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Big win for tuna fisheries nets renewed focus on human rights

© Gary Stokes

The world’s second-largest retailer just notched a major win for sustainable seafood.

Walmart will source its private-brand canned tuna from certified sustainable fisheries by next month, five years earlier than its policy commitment. Such fisheries maintain stable populations of fish while minimizing fishing impacts on the surrounding ecosystem.

In a recent interview, Conservation News spoke with Juno Fitzpatrick and Pablo Obregon, fisheries experts at Conservation International, about how preventing illegal fishing could help protect the environment — and human rights across the fishing industry. 

Question: Why is this a big deal?

Juno Fitzpatrick (JF): Seafood is the most globally traded commodity. The ocean is our core food system, and fish is the primary source of protein for three out of every seven people globally. Fishing is also an essential source of employment for millions of people. So when we buy fish from the supermarket, or order it at a restaurant, we need to be thinking about the people, as well as the places and the species, to ensure that we are making sustainable decisions and are supporting supply chains that protect the workers and support sustainable oceans. We need to be asking of our seafood, “Whose hands touched this?”

Social issues like modern slavery, forced labor and child labor have only recently been a part of the global dialogue around sustainably sourced seafood. In other sectors, including coffee and palm oil, human rights advocates have been trying to address and eradicate these types of abuses for over a decade. It is crucial for the seafood sector to catch up and address some of the biggest social issues that are occurring across industrial and small-scale fisheries — and having a major retailer make a shift to sourcing sustainable tuna is a great incentive. 

Q: What is the link between the sustainability of fisheries and the conditions for fishers?

Pablo Obregon (PO): Research has shown that fisheries associated with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing are also the ones that are more likely to have social abuses. Fortunately, some of the tools that you can use to monitor environmental abuses can also help track social risk in fisheries — the Port State Measures Agreement, for instance, is the first binding international agreement to specifically target IUU fishing, and it has also become one of the main instruments to help address social responsibility in fisheries. Electronic monitoring is another great example, which has traditionally been used to monitor bycatch in fisheries, but is increasingly being used by a number of organizations to reduce social risk in seafood supply chains.

JF: Quota restrictions and declining fish stocks in many regions of the world have led to destitute fishers and fishing communities are deprived of their livelihoods and of an important food source. Fishers are working extreme hours in unlivable conditions, at sea for extended period of time and engaging in the transshipment of fish and people, meaning they do not interact with port’s regulatory measure. At sea operations is where visibility is lowest. The need to raise visibility, transparency and accountability at sea is crucial, and that’s where that technology can play a valuable role.

Q: How do you know if a fishery or company is sustainable and socially responsible?

JF: Back in 2016, human rights and environmental organizations, along with industry leaders, co-created the Monterey Framework for Social Responsibility, which is built from a comprehensive set of existing law, policy and guidance frameworks to support three principles of socially responsible seafood. Those are to protect human rights, dignity and access to resources; to ensure equality and equitable opportunity to benefits; and to maintain and improve food and livelihood security. These principles ae applicable throughout the supply chain — that means from the businesses buying the fish, to the NGOs guiding the sustainability of the fishing practices, to the governments regulating the marine resources powering the seafood industry. 

Conservation International and other organizations, governments, companies and researchers took the principles of the Monterey Framework and developed a human rights due diligence approach to identify at-risk areas in seafood supply chains, which is aligned with the UN guiding principles on conducting human rights due diligence. As part of this, Conservation International developed a social responsibility assessment tool, which can be used to identify risks of social issues, uncover critical information gaps, identify areas in need of improvement — including treatment of fishers, safety practices, access to food and first aid, and other key rights and needs. This information enables you to design a responsive action plan to improve fisher welfare and well-being. 

Ultimately, we need to ensure that seafood is produced in a way that doesn’t compromise the basic rights of people, but rather supports their collective well-being. 

Q: What kind of improvements?

JF: Across the sector, we’re seeing a strong focus on worker voice and access to feedback tools that support workers. For example, crew must have access to equitable and right compatible grievance reporting and remediation mechanisms — responsiveness is critical for mitigating risk.

Q: How do you protect human rights in the middle of the ocean?

PO: This is where Conservation International’s work on the Jurisdictional Approach comes in, combining market- and policy-based strategies within entire national and regional jurisdictions to achieve seafood sustainability. In the Cook Islands, for example, Conservation International is collaborating with the government, the tuna seafood industry and traditional leadership groups to develop and apply rigorous standards of environmental sustainability, social responsibility and economic performance, which all tuna vessels operating within the Cook Island jurisdiction must meet. 

One of the things this approach tries to prevent is the “spottiness” of certain certification schemes, where you have sustainably certified fisheries operating within the same area as fleets engaged in IUU and socially irresponsible fishing. The key to address this problem is to work with the seafood industry on these types of market approaches, while at the same time collaborating with governments to ensure the application of rigorous environmental and social sustainability standards that fishers must abide by within a defined jurisdiction.

That includes looking at the climate change piece as well, which Conservation International and partners have shown will significantly impact Pacific Island nations by shifting and depleting tuna stocks. We’re hopeful that the jurisdictional approach in the Cook Islands can be scaled to the regional level, ensuring that all tuna fisheries within the jurisdiction of Pacific Island countries are environmentally sustainable, socially responsible and climate adaptive.


Juno Fitzpatrick is the program manager for social responsibility for Conservation International’s Center for Oceans. Pablo Obregon is a senior program manager for fisheries for Conservation International's Center for Oceans. Sophie Bertazzo is the editorial director at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Bluefin tuna (© Gary Stokes)

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