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Afton resident wins Pulitzer for reporting of Southeast Asian fishing industry with AP

Afton resident Robin McDowell won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this spring in public service for her worked on an Associated Press series that exposed the use of slaves in the Southeast Asia fishing industry. (RiverTown Multimedia photo by Amber Kispert-Smith)

Afton resident Robin McDowell has spent her career traveling around the world as a reporter for the Associated Press.

McDowell’s career has taken her to such countries at Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and most recently Indonesia.

“There’s no shortage of stories that’s for sure,” McDowell said. “There are so many stories that are important to tell.”

One such story took McDowell 18 months to tell.

The “Seafood from Slaves” series, written by McDowell and three other AP reporters, exposed the use of slave labor by the fishing industry in Southeast Asia.

Not only did the series result in the freeing of more than 2,000 fishing slaves in Indonesia, but it also resulted in a Pulitzer Prize for McDowell and her colleagues.

McDowell, Esther Htusan, Margie Mason and Martha Mendoza received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service earlier this spring for the series.

“It’s still kind of hard to believe,” McDowell said of the award. “But it helps the cause in a way because it puts a bigger spotlight on the issue.

“Plus, it’ll help me when I’m working on other stories because it’ll be a lot easier when people know that I’m not going to mess it up.”

Exposing the fishing industry

McDowell had worked for the AP for nearly 20 years when she moved to Myanmar to work at the news bureau in the country.

She and one of her colleagues had just finished a story and were looking for their next project and “I always care about the human rights stories,” McDowell said.

Eventually, McDowell and her coworker began discussing the fishing industry in Southeast Asia and the rumors of men being kidnapped and forced into slavery on fishing boats.

“Everyone kind of already knew that the men on these Thai fishing boats were abused, it’s kind of like how you know that most prostitutes were probably trafficked,” McDowell said. “It’s just one of those common knowledge kind of things, but because this stuff was happening on a boat far from anyone’s eyes, all you really hear are from people who have escaped.”

After some discussions, McDowell and her colleagues decided to go forward with the story, however they wanted it to have an impact internationally.

“We knew we wanted to do the seafood issue, but the question became how could we make people care since this had been going on for so long,” McDowell said. “So we decided to tie it to the American dinner table.”

The AP reporters definitely had their work cut out for them, though, because not only did they have to get to the island of Benjina, where the slaves were being kept in cages, but they also had to find a way to prove that the slave-caught fish were in fact making their way to the U.S.

“You know it’s happening, but because the boats are at sea, it’s not like following a tennis shoe,” McDowell said. “When the boats come in, you don’t know what fish are coming from what boats, all the slave-caught fish are getting mixed with the clean fish.

“Everyone told us it was like going after the Holy Grail.”

The key to the story, McDowell said, was going to the source.

“We have to find someone on a boat and then we need to follow that fish,” she said.

Over the course of a week or so, McDowell and her colleagues spent time on Benjina interviewing, photographing and videotaping the slaves about their conditions.

“They risked their lives to speak to us,” McDowell said. “It was like they thought they were dead already, nothing could be as bad as what had already happened to them.

“The captains cared much more about the fish than they did about the workers.”

Many of the men had been away from their families for more than a decade and were assumed dead.

“I’ve covered a lot of horrible things, a lot of really tragic things,” McDowell said, “but this struck me the hardest because it’s a real heartbreaking thing – it felt like we had a responsibility to help these guys.”

Also, McDowell and her fellow reporters staked out in order to log names of ships loaded with tainted seafood in addition to following the boats as the seafood was transported.

In the end, the “Seafood from Slaves” series featured around six primary stories in addition to several other smaller, follow-up stories.

Making an impact

Not only did the “Seafood from Slaves” series result in the freeing of nearly 2,000 men, but it also led to the arrests of a dozen people and the seizure of ships.

“When you’re a journalist your goal is to have your stories do something and if they do achieve anything, it’s usually a small piece of a big puzzle,” McDowell said, “but this one was so immediate.”

Additionally, it led to the introduction of legislation in U.S. Congress to create greater transparency from food suppliers.

Even though seeing men freed was very gratifying for McDowell, she said, there are still thousands of men enslaved aboard those ships.

“It was really amazing, but at the same time the goal was never to free 2,000 guys, the goal was to change the industry,” she said. “At least now we’ve put pressure on the Thai government to change and we raised more awareness about the issue.”

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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