ROME — The rights of people working in the fishing industry need to be fully guaranteed and protected, and the living conditions for them and their families must be improved, said Cardinal Peter Turkson.

“The time for talking is over. It is time to act!” he said in a written message for World Fisheries Day, which is celebrated Nov. 21 and designed to draw attention to the importance of sustainable fisheries.

“Billions of people rely on fish for protein and fishing is the principal livelihood for millions of people around the world,” he said in the message, released Nov. 20 by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

In the message, Turkson, the dicastery’s prefect, said fisheries employ nearly 60 million people, half of whom are women; 85 percent of the world’s total fisheries workforce comes from Asia.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a collapse in the demand for fish and related products, and a lowering of prices, he said.

“Working conditions and the safety of the fishers at sea have been affected by the closure of fishing ports due to the pandemic and the impossibility of making crew changes. Additionally, the lack of personal protective equipment has increased the risk of transmitting the virus,” he said.

They have also learned of cases where several crew members were “quickly buried at sea by their worried companions” after developing COVID-19 and not getting needed medical assistance, he said. “Often the families know nothing about the fate of their loved one.”

However, he said, there are chronic problems in the industry, which make the challenges caused by the pandemic “pale” in comparison.

These include the problem of overfishing and illegal and unreported fishing by powerful and well-resourced fleets that disregard international and national laws and regulations, he said.

“The problems of forced labor and human trafficking have always bedeviled the fisheries sector and remain particularly serious,” the cardinal wrote.

People displaced by poverty and unemployment made worse by the pandemic “are prone to being cheated and compelled by brokers and recruitment agencies to work onboard vessels under the threat of force or by means of debt bondage,” he added.

The cardinal appealed to all Catholics “for a greater solidarity with the most marginalized” through concrete care and service.

“Yet again, we raise our voice to call for a renewed effort from international organizations and governments to strengthen their commitment to implement legislation to improve the living and working conditions of fishers and their families and to toughen their fight against forced labor and human trafficking,” he said.