A Fairer Catch

Dhini Purnamasari advocates for human rights at the Women in the Law of the Sea Conference

Dhini Purnamasari’s journey to the Women in the Law of the Sea Conference began with spoiled food.

Prior to enrolling in the MALD program, Purnamasari F23 worked for shipping companies in Singapore, where she became acquainted with working conditions aboard commercial vessels. 

“I was concerned with the wellbeing of the seafarers. I went on board to visit the captain of one of the ships that we managed and saw that they had expired food in the galley,” says Purnamasari. While maritime labor conventions had improved such issues aboard merchant vessels, fishing boats lagged behind. Purnamasari attributes this to the industry’s reluctance to increase labor costs.

Once she enrolled at Fletcher, she found an opportunity in Professor Jette Knudsen’s “Work and Employment Relations in the 21st Century” class. For her final paper, she researched working conditions on fishing vessels in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone as well as in the high seas.  

“I found so many harrowing stories about workers’ rights violations, unpaid wages, violence happening aboard fishing boats. People who work on fishing boats are often forgotten; the boats are out of sight and out of mind. I felt I needed to bring more attention to this issue.”

Professor Knudsen’s class provided fundamental framework for Purnamasari to analyze workers’ relations within global supply chains. She found striking evidence of forced labor. As overfishing has depleted supply, boats travel farther and remain at sea longer—nine months to a year—to cover their operational costs. With smaller boats shuttling their catch to port, workers are unable to contact help.

“There’s a certain lawlessness to the high seas; nobody cares to check what’s going on there,” says Purnamasari.

After completing her paper, she learned about the International Seabed Authority’s conference from a contact in Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Using her final paper from Knudsen’s class, she drafted a proposal. For additional support, she turned to Professor Rocky Weitz, whose global maritime affairs course she’d recently taken, and the two connected over the summer, half the world away from each other. Two months later, an organizer from the ISA contacted her to share that she’d been shortlisted.

In September, she presented her research at the conference, held at the Permanent Mission of Singapore to the UN and the UN Headquarters in New York. Purnamasari joined a global assembly of women legal experts and practitioners in the law of the sea and ocean affairs.

“I was just amazed by the depth of knowledge that these women had,” says Purnamasari. Sessions were technical and interdisciplinary, from measuring the concavity of bays to studying women’s representation in maritime industries. As the conference convened to celebrate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Purnamasari’s paper was particularly relevant. Her goal in presenting was to demonstrate how this convention has not protected migrant workers and to advocate for more transparency in our supply chains.

“I wanted to bring this issue to the attention of people from other countries. Most seafood goes to developed countries. We in America cannot reliably track where our fish is coming from. We can regulate ship owners and ask them to provide decent wages and working conditions, and because there is a supply and demand component, my hope is that consumers of fish in developed countries understand that we cannot expect good and cheap seafood at the same time.”

“Visibility of the supply chain will be very helpful,” she adds, “but I know from a regulation perspective and a law of the sea perspective, it can’t solve everything. We need help from technology to track the flow of seafood and improve the transparency of the supply chain.”

Purnamasari remains hopeful that alongside certifications of seafood and international agreements—like fish stock agreements brokered across Asia—technology can ameliorate these issues. The Global Fishing Watch gathers and shares automatic identification systems data from vessels to track the locations of fishing boats. Law enforcement can use the data to track boats’ registration and apprehend illegal actors.

The conference itself was a wonderful networking experience; participants traveled to New York from all around the world. And for Purnamasari, it was particularly poignant. “Before coming to Fletcher, I took a career break,” she says. “I was a stay-at-home mom for three years. This has been a nice opportunity for me to get back to the field I’m passionate about.” Looking ahead, conference organizers are planning a book of peer-reviewed conference articles, to be published in early 2023.

After MALD, Purnamasari plans to work as a policy analyst, using her degree to return to an industry she cares about and fight for the rights of fishers and seafarers.

Read more about Fletcher's MALD degree program.