Conservation & Science

Shining a light on seafood slavery

Imagine you’re a young father, from Myanmar, who has come to Thailand to find work as a fisherman and support your family. Once aboard ship, your time at sea stretches to weeks, months, or even a year. You find yourself working 20 hours a day, at one of the world’s most dangerous occupations. You sleep in unsanitary quarters, and are subject to violence and intimidation.

The risk tool can help businesses engage with suppliers to eliminate slavery from their supply chains.

But your biggest surprise occurs when the boat finally docks: You are kept in locked quarters, and not allowed to come ashore. The captain has taken your passport and keeps much of your wages.

Seafood slavery is real, and occurring in many parts of the globe. And the byproducts of this underworld economy—shrimp, crab, snapper and other popular seafood items—can make their way to dinner tables in the United States.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program wants to help businesses keep slavery out of their seafood supply, and improve conditions for people who are—literally—slaving to produce the world’s seafood. In coordination with Liberty Asia and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, it just released an online tool so major seafood buyers—retailers, foodservice companies and restaurant chains—can identify the risk of forced labor, human trafficking or hazardous child labor in the seafood they purchase.

Groundbreaking exposés

Human rights abuses in fishing have been around as long as fishing itself—perhaps for thousands of years—but came into striking focus in 2015, when multiple reports from the Associated PressThe New York Times and The Guardian chronicled the scope of the problem.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press series found that even seafood landed in Hawaii was being caught by crews of slaves. Photo by Associated Press

“When these articles came out, our business partners said, ‘We look to you as experts in sustainability—where do we begin?’” says Dr. Sara McDonald, Seafood Watch senior fisheries scientist. “So we partnered with other organizations that had received similar requests and started working on a tool to assess egregious human trafficking, forced labor and hazardous child labor.”

“Understanding the environmental impact of fishing and aquaculture is key to seafood sustainability,” says Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard. “The working conditions of the people who produce our seafood are equally important. The new risk tool gives major businesses insight into the possibility of human rights abuses in their supply chain, so they can work with suppliers to correct problems, toward the goal of achieving a seafood supply that’s sustainable for both the ocean and the people whose livelihoods depend on fishing and seafood processing jobs.”

Sara notes that, “It’s not just a Southeast Asia problem. The fishing industry employs a lot of migrant workers everywhere.”

The new risk tool identifies scallops fished in United Kingdom waters are at risk of slavery. Photo by The Guardian

She points to reports of slavery in the U.K. scallop industry and the Hawaii longline fishery. New Zealand has recently taken steps to combat slavery on foreign vessels in its waters.

Some countries have enacted laws to help ensure workers’ rights—but these are only applicable within their Exclusive Economic Zones, or EEZs, extending 200 miles to sea. Anything beyond that is considered the “high seas,” where vessels must only abide by the flag of the home country to which they are registered. Consequently, ships may adopt a so-called “flag of convenience.”

“The boat will register with a country where there are few laws that apply to fishing, vessel operation, human rights, sustainability or pollution,” says Sara. “It’s like the Wild West.”

Exposing a dark economy

Duncan Jepson is a former banker and expert on white-collar crime, who once worked to expose the shady financing of Osama bin Laden. As founder of human rights organization Liberty Asia, he’s approaching seafood slavery the same way: follow the money.

The new Seafood Slavery Risk Tool is designed to supply businesses with information so they can engage with suppliers and mitigate human rights abuses in their supply chains.

“The leverage we’re using is money laundering,” Duncan says. “If you take young kids and stick them on a boat, where they are forced to catch fish, crimes are committed. Therefore, the money that comes from selling the fish off that boat is money laundering. So for a bank, they would be transacting the proceeds of crime. And they don’t want to do business that attracts this kind of attention.”

“If our tool can provide information to the banks, what they start to do is put pressure on the boats. Then we’ll start to see movement in the right direction. You’re exposing these practices, which causes them to make decisions differently.”

Boycotts aren’t the answer

 The Seafood Slavery Risk Tool gathers information from international bodies like the United Nations and the International Labour Organization, federal government reports, credible media articles, and peer-reviewed publications.

The key to ending slavery is business engagement with seafood producers. Boycotts run the risk of driving illegal practices further underground. Photo © Eleanor Partridge/Marine Photobank

Businesses get free access to the risk tool, and can search by species name, country or risk rating, to get a risk summary for each fishery: critical, high, moderate or low.

It might seem natural to boycott fisheries implicated in slavery. But boycotts can end up making the lives of fisheries workers worse, not better.

 “There is a very real risk that if consumers and buyers start avoiding those products, it can drive the problem further underground, putting people on those vessels in a worse position,” says Sara. “It’s important to keep this issue in the sunshine.”

No one expects change to happen overnight. But thanks to increased awareness, media exposure, and the information available in risk tool, the process has begun.

“We’re taking a really important first step,” Sara says. “A few years ago, there was little or no awareness of the problem. Now we have a starting point for businesses to take action.”

— Geoff Drake

Learn more about the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s global work to support sustainable fisheries and aquaculture.

2 thoughts on “Shining a light on seafood slavery”

  1. This is a real concern. There are is so much to be done to understand the extent of slavery and abuse in global trade, that we are all a part of. Excellent article!


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