodge:We probably got about 450 pounds of fish by noon, so for us, that’s a good day.


Al Letson:Eric’s got bleach blonde 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 fishermen.


Eric Hodge:Hey Miguel. What’s going on?


Al Letson:Miguel is Eric’s broker.


Eric Hodge:So, I got like 80 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. 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 Hodge:They said, you know, on their website, we connect, you know, restaurants with small-time fishermen. I’m like, “Well, hey, that’s me. I want to be a part of that.”


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


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


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


Robin McDowell:These kind of really 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 and fellow reporters found problems across Sea to Table’s national operations. Take the case of sushi grade tuna. Sea to Table was offering it fresh off the boat from Montauk out of Long Island in the dead of winter, when no tuna boats were landing there. So 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 McDowell: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:90% of the seafood sold in America is imported and a lot of it comes through here.


Robin McDowell: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.


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


Robin McDowell:We’re going to drive up on him.


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


Margie Mason: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 imported fish would go to Sea to Table and get passed off as locally caught, so they turned to the emerging science of marine DNA testing. The reporters had a chef order over $500 worth of yellowfin 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 McDowell: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 U.S. 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 fishermen, men sometimes working under brutal conditions for as little as $1.50 a day.




Speaker 6:Okay.


So this child here wants to talk to me-


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


Solistio:[foreign language 00:47:11].


Al Letson:His name is [Solistio 00:47:13], and he says he’s 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 McDowell:To find the men who are 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 Dimin.


Robin McDowell:All your seafood is wild, right?


Sean Dimin:No.


Robin McDowell:It’s not all wild?


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


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


Robin McDowell: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 Dimin:And we’re very clear about carrying shellfish-


Robin McDowell:That is farmed?


Sean Dimin:That’s raised in mariculture.


Robin McDowell:You are?


Sean Dimin:Yes.


Robin McDowell:In this report, are you clear about that? The investors’ report? Wild-caught, domestic, wild-caught. I mean, it’s all over the place. So who are you honest about with that? On that subject?


Sean Dimin:Sea to Table’s [inaudible 00:48:53].


Robin McDowell:Who? I’ve never heard you say anything about farmed anything.


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 and now you’re telling me something directly opposite. Then a few days later I got an email from them 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 Dimin: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 McDowell: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. So 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 really cracked the code yet, doing it on a large scale with a transparent supply chain. But if it’s going to happen anywhere, Robin says, here, the U.S. is as good a place as any.


Robin McDowell: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. She reported that story with Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza, and a lot’s happened since it was published. 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, a U.S. senator has called for a federal investigation into the company’s business operations.


Thanks for listening. Michael Montgomery produced this week’s show. It was edited by Brett Meyers. Sarah Blaskey’s reporting was supported by the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University and by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Special thanks to Sheila Coronel, Steve Cole and [Tsong Do 00:51:48]. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. 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, Arruda, with help from Katherine [Raimondo 00:52:02]. Our acting CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comerado, Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine 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 Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.


Recorded:From PRX.


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

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.

Mwende Hinojosa is a former production manager for Reveal. Prior to joining Reveal, she was the training strategist and innovation manager for the Bay Area Video Coalition, a nonprofit media arts center in San Francisco. At BAVC, she provided resources and support to students training in video, motion graphics, web and graphic design and managed a community for creative freelancers called Gig Union. She has produced segments for public radio stations KUSP, KQED, KALW and KUOW; videos and short documentaries for nonprofits; interactive panel discussions; and immersive storytelling experiences for tech companies. .

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.