April 4, 2017 — In 2015, media investigations revealed horrific occurrences of physical and emotional violence, human trafficking, and murder on fishing vessels and in shrimp processing facilities primarily in Southeast Asia. The stories sent shockwaves through the seafood industry, but despite efforts by several companies to combat these abuses, seafood slavery persists and will continue to erode consumer trust without a more comprehensive response. At a moment when many U.S. policymakers and ordinary citizens are voicing skepticism over U.S. participation in a globalized economy, now is the time for the international seafood industry to take robust and unified steps toward a transparent and traceable seafood supply chain.
The U.S. Department of State has identified seafood-related human trafficking in more than 65 countries over the past half-decade, many of which supply seafood to the United States, including major exporters such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The paths by which seafood from these countries enters the United States is complex and often opaque. There are numerous points along supply chains at which fish caught or processed using forced labor are mixed with responsibly caught fish—some occurring even before the fish first hit dry land. For example, vessels will often offload their catch onto a supply ship in exchange for provisions and fuel, where it commingles with fish from other vessels. This practice, known as transshipment at sea, allows fishing boats to stay offshore for months—or even years—at a time, keeping laborers from escaping from what amount to floating prisons.
The international seafood supply chain is composed of tens of millions of people moving 158 million metric tons of fish and shellfish annually. This complexity alone poses a serious obstacle to eliminating slave-caught seafood from the U.S. market. The solution is not as straightforward as simply refusing to buy fish from boats with slaves on board. And yet, despite the complicated nature of the problem, the industry must address these abuses. The United States is the second-largest seafood importer after the European Union, and U.S. importers and retailers have a crucial role to play in the global fight against trafficking in persons and other labor abuses.