Aboard the Sam Simon in the Atlantic, first, he was thirsty. Then came the seizures. Too tired to sit up, he could not urinate. He vomited any water or food he consumed. “Elephant feet” is how other deckhands described the swelling in his lower extremities.
Fadhil (24), from Indonesia, was working roughly 460km off the coast of Peru on a Chinese squid ship called the Wei Yu 18. He begged the foreman to send him back to shore for medical care. The foreman refused, instead giving him the equivalent of ibuprofen and explaining that his contract had not ended.
“My body must reach my parents,” Fadhil whispered to Ramadhan Sugandhi, another deckhand on the ship, on the last day before he died on 26 September 2019, having been sick for a month.
The captain ordered the crew to wrap Fadhil’s corpse in a blanket and place it in the squid freezer, where it turned black. Several days later, they put Fadhil in a wooden coffin that was weighed down by an anchor chain and pushed the box into the sea.
“I felt hopeless watching him,” Sugandhi said.
Fadhil died from a disease called beriberi, which kills an untold number of workers each year on distant-water fishing ships. He was part of a breakout of the disease that sickened five other Indonesians, though the rest of the men received care and survived. The disease, which is caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, is preventable and reversible.
“Beriberi fatality at sea is a red flag for severe neglect or captivity,” said Nicola Pocock, a specialist on the topic, who teaches at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“There is absolutely no reason people should be getting sick, much less dying, from this disease.”
As over a third of the world’s fish stocks have been overfished, fleets have begun travelling further out and staying at sea longer in hopes of catching the minimum needed to remain profitable.
This trend is facilitated by an increasingly popular system called “at-sea trans-shipment”, where ship captains avoid coming to shore by offloading their catch to refrigeration ships in the middle of the ocean. Though no global statistics are kept on beriberi, the use of trans-shipment heightens the frequency and deadliness of beriberi on distant-water ships, Pocock said.
Beriberi is a particular concern on Chinese squid ships, which travel especially far, often staying at sea for two years, relying heavily on trans-shipment.
China’s distant-water fishing fleet is more than twice the size of the next largest, and researchers say these ships are highly prone to using captive labour, most commonly Indonesian or Chinese workers recruited from inland regions.
An investigation of the Chinese distant-water squid fleet found that, between 2013 and 2021, at least two dozen workers on 14 ships suffered symptoms associated with beriberi. Of those, at least 15 died.
Distant-water fishing captains often refuse to carry sick or injured crew back to shore because of the cost of lost time, spent fuel and missed work. Logistics are also difficult.
Swells can make it dangerous for large ships to get close to each other. Most fishing ships do not carry skiffs – small boats with outboard motors that enable crew transfers by traversing the water between bigger vessels. Instead, captains sometimes string up zip lines several stories above the water, connecting two ships. The men are then put inside a fishing net and sent across the open ocean.
For long voyages, Chinese ships typically stock rice and instant noodles because these foodstuffs are cheap, calorie-rich and slow to spoil.
However, Dr Kyly Whitfield, Associate Professor of Applied Human Nutrition at Mount Saint Vincent University, explained that pasta and rice are high in carbohydrates, and the human body requires more B1 when carbohydrates are consumed in large amounts and during periods of intense exertion.
Ship cooks frequently mix rice or noodles with ingredients such as raw or fermented fish, which are high in an enzyme called thiaminase, which destroys B1. Coffee and tea have a similar impact on the body. Some countries require flour and rice to be supplemented with B1. China is not among them, according to the Global Fortification Data Exchange, which tracks national nutritional fortifications worldwide.
The vegetables, fruit or meat eaten on these ships tend to be canned or dried, making them low in nutrients and high in salt, sugar and preservatives.
During an inspection by a reporter of a Chinese squid ship fishing on the Pacific Ocean, roughly 560km west of the Galapagos, the cook said his ship had no fresh fruits or vegetables. As he spoke, he stood in the galley watching over a large rice cooker, flecked with small pieces of boiled squid, and a bubbling vat of instant noodles.
On another Chinese squidder, located on the South Atlantic Ocean about 600km north of the Falkland Islands, a deckhand in the mess hall, where the workers eat, gestured toward a bag of rotten and blackened cabbages and onions, the only vegetables on the ship. He asked for donations of any fresh fruit or vegetables.
On the other side of the Atlantic, near Gambia, a worker from Senegal on a Chinese trawler called the Victory 205 said he had been pricked by a catfish barb while wearing flip flops, and his swollen foot, oozing from the puncture wound, looked like a rotting eggplant.
As medics attended to his infection, two other deckhands approached the reporter and pointed to their lower legs, which were swollen. They said they had been at sea for several months and their swelling had begun in the last week.
“We did not get poked, but still our legs are swollen,” one man said. He later explained that their diet for the past two months had been primarily white rice and boiled fish.
Since beriberi tends to be painful and slow-acting, victims typically see it coming before it kills them.
“Please rescue us,” a Filipino deckhand aboard a Chinese squid ship called the Han Rong 368 pleaded in a July 2020 video, recorded on his cell phone from the Indian Ocean near Sri Lanka.
“We need to go to the hospital,” he said.“Please, we are already sick here. The captain won’t send us to the hospital.”
Between May and June 2020, three Indonesian deckhands – Andri Suhendar, Riswan and Akhmad Wahid – died from symptoms associated with beriberi, including foaming at the mouth, full-body swelling and shortness of breath. Two of the bodies were put in the freezer and one was sent overboard, according to cell phone imagery and worker testimonies.
Kurniasih Mufidayati, an Indonesian legislator, said that the deaths at sea were the result of “slavery” on ships and a failure of the Indonesian government to protect its people. The Indonesian foreign minister added that his office had asked China to investigate the deaths. (The agency that placed these workers on the ship, PT Puncak Jaya Samudra, did not respond to requests for comment.)
Like scurvy, which results from a deficiency of vitamin C, beriberi was common in the 19th century among sailors on extended voyages. Its name derives from a Sinhalese word, beri, meaning “weak” or “I cannot” – a term used by listless victims in what is now Sri Lanka, who were among the first patients studied by scientists.
Also known as “rice disease”, the malady has historically appeared not only on ships but also in prisons, asylums and migrant camps, where diets have consisted mainly of white rice or wheat flour, both very poor sources of B1.
Beriberi takes two forms. “Wet” beriberi affects the cardiovascular system, can cause heart failure and typically includes symptoms of shortness of breath, increased heart rate and swelling of the lower legs.
“Dry” beriberi impacts the nervous system and often entails symptoms of vomiting, difficulty in walking, loss of feeling in hands and feet, leg muscle dysfunction and paralysis, tingling, pain and rapid eye movements.
On rare occasions, Chinese captains airlift beriberi victims to land, though usually only when ships are near mainland China. In June 2020, for example, a Chinese deckhand experiencing full-body swelling and difficulty breathing was taken by helicopter from the Fu Yuan Yu 7886, a Chinese squid ship on the South China Sea that was returning from the Indian Ocean. The ship is owned by a company that was sanctioned in 2022 by the US Treasury Department for labour abuses and illegal fishing violations.
Besides China, other countries with documented problems of human trafficking within their fishing fleet, have also struggled to counter beriberi. When, for instance, the Thai government investigated a 2016 beriberi outbreak on two trawlers, it found that the ships carried 38 crew with beriberi, six of whom died from the disease before returning to shore, their bodies thrown overboard.
“Working practices involving hard labour and extensive working hours cause the body to deplete vitamin B1 at a faster metabolic rate to produce energy,” the government concluded in its report.
Further research done by Greenpeace found that some of the workers were Cambodians and victims of forced labour.
According to the Thai report, the trawlers, both of which had stayed at sea for at least nine months, had received new shipments of fresh meat and vegetables every two to three months, but these supplies ran out within 20 days, and after that the crew relied on fermented food for up to two months, leading to cases of beriberi.
The report suggested that trans-shipment contributed to the deaths and that all fishing companies be required to provide B1 supplements to crew on ships that stay away from shore for longer than 30 days.
Pocock said that in addition to those preventative steps, fleet operators and seafood companies should only serve B1-bolstered rice and pasta, and ensure that captains and crew know how to identify the disease when it starts.
Conditions on Chinese squid ships are notoriously harsh.
When these vessels visit the fishing grounds along the western shore of South America, they typically use Peru to restock and occasionally to disembark sick, injured or dead crew.
Before the pandemic made the logistics of using foreign workers more difficult, Chinese squid ships relied heavily on foreign crew, mostly from Indonesia.
Rangga Yudha Nagara, an official at the Indonesian embassy in Lima, Peru, said that since 2020 he has helped evacuate from ships and repatriate two men suffering from beriberi.
“They were safe because it wasn’t too late for them to get the treatment,” he said.
When fishing on the eastern side of South America, Chinese squid ships typically restock in the port of Montevideo. Whereas most ports globally do not publish crime data, Montevideo is an exception.
For most of the past decade, a dead body has been dropped off in this port roughly every other month.
Nicolas Potrie, who runs Indonesia’s consulate office in Montevideo and gets called when dead Indonesian deckhands are brought to shore in Uruguay, said some of the bodies show signs of beriberi and the deaths were clearly avoidable.
He asked, “Why do they continue fishing and put the body on ice?”
In many ways, the path that landed Fadhil on the Chinese squid ship was a typical one.
Like most deckhands around the world, the Indonesians on the Wei Yu 18 got their jobs through so-called manning agencies. Hundreds of these firms operate globally, playing a vital role in supplying crew members from dozens of countries to ships that are almost always on the move.
The firms handle everything from paychecks and plane tickets to port fees and passports. For the men they recruit, these firms promise an open doorway to another, more lucrative life.
Hearing about the jobs through word of mouth in their villages, Fadhil and the other Indonesians travelled in July 2018 from their villages to Jakarta, where the men waited for two months to board the ship.
During this time, the Indonesians signed contracts that stipulated there would be no overtime, no sick leave, 18- to 24-hour workdays, seven-day workweeks, and a $50 monthly food deduction.
If the fishing vessel was not near a convenient port of repatriation, the contracts permitted captains to extend their stay on board indefinitely.
Captains were also granted full discretion over reassigning crew members to alternate ships. Wages were to be paid, not monthly to families, but in full only after completion of the contract, a practice that is illegal in most countries.
At least three of the Indonesians on the Wei Yu 18 were recruited by a manning agency called PT Multi Maritim Indonesia, based in Bogor. Their contracts required that they pay a processing fee for recruitment, which was to be deducted from their salary.
Since the men did not have the money to pay the upfront fees for access to the job, they were required to give the agency their diplomas and family cards as a form of collateral, which were to be returned to the men’s families once the fees were deducted from the mens’ salaries. Having initially been told by recruiters that they would make upwards of $450 per month, the men soon learned that the actual salary would be far less, typically around $300.
This is also when the Indonesians learned about a range of salary deductions. These deductions would have been loosely explained amid a flurry of paperwork, rapid-fire calculations and unfamiliar terms: “passport forfeiture”, “mandatory fees”, “sideline earnings”.
The deckhands’ contracts also included penalty clauses, which said they would pay up to $1,000 if they left the ship before their contract expired.
Some contracts also said that to collect their wages, crew members had to fly back to Indonesia at their own expense. PT Multi Maritim Indonesia fishermen had a total of $1,000 deducted in the first eight months for guarantee payment and did not receive their promised monthly payment of $50 in cash onboard the vessel. (PT Multi Maritim did not respond to requests for comment.)
On 28 August 2018, Fadhil boarded the Wei Yu 18 in the port of Busan, South Korea, joining a crew of nine other Indonesians and 20 Chinese. The rusty red and white steel-hulled ship travelled for several weeks to the coast of South America to fish near Peru, then south along the coast of Chile.
Working 12- to 24-hour shifts, the men typically slept during the day, since squid fishing occurs best at night, with help from extremely bright light bulbs that lure the creatures towards the surface.
On the ship, the men slept four to a room in wooden bunk beds, each with one blanket on soggy foam mattresses made wet by walls that sweated with condensation.
The drinking water was rust-coloured and tasted like metal, while their Chinese counterparts drank bottled water. They were only given salt water for bathing. Since they were Muslims, the Indonesian deckhands picked out the pork that the Chinese cook seemed to always mix into the noodles he prepared.
Violence was common.
The men described the foreman and the captain hitting them on the head; kicking and slapping them, usually for not understanding instructions given in Chinese; taking too long to untangle fishing lines, or dropping squid on the deck.
One Indonesian deckhand, Yansel Lianus Saputra, speculated that the foreman harboured a racial grudge against Indonesians stemming from anti-Chinese race riots that had gripped Jakarta in 1998.
“You were only five years old,” the foreman said, according to Saputra.
“Many Chinese citizens were killed in Indonesia.”
Sparked by food shortages and widespread unemployment, the riots targeted ethnic Chinese and resulted in more than a thousand deaths and more than 160 rapes.
By August 2019, after being at sea for over a year, the Wei Yu 18 was gripped by a beriberi outbreak. The two Indonesian deckhands who contracted the disease first were transported by another fishing ship to shore, where they received treatment, recovered and then flew home.
The Wei Yu 18’s captain left his ship in late August to visit his family, hitching a ride with another fishing ship back to China.
When Fadhil fell ill in September, he and other deckhands asked to let him go home or to the hospital but the foreman refused. A copy of Fadhil’s contract indicates that he was only required to do a one-year at-sea tour, which was already completed. But the Wei Yu 18’s foreman told Fadhil he was required to stay for two years, according to other deckhands. It took less than a month for Fadhil to die.
Two days after Fadhil died, the captain returned to the ship and ordered the body to be buried at sea, claiming permission from Fadhil’s parents, which incensed the Indonesians, who didn’t believe him.
“Which parents are willing to throw their children out like that?” said Ramadhan Sugandhi.
In the subsequent six months, three more Indonesians fell ill with beriberi. None died because the captain contacted a nearby fishing ship which dispatched their onboard doctor, who administered an intravenous drip, presumably with B1 supplements, according to the surviving deckhands.
Nearly 30 months after Fadhil died, a reporter encountered the Wei Yu 18 in the Blue Hole fishing grounds, roughly 620km north of the Falkland Islands. Over the radio, a man confirmed he had been the captain of the ship for the past decade but declined to answer questions about Fadhil or to allow an inspection of his ship, citing Covid concerns.
“We have only a couple of fish, not many,” he said, suggesting that the reporter interview another nearby ship instead.
In Gampong Rawa, a coastal village on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, about 2,400km northwest of Jakarta, Fadhil’s relatives were presented with a reconciliation letter that they were told was for insurance reasons.
Despite photos of his burial at sea, the agreement stated that the family had been assisted in submitting an insurance claim for Fadhil, who, according to the letter, “died by falling into the sea”.
In interviews, three of the Indonesian deckhands said they had neither worked on the high seas before, nor did they realise the risks in taking work through manning agencies.
Under the definition set by the UN International Labor Organization, forced labour exists when two criteria are met: involuntary work and coercion. Multiple examples of these criteria were found on the Wei Yu 18, according to a confidential investigation of the ship produced in July 2020 by C4ADS, a security research firm.
“The Indonesian fishermen reportedly asked to leave after one year on the vessel, but they were not allowed to leave,” said the report, which cited additional factors, including beatings, unsanitary food and living conditions and debt bondage, and concluded there was clear evidence of forced labour on the ship.
Various laws in the US are meant to prevent products tied to forced labour from entering the American economy, but they are ineffective with seafood. An overwhelming majority of seafood consumed in the US is imported, over half of it from China.
Due to the opaque and global nature of seafood supply chains, however, few companies in the US effectively track where their seafood is caught or the conditions on those ships.
Export records indicate that between May 2017 and May 2022, Wei Yu 18’s parent company, Shandong Baoma, shipped more than 140 tons of squid to the US.
Shandong Baoma’s website says that it supplies seafood to Japan, South Korea and Europe, and through a subsidiary to Walmart in China. Shandong Baoma did not reply to requests for comment about its ties to ships engaged in human rights and illegal fishing crimes.
Presented with the same findings, a spokesperson from Walmart emailed a reply: “Walmart expects all our suppliers to comply with our standards and contractual obligations, including those relating to human rights.”
Asked to review Fadhil’s case, Victor Weedn, a forensic pathologist in the Washington, DC, office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said that allowing sailors to die from beriberi likely constitutes criminal neglect, since the disease is so easily prevented through proper nutrition or vitamin pills, and since its symptoms can be quickly reversed with proper care.
Medical studies show that when B1 is administered intravenously, patients typically recover within 24 hours. Given that, Weedn said, allowing victims to suffer and die over the course of weeks is unconscionable.
“Slow-motion murder,” he said, “is still murder.” DM
Read Part one and Part two
This story was produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit journalism organisation in Washington, D.C. Reporting and writing was contributed by Ian Urbina, Joe Galvin, Maya Martin, Susan Ryan, Daniel Murphy and Austin Brush. This reporting was partially supported by the Pulitzer Center.