Seafood is one of the largest global exports, generating $135 billion in revenue each year. It is the major source of livelihoods for millions around the world; providing employment for one in ten people globally and supplying 17 percent of the global protein consumed. Despite the industry’s ability to provide for such a large number of the global population, in many cases it has done so at the mercy of vulnerable societies and unprotected marine environments.
Labour and human rights abuse is an industry wide problem. In 2015, the Associated Press brought light to the dark side of the Thai shrimp industry; tracking and following modern day slaves who produce and process shrimp that is consumed all over the world. The AP states that as many as 60% of the Burmese labourers working in the seafood processing industry are victims of forced labour. While the emphasis often lands on the Thai shrimp sector, the problem spans across the industry and into different countries in Southeast Asia in Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines; on ships, aquaculture farms and processing facilities.
Concurrently, poor labour standards within the seafood sector go hand in hand with a lack of environmental protection. A study from the University of California, Berkley found that it is more common to find cases of labour issues in areas with ecological and wildlife damage, such as the use of child labour. While there are a growing number of initiatives and certification schemes that strive to not only protect the future of fish stocks but also the natural environments in which seafood is caught and farmed, it is currently still not enough to keep our oceans from severe environmental degradation and fisheries collapse. Today’s fish stocks are under extreme pressure, with 29 percent classified as overfished and another 61 percent classified as fully exploited with the inability to produce greater harvests.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing accounts for a significant portion of seafood exports (between 11 and 26 million metric tons of fish, or 15 percent of global catch each year as estimated by the European Union); hiding modern day slavery, dismantling efforts of meaningful fisheries managements and stock counts, and even impacting the economies which rely on seafood (as the value of illegal landings is roughly between USD 9.4 and USD 22.3 billion). In the Asia Pacific region Thailand, Taiwan and most recently Vietnam have all been issued yellow cards in not doing enough to tackle IUU fishing in their countries.
What this all means is that with global demand growing yet stocks depleting, it is becoming harder and costlier to haul in catches. With labour the second highest expense of seafood (after fuel), inexpensive labour is one way for companies to keep costs down - a major contributor to the use of modern day slavery (Environmental Justice Foundation). Never before has there been a more important time for consumers and companies to start making commitments towards sustainable seafood.
How to drive change as a smart consumer:
- Start asking questions: Ask the fish monger in your supermarket, chef at the restaurants you eat at, and anyone else who you buy your seafood from: Where is it from, is it certified to a third-party standard, is it traceable and how was it caught or farmed? Asking these questions starts the chain in communication in letting your seafood providers know that there is a consumer demand for sustainable seafood and that it is worth investing in.
- Make sustainable choices: Look for credible eco-labels such as MSC or ASC, consult a sustainable seafood guide such as WWF’s Sustainable Seafood Guide or Monterey Bay Aquarium Consumer Guide and buy your seafood from retailers and restaurants who commit to sourcing responsibly.
How businesses can drive change:
- Set commitments to sourcing responsibly: Whether you are a supplier, retailer or restaurant operation, if this has not yet been done, it is one of the first steps in setting an actionable plan to improving the responsibility of the seafood that your company sells.
- Invest in growing the number of sustainable options: This can be through a number of ways including investing in Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs) or Aquaculture Improvement Projects (AIPs).
- Auditing: Do not be afraid to look deeper into your supply chain and start asking the same questions of suppliers that consumers may be asking to you: Where is it from, is it certified to a third-party standard, is it traceable and how was it caught or farmed? If retailers and other sellers of seafood are not looking deeper and asking these questions, they too may be accomplice in human rights abuses and environmental degradation.
- Invest in traceability: Knowing the details from origin to point of sale and the movements in between can eliminate the risk in your supply chain, reduce seafood fraud and verify sustainability.
- Educate your consumers: While a strong public awareness campaign against shark fin has helped major hotel groups and restaurants to remove this species from their menus, the same campaigns are not present for other vulnerable species such as Bluefin tuna and eel. By educating your consumers, it will become easier to remove such items from your menu and store shelves.
While achieving a sustainable seafood supply chain may seem like a large and impossible task, it starts with small changes which help to identify the areas in which you as an individual or as a company representative can make an impact.
Associated Press: Seafood from Slaves.
Environmental Justice Foundation: Pirates and Slaves.
Huffington Post: Demand for Cheap Seafood Drives Modern-Day Slavery.
State of Sustainability Initiatives: Standards and the Blue Economy.
WWF: Living Blue Planet Report.
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