By Alex Whiting
ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Bruno Ciceri was a chaplain to seafarers in Taiwan's city of Kaohsiung, every evening he took crates of beer, soft drinks and newspapers to share with the fishermen who came into port.
While chatting to them, he came across many cases of trafficking and forced labor - men toiling away for up to 18 hours a day in dangerous conditions, unable to come to shore for months, sometimes years, and given little or no pay.
He has helped to rescue many people during his 13 years in Taiwan, and 11 years in the Philippines before that, but said that poverty repeatedly forces people into the work "and we cannot do much about it".
"I remember one episode when we helped a fisherman in Taiwan to get out of a situation of abuse and ... forced labor. He returned to the Philippines, but after several months he was back," the Italian Catholic priest said from his office in Rome.
"He said: 'Father, the problem was I need money for my family ... so I tried my luck again'."
The men often say they prefer to risk their lives in fishing in order to feed their families, than to stay at home without a job, Ciceri said.
Ciceri left Taiwan in 2009, and is now director of the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) International which has chaplains and volunteers in about 350 ports worldwide.
"If you want to solve the problem of trafficking, not only in the fishing industry but trafficking in general, you have to go to the root cause," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
More than 15 million people work full-time on board fishing vessels, and some 24,000 people in the industry die every year, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
It is unknown how many fishers are trafficked or in forced labor, but it occurs in many countries and affects a "significant number" of people, the ILO says.
Last week, the Vatican and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) together urged governments to do more to tackle forced labor and trafficking in the fishing industry, and end illegal fishing.
Illegal fishing often goes hand in hand with forced labor and trafficking, as well as destruction of wild fish stocks, experts say.
"We have to guarantee that the seafood reaching our plates has been produced not only in an environmentally sustainable manner, but also in a manner that supports the socio-economic well-being of those who harvest and process it," FAO's director-general Jose Graziano da Silva said at the joint event.
International agreements on the issue exist but need greater support and implementation, they said.
FAO's Port State Measures Agreement to eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing came into force in July.
And the ILO's Work in Fishing Convention 2007 will come into force in November next year after Lithuania become the tenth country to ratify it. However, major fishing players like Thailand and Japan have not yet joined it.
Tackling the problem requires not just international laws, but also governments to implement them, companies to adopt codes of conduct, and consumers to become aware of what they are buying, said Ciceri.
"I find it ridiculous that sometimes you find on packages of fish it says: 'This tuna was caught without harming any turtle or dolphin.' Maybe fishers had an accident or died, but that's not important," he said.
(Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)