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Photo: NASA

Suspicious behaviors from ships that may subject their crews to forced labor can be seen from space, according to a new study.

Why it matters: Forced labor is a known issue in the international fishing industry, but the scale and scope of it is difficult to quantify. The study could be the start of developing tools to better enforce laws to end these human rights abuses.

What they found: The authors of the new study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used machine learning and satellite data collected between 2012 and 2018 to analyze about 16,000 longline, squid jigger and trawler vessels, including 22 ships with known human rights abuses.

  • The team, which included human rights experts, found 27 high-risk behaviors that could indicate forced labor and can be seen using satellite data compiled by Global Fishing Watch.
  • Traveling farther from port, more daily fishing hours, longer amounts of time spent at sea and fewer fishing excursions per year are indicators of vessels at high-risk of subjecting their crews to forced labor, according to the study.
  • The study discovered about 4,200 potentially high-risk ships.
  • "High-risk vessels visited ports predominantly in Africa, Asia and South America, although exceptions include Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and several European countries," a press release from Global Fishing Watch says.

Yes, but: The researchers behind the study emphasized this new work is a proof of concept that isn't ready to be used as a predictive tool to stop forced labor in real time.

  • "We are not accusing any specific vessels here of force labor," co-author of the study David Kroodsma, of Global Fishing Watch, told Axios. "We are simply showing that there's a high risk of it across the fleet, based on their behavior. And the next step is to get more information."

Go deeper

Jan 5, 2021 - World

Global textile watchdogs struggled to raise alarms in Xinjiang

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The world has learned of China's sweeping system of forced labor in the Xinjiang garment industry not through fair trade organizations but through independent researchers, journalists and the testimonies of former detainees.

Why it matters: This is just one symptom of a bigger problem — the failure of many international institutions and governments to forcefully push back against the Chinese Communist Party's human rights violations.

Fed chair says low interest rates aren't driving stock market prices

Jerome Powell. Photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / Getty Images

Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell told reporters on Wednesday that rock-bottom interest rates aren't playing a role in driving stock prices higher, while noting that vulnerabilities to the financial system are "moderate."

Why it matters: The statement comes amid unshakeable stock prices and a Reddit-fueled market frenzy — prompting widespread fears of a bubble and the role monetary policy has played in that.

2 hours ago - World

Biden freezes U.S. arms deals with Saudi Arabia and UAE

Trump struck several large arms deals with Mohammed bin Salman (L) and Saudi Arabia. Photo: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

The Biden administration has put on hold two big arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which were approved in the final weeks of the Trump administration, a State Department official tells Axios.

Why it matters: The sales of F-35 jets and attack drones to the UAE and a large supply of munitions to Saudi Arabia will be paused pending a review. That signals a major policy shift from the Trump era, and may herald sharp tensions with both Gulf countries.

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