Conservation & Science

Scientists seek global commitment to end human rights abuses in seafood trade

As the first United Nations Ocean Conference prepares to open next week in New York, a new research paper calls on marine scientists around the world to focus on social issues such as human rights violations in the seafood industry. The initiative is the first integrated approach to meeting this global challenge and includes an official commitment to social responsibility in global fisheries and aquaculture that will be unveiled both at the U.N. Ocean Conference and at the Seafood Summit in Seattle.

Reports by the Associated Press and other media outlets detailed problems with slavery in seafood production. Credit: Associated Press/Gemunu Amarasinghe

Both the paper and the commitment are the result of a yearlong collaboration initiated by Conservation International, finalized earlier this year in Monterey when Monterey Bay Aquarium convened key seafood and human rights NGOs. Their discussions of human trafficking, forced labor, fair wages, working conditions and basic human rights led to a new vision of social responsibility in the seafood sector. The resulting “Monterey Framework” establishes an agenda to change current practices in ways that benefit workers and the environment.

An enslaved Burmese fisherman, whose story was told in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series from the Associated Press. Credit: Associated Press/Dita Alangkara

The social responsibility article, published on June 1 in the journal Science, is in direct response to investigative reports by the Associated Press, the Guardian, the New York Times and other media outlets that uncovered glaring human rights violations on fishing vessels. The investigations tracked the widespread use of slave labor in Southeast Asia and its role in bringing seafood to American restaurants and supermarkets, and chronicled the plight of fishermen tricked and trapped into working 22-hour days, often without pay and while enduring abuse.

Subsequent investigations have documented the global extent of these abuses in a wide array of countries.

“The scientific community has not kept pace with concerns for social issues in the seafood sector,” says Jack Kittinger, senior director of global fisheries and aquaculture for Conservation International. “The purpose of this initiative is to ensure that governments, businesses, and nonprofits are working together to improve human rights, equality and food and livelihood security. This is a holistic and comprehensive approach that establishes a global standard to address these social challenges.”

Shrimp are left on an abandoned peeling table after a raid in Thailand connected with seafood slavery investigations. Credit: Associated Press/Dita Alangkara

As part of the initiative, Conservation International, in collaboration with the Aquarium and other partners, has organized a voluntary commitment, calling on governments, NGOs, businesses and other organizations to improve social responsibility in the seafood sector.

The paper identifies three key principles that together establish a global standard for social responsibility in the seafood sector:  protecting human rights, dignity and respecting access to resources; ensuring equality and equitable opportunities to benefit; and improving food and livelihood security.

Seafood is the world’s most internationally traded food commodity. By 2030, the ocean will need to supply more than 150 million metric tons of seafood to meet the demands of a growing human population. The paper calls on governments, businesses and the scientific community to take measurable steps to ensure seafood is sourced without harm to the environment and people that work in the seafood industry.

Learn more about Monterey Bay Aquarium’s work on seafood and social justice.

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