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A sea change for seafood?

Journalists uncovered slavery in the seafood industry. A team of researchers, experts and others have a plan to stop it.

© Chaiwat Subprasom/REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo

By Sophie Bertazzo
June 1, 2017

The headlines were devastating:

Global supermarkets selling shrimp peeled by slaves.

Nestle confirms labor abuse among its Thai suppliers.

‘Sea slaves’: The human misery that feeds pets and livestock.

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.

How one woman rescued 3,000 workers enslaved in the seafood industry: Read Patima’s story here »

Two investigative series — one of which won a Pulitzer Prize — set off an avalanche of blame: at the big-name grocers unwittingly selling these products, at the governments ignorant of the abuses or hamstrung from doing much about them, at the environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that didn’t glimpse violations within the very industry they were trying to make sustainable.

For a while, nothing happened.

Meet Jack

“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, 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.”

Shortly after the stories broke, Kittinger attended a key meeting of the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, an umbrella group of organizations including Conservation International that work on seafood sustainability. Though the news reports dominated discussions at the gathering, there was little consensus on how the NGOs should address the revelations, if at all.

Kittinger, Conservation International’s representative at the Alliance, spoke up.

Jack Kittinger, senior director of fisheries and aquaculture at Conservation International.
© Logan Mock-Bunting

Jack Kittinger, senior director of fisheries and aquaculture at Conservation International, has been the driving force behind the framework for social responsibility in the seafood sector.

“I said, ‘It’s really great that our community is embedding human well-being in this movement, but we’re doing this in a far too reactive way. We’re responding to the issue of the day, which is slavery and human rights violations. And while those might be the most egregious things on the planet, they’re not the only social risks in the sector.’

The one thing that fishers need to be sustainable — from someone who knows: Read Hoyt's story here »

“And the reaction I got from my colleagues in the NGO community was mixed: The majority said, ‘Jack, we’re environmental organizations, not human rights organizations. We deal with sustainability from the environmental perspective.’ 

“But a handful said, ‘Count us in. We’ve been operating like this, across the value chain, for decades. This is how it should be.’”

Some business leaders took an interest as well. That was enough for Kittinger to take action.

30 Experts, 20 organizations, 1 year

Bolstered by the interest of a few peers, 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. Assembled from more than 30 members of the environmental NGO sector, social responsibility NGOs, leading academics and business leaders, it took the group a year to agree on the key elements of social responsibility that should go into the document. The writing itself, Kittinger said, “was relatively short.”

The framework they 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 — 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.

Though the seafood industry has spent decades working to improve environmental sustainability, the framework is the first time a global coalition has convened to put social issues such as human rights at the forefront. When the coalition of partners that developed the framework presents it at the U.N. Ocean Conference, it will be the first coordinated global effort to address human rights violations in the fishing industry.

Migrant fishers cleaning and repairing fishing nets on a boat in Thailand.
© Nathan Bennett (nathanbennett.ca)

Migrant fishers cleaning and repairing fishing nets on a boat in Thailand.

The idea to elevate the framework at the U.N. Ocean Conference in New York and the Seafood Summit in Seattle, both in June, was part of a conscious effort by Kittinger’s team to assure its uptake by the very parties tasked with enacting it.

How bombshell news reports caused tidal shift for seafood NGOs: Read Jennifer's story here »

“We knew these events provided the global stage we needed, that was how we could get these concentric circles that would bring the ideals of social responsibility and seafood sustainability into the public mind, into government policies, into businesses. By elevating the issue at both the Ocean Conference and the Seafood Summit, we can secure further commitments from the stakeholders that can have the greatest impact.”

And while some working group documents never see the light of day, Kittinger’s team had bigger hopes for their work — to publish it in the prestigious journal Science. In the year since the group began its work, though, the landscape changed.

“Right about the time we finished writing that and were ready to submit it to Science, we had another annual meeting of the Alliance. And to my big surprise, in that year, there was a lot of enthusiasm for convening around these issues. Partially because we had involved some major thought leaders in the initiative, but also because the situation had changed — people realized that there had been a complete sea change in terms of this issue, and you either had to recognize that and help address these injustices, or you had to move on.”

Taking the framework global

The framework, published today in Science, offers concrete recommendations to businesses, governments and NGOs to ensure that social responsibility is enforced at every level, 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. What the framework doesn’t do is explain how to take those recommendations and implement them in the real world.

To address this, the framework’s authors identified three “next steps” to protect voiceless fishers:

  • Establish best practices for businesses to incorporate social responsibility in all aspects of their operations.
  • Drive commitment from governments to the framework throughout seafood industry regulations.
  • Work with seafood ratings and certification groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council to incorporate these social responsibility elements into their standards and performance ratings.

Turning these steps into action requires coordination and partnerships, or it won’t work, says Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly of Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, where the workshop was held — fittingly, in a former sardine cannery — to finalize the framework.

“Partnerships are what really takes you the full way,” she said. “The beauty of these partnerships is that you can first find the risk of human rights abuses in fisheries using a tool like the one developed by the Aquarium, Seafish UK and Sustainable Fisheries partnership, and then — crucially — you can route that information to partners on the ground to deal with the findings.”

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, dignified treatment.

Returning home: Enslaved workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos disembark a ship after being rescued as part of LPN's operation in Indonesia.
© Sittichai Jittatad/Labour Rights Promotion Network

Returning home: Enslaved workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos disembark a ship after being rescued as part of LPN’s operation in Indonesia.

For the factory worker spending 16 hours a day with her hands in ice water peeling shrimp, the framework could have a much more immediate impact: freedom from slavery.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer at Conservation International.

Top image: Migrant workers at a shrimp factory in Samut Sakhon on the outskirts of Bangkok. Human rights groups say thousands of children and illegal Myanmar migrants are working in Thailand’s $2 billion-a-year shrimp export industry, often in conditions little short of modern-day slavery. Industry officials deny the allegations.

Read other stories in this series