What's for Dinner? Labor Risks in the Seafood Supply Chain.

Credit: NOAA Fisheries; https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/international/international-affairs/forced-labor-and-seafood-supply-chain

After a season of delicious holiday meals, it is good to consider how our food arrived at our tables. At NRDC, we work to ensure that the food we eat—including seafood—is sustainably and ethically produced.

One of our goals in cleaning up the seafood supply chain is eliminating forced labor and human rights abuses from seafood production. We’ve previously blogged about the horrible conditions that fishermen and fish processors have endured here and here. A key step in improving these conditions is ensuring that government agencies and the public have full information about where such issues arise and the actors responsible for enabling forced labor and human rights abuses.   

To advance that goal, we recently filed a letter with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), advocating for the agency to fulfill its responsibilities under the Maritime Security and Fisheries Enforcement Act (Maritime SAFE). The Act creates mechanisms to fight illegal fishing and associated labor and human rights violations, including requiring NOAA and the State Department to produce a report identifying countries with human trafficking and forced labor risks in their seafood supply chains.

Risks in the Seafood Supply Chain

The seafood supply chain is notoriously complex and abuses can occur at all points of the supply chain. Fully disclosing supply chain risks requires taking a critical look at all links in the supply chain. Our letter highlights the points at which such risks can arise, the countries enabling poor working conditions, and ways that government agencies can curb labor and human rights abuses.

Many workers are recruited from developing nations like Cambodia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, lured by the promise of well-paying jobs. Sadly, the jobs may not be as lucrative as promised, and workers can be required to pay excessive recruitment fees or forced into heavy debt to the recruitment agency, keeping them trapped in their jobs, a system known as “debt bondage.” Workers can also be trafficked onto fishing vessels, locked into working conditions they did not consent to.  

Workers often suffer many abuses when they are onboard fishing vessels, where they are cut off from easy communication with the outside world and subject to the will of ship captains. Reports by the Environmental Justice Foundation, Greenpeace, as well as journalists from the Associated Press and New York Times, have covered in sad and sobering detail the murders, physical and psychological abuse, withholding of pay or food, denial of medical care, and many other injustices that have been forced on workers.

Labor abuses also occur at fish processing plants—which could be in countries other than those where fish are caught or where a vessel’s owners are headquartered. Some of the workers in these plants – such as shrimp processing plants in Bangladesh—are children, who are made to work in squalid conditions and denied access to education.

Seafood is often transferred from the fishing vessel to a refrigerated cargo vessel—a practice known as transshipment—allowing vessels to remain at sea for months, or even years, at a time. Transshipment can exacerbate worker abuses—stuck on boats for months, or even years at a time, workers cannot leave a hostile work environment, and cannot seek social or legal services. 

Ship owners also take advantage of legal loopholes to reduce regulatory oversight. Vessels can sail under “flags of convenience,” from countries with lax regulatory regimes, like Panama, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu, enabling vessels to evade fishing and trade restrictions, as well as perpetuate labor abuses onboard. Seafood can be caught in state waters or on the high seas, outside the jurisdiction of any individual state. Loopholes in labor laws in developed regions—such as the United States and European Union—leave foreign fishermen without as many protections as domestic workers and vulnerable to greater exploitation.

Steps to Address These Risks

As we note in our letter, there are various steps we can take in the United States to help address these problems:

  1. Strengthen and Expand the Seafood Import Monitoring Program – As my colleague Sandy Aylesworth has blogged about, the U.S.’ Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) is an important tool in identifying illegally-fished seafood. Promoting transparency and traceability in the seafood supply chain allows government agencies and ultimately consumers to understand where their seafood comes from, how it was harvested, and whether it was caught sustainably. Yet, the program could be more robustly implemented, including by: expanding the program to cover all seafood species; requiring importers to report key data elements, such as vessels’ unique identifiers and whether seafood was transshipped; adding new requirements to report on labor conditions onboard; and enhancing automated screening of the data collected under SIMP.
  2. Strong Implementation of the Port State Measures Agreement – Ports are key intervention points for intercepting suspicious shipments and strong port controls are crucial for blocking illegal shipments and tracking the perpetrators of illegal fishing and forced labor violations. One vehicle for improving U.S. port controls is the upcoming rulemaking implementing the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (Port State Measures Agreement). This rulemaking will, among other things, require vessels docking at U.S. ports to provide information about their cargoes and establish a system for inspecting such vessels. In moving forward with this rulemaking, NOAA should: interpret “IUU fishing” to include forced labor and human rights violations and require landing vessels to provide information about labor conditions onboard a vessel.
  3. Fully Deploying U.S. Authority to Stop Illicit Shipments and Penalize Bad Actors – As we explain in detail in our letter, various statutes – the Tariff Act, Lacey Act, and Magnuson-Stevens Act – provide the U.S. with authority to block the shipment of illegally fished seafood and seafood produced with forced labor, as well as to penalize the actors responsible for such imports. Yet, to date, these authorities have been underutilized and government agencies can more vigorously enforce these statutes.
  4. Improving Interagency Coordination and Enhancing Agency Capacity – Various federal and state agencies are responsible for screening imported goods, illuminating unethical practices in supply chains, and tracking down and prosecuting bad actors. Ensuring that federal agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, NOAA, the State Department, and the Department of Labor share pertinent information and coordinate fully is crucial. It is also important to ensure that state agencies have access to information and the resources necessary to effectively execute their law enforcement obligations.

There is growing awareness about illegal fishing and accompanying labor abuses and human rights violations, as well as increasing interest from government agencies and stakeholders in fighting these problems. Consequently, this is an important opportunity to ensure more transparency about the drivers of these problems and to advance regulatory measures in the United States to curb these practices.