Today, Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) joined together to urge President Obama to use his full scope of power to address human rights abuse in the seafood supply chain. At the same time, the Presidential Task Force to Combat Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud is developing a rule to increase transparency in the seafood supply chain. This rule will likely require traceability, tracking seafood from boat to first point of entry into U.S. commerce for a select number seafood types sold in the U.S. market. However, without full chain traceability, from the boat or farm to the end consumer for all seafood sold in the United States, it is difficult for seafood suppliers, businesses and consumers to know where their seafood originates.
The United States currently imports over ninety percent of the seafood it consumes. Alarmingly, recent reports estimate that between 20 – 32 percent of the wild-caught seafood imported into the U.S. comes from IUU fishing. Many vessels and countries with histories of illegal fishing have also been associated with human abuse in their fishing industries, often due to a lack of government capacity for enforcement on the high seas or weak fisheries management. Requiring traceability for all seafood products will shine a light on the opaque path seafood takes, allowing businesses and consumers to feel more confident that their products are not associated with slave labor or human rights abuse.
Traceability is a tool that can help reform global fisheries and help fight international fisheries crime by unveiling illegal practices at all steps of the supply chain. The 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report identified 54 countries that either have or are at high risk for trafficking in their fishing industries or are transit countries for trafficking for forced labor on fishing vessels in other jurisdictions. The United States currently imports seafood from thirty nine of the countries on this list, representing approximately 8.4 billion dollars in 2014. Without adequate information, consumers and businesses may be supporting the continuation of human rights abuses in this industry. Requiring documentation and traceability within the seafood supply chain can help combat slavery in the seafood industry by holding bad actors accountable and allowing consumers to make more informed decisions.
Recent investigations by the New York Times, the Guardian and the Associated Press have revealed traumatic accounts from survivors on board these vessels, solidifying the connection between IUU fishing and human trafficking. Senators Portman and Blumenthal note, “A lack of enforcement on the high seas and an increase in transshipment through mother ships allow for increased human trafficking on vessels. As marine ecosystems collapse and the pressure for cheap seafood continues, fishing vessels are forced to travel longer distances to find fish. Regular returns to shore would make these longer distances unprofitable, so workers end up trapped on fishing vessels for weeks, even years, at a time.” Many victims of modern slavery are forced to work off debt accrued from brokerage fees while others recount stories of kidnapping. The testimonies reveal that many of the vessels on which victims suffered exploitation also used banned fishing gear, fished in prohibited areas, failed to report or misreported catches, operated with fake licenses, and docked in unauthorized ports. The Associated Press tracked shipments of seafood harvested by slaves with GIS technology, finding that distributors such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Sysco were among the ultimate recipients. The fish caught by slaves may be mixed with other fish from multiple boats, move through multiple countries, processing plants, and distributors before being imported to the U.S. Without traceability, it is difficult for seafood suppliers to ensure that their seafood is not supporting human rights abuses on the other side of the world.
During a recent public comment period to determine the list of species “at risk” for IUU and seafood fraud that will likely be subject to the proposed rule, a number of commenters requested that a history of human rights violations or human trafficking concerns be included as a determining principle for the final list of “at risk” species. Despite multiple comments with this request, the Task Force failed to include human rights abuse in the development of the final “at risk” species list, stating that although human abuse and trafficking in the fishing industry warrants action, the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and the Senior Policy Operating Group were created to address these issues. While these cooperatives are working on the issues of human rights abuse and trafficking, the Task Force is missing a tremendous opportunity to take immediate action.
The Task Force restated the connection between IUU and human rights abuse in the 2015 Action Plan noting, “Operators of IUU fishing vessels also tend to deny to crew members fundamental rights concerning the terms and conditions of their labor.” In order to combat seafood fraud, IUU fishing and human rights abuses, traceability and accountability are needed in the supply chain. Seafood has one of the most complex supply chains, often caught, processed, and sold in disparate parts of the world. It is essential that catch documentation and full chain traceability be required for all seafood products and information regarding where and how the fish was caught should be passed to the final consumer. The creation of the Presidential Task Force was a significant step in addressing illegal fishing and seafood fraud in the U.S.; however, the Administration should use this as an opportunity to address the connection between human rights abuse and the global fishing industry. President Obama has been a leader on illegal fishing and ending modern slavery. It is imperative that any final regulations be expanded to all species and the full supply chain to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled.