Slavery at Sea

The very dark side of the fishing industry

In 2015, investigative journalists began to shine a piercing light on seafood’s dark secret: that the multibillion-dollar industry was being fueled, at least in part, by slavery.

On fishing boats and in processing plants, men and women were forcibly held—sometimes for decades—with little or no pay. If you bought prawns at a restaurant, fish sticks at a supermarket or dog food at a pet store, it was likely you were buying the products of slave labor—the murky complexity of global seafood value chains made it almost impossible to know for sure.

“When this story broke, the businesses working with NGOs to source [their] seafood sustainably asked, ‘Why did this happen? We’ve worked together on sustainability for a decade; why didn’t we know about this?’” said Jack Kittinger, senior director of aquaculture and fisheries at Conservation International (CI), an environmental organization that is working to halt overfishing and make seafood more sustainable.

“Here’s what happened—the NGOs that work on seafood sustainability work on the environmental issues, and weren’t focused on the human dimensions of the sector,” he said. The response from the NGO community to the revelations of slave labor in the industry, Kittinger said, “wasn’t as strong as it could have been—it was reactive, not proactive.”

Kittinger put together a working group—totally unfunded—to “try to put some bounds on what ‘social responsibility’ should mean for the seafood sector,” as he put it.

The framework [this group] developed calls on governments, businesses and NGOs to take measurable steps to ensure seafood—the world’s most traded food commodity—is sourced without harm to the people involved in producing, processing and distributing it. To put the demand in perspective: By 2030, the oceans will need to supply approximately 230 million metric tons of seafood to meet the demands of a growing population. That’s nearly 100 million metric tons more than we consumed less than a decade ago, with a potential global shortfall of 62 million metric tons if fisheries and aquaculture are not managed more sustainably.

The framework goes beyond human rights violations to incorporate basic social needs that people in the seafood sector have been lacking: access to resources and markets, food security, fair pay and dignified treatment.


Sophie Bertazzo

Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor at Conservation International, where a longer version of this article first appeared.

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