This New Tool Exposes Seafood Slavery and Abuse

by Peter Hanlon

Published: 2/06/18, Last updated: 9/10/19

Slavery and other human rights abuses in the international fishing industry have been the subject of many moving newspaper series and investigative reports in recent years, not to mention federal lawmaking. Given that 80 percent of America’s seafood is imported, the disturbing reality is that at least some of the fish we eat made its way to our plates via the effort of people experiencing horrific labor conditions. While there are plenty of tools to help seafood lovers purchase sustainably caught fish from healthy stocks, finding reliable information on worker exploitation in the seafood supply chain has been difficult.

Last week, to help fill this information gap, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program — creator of the popular consumer guides to finding sustainable seafood — released the new Seafood Slavery Risk Tool.

A Seafood Slavery Database

Like the seafood guides created by Seafood Watch and other organizations, the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool was created to bring more transparency to the notoriously murky world of international commercial fisheries. However, there are some key differences between the Slavery Risk Tool and these other seafood guides.

First, instead of focusing on a consumer audience, the Slavery Risk Tool is intended for retailers and corporate seafood buyers to help them identify fisheries where there is a high risk of human trafficking, forced labor and child labor occurring. Second, the tool doesn’t make specific recommendations like Seafood Watch’s guides do. Instead, it provides information that retailers can use to assess the risk of human rights abuses happening in certain fisheries. Seafood buyers can then pressure suppliers to correct labor abuses in their supply chains.

This leads to the third and most important difference: The information gathered by the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool is not intended to encourage boycotts of certain fisheries. In fact, such a strategy could backfire if the goal is to improve conditions for those suffering from labor abuses. As Sara McDonald, the project manager for the Slavery Risk Tool, said in a recent interview: “If you boycott or avoid or stop purchasing, it drives [abuse] underground. Every human rights expert we talked with says you can’t boycott, you have to keep it out in the sunshine. That’s the only way to make a difference.”

How Consumers Can Improve the Seafood Supply Chain

The 18 profiles currently available through the database rate fisheries as critical, high, moderate or low risk for the occurrence of human rights abuses. Working with Liberty Asia, which aims to prevent human trafficking, and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, a nonprofit working to improve the global seafood supply chain, the Slavery Risk Tool bases its ratings on an analysis of credible sources, including investigative journalism, government reports and academic research.

By combining the Slavery Risk Tool’s data with the Seafood Watch’s sustainability recommendations, consumers and retailers are now armed with plenty of helpful information when considering what seafood to buy.

While the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain said that they will use the tool in its seafood buying decisions, so far it seems few other companies are eager to publicly connect their products with possible slavery and other human rights abuses. This presents an opportunity for consumers to pressure retailers to be more transparent and use the Slavery Risk Tool to evaluate their suppliers. When it comes to consumers buying seafood themselves, we can continue to make decisions based on sustainability guides and use the Slavery Risk Tool to advocate for change.

The Seafood Slavery Risk Tool sheds light into a dark corner of the seafood supply chain, and for the first time provides consumers and activists with the information necessary to pressure restaurants and retailers to combat human rights abuses on the high seas.

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