Oceans of Crime

A Q&A with the CNBC journalist who wants you to think differently about how you buy seafood

Ted Kemp, Managing Editor, CNBC International Digital, during a reporting trip to Myanmar.
Ted Kemp, Managing Editor, CNBC International Digital, during a reporting trip to Myanmar.

Our oceans are some of the most remote and lawless spots on Earth. In a new CNBC documentary called "Oceans of Crime," Ted Kemp reports on widespread illegality in the global seafood industry – everything from slavery to murder, the depletion of our planet's fish stocks, and wholesale theft by rogue fishing operations. In this investigative report, Kemp shows how an outlaw industry is funded by unknowing consumers who buy tuna, salmon, and seafood-based pet food.

Viewers will see how our seafood supply moves from the waters of Southeast Asia to American shores. Along the way, they'll follow an eco-activist and ship captain who's chasing rogue Chinese fishing vessels in the South Indian Ocean; a satellite sleuth in West Virginia who culls signal data to help patrol the world's seas; an American aid worker struggling to help former fishing boat slaves in Thailand; and conscientious retailers and restaurant owners trying to make sense of a shadowy supply chain.

Ted Kemp, Managing Editor, CNBC International Digital, and the reporter for this hour, has long covered ocean lawlessness and piracy. In "Oceans of Crime," he presents a gripping story about a crisis that affects us all, and the food we eat. CNBC recently caught up with Kemp to discuss what inspired him to pursue the subject, and what concerned consumers can do about it.

What factors led to the investigation of the illegal seafood market as a documentary subject?

I did a story for CNBC Digital in 2014 about pirates in the Singapore Strait—which is a big problem for the world's busiest commercial waterway. I interviewed a British captain who worked for a Hong Kong-based shipper, and I asked him who these pirates were. How did they get in that dangerous, illegal line of work? He said, "Well, they used to be fishermen," but their local fish stocks had been wiped out by "these big, commercial operations" from China and other places. I made a note to myself: Go back and check that out; these illegal fishing operations could be a big story. And it turned out they were.

What were some obstacles or challenges you had to overcome in order to get the information needed to tell this story?

Large-scale, hyper-destructive, commercial fishing is not something that the people doing it want to talk about. They won't be cooperating, because they don't want anyone to even know what they're doing. So we had to report around the edges, as they say: The scientists, the activists, the legitimate fishing industry, the US State Department, the Thai Navy.

CNBC’s Ted Kemp interviews a Thai Naval officer during a patrol searching for illegal fishing vessels.
CNBC’s Ted Kemp interviews a Thai Naval officer during a patrol searching for illegal fishing vessels.

Why is this information important for the average consumer?

Because it's the consumers who will make a difference, if any difference is going to get made. They're at the far end of the supply chain, paying money. Because they're the ones paying money into the commercial system, making it viable, they have the leverage. If we're going to save our fisheries, the pressure will come from consumers, who as the people at the receiving end of the supply chain are the people with the ultimate leverage. It's the only leverage that matters.

What were the most dangerous parts of your investigation and filming?

None of it was especially dangerous in my opinion, but anytime you're in a place like Myanmar with a military government, you've got to tread carefully. Also it was probably a little dangerous jumping from ship to ship, which we did some of, even on the high seas.

Is there anything you discovered or surprised you while filming "Oceans of Crime"?

Everything about slave labor in Southeast Asia was a surprise. In the Western media, we focus sometimes on human sex trafficking, which is abhorrent enough. But in terms of the number of victims, slavery in "legal" industries is a problem that's not discussed enough.

CNBC’s Ted Kemp walks through a food market in Yangon, Myanmar.
CNBC’s Ted Kemp walks through a food market in Yangon, Myanmar.

How can consumers discern the seafood they're buying is legal or illegal? What should they look for?

The upshot here is that they can never know 100 percent whether their seafood is legal or illegal, but it's a good idea to buy from the segments of the industry that are actually regulated. The U.S. operators are regulated much more than, say, Chinese operators, which are aggressively subsidized by their government rather than regulated.

What do you think the future holds for the seafood market? Do you think we will see any regulation changes soon?

Again, it comes back to the consumers, who can make a difference if they demand to know more about where the fish they are buying come from. People have the right to ask—after all, they are literally, physically consuming these fish. It also depends on a lot of countries putting the resources in place to rigorously protect their own waters. But that is a lot more easily said than done—Indonesia has territorial waters around more than 17,000 islands to protect, for example, and illegal operations from China are encroaching on them. I suspect that things will worsen before they get better.

Check out the Oceans of Crime Resource Page to learn how you can help.

CNBC investigates the global fishing industry, and exposes the little-known and sometimes shocking means by which seafood arrives at our grocery stores and on our dinner plates. "Oceans of Crime" premieres Saturday, February 17 at 8pm ET/PT.