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Human Trafficking, Forced Labor and Seafood Q&A

A recent Associated Press (AP) article has exposed the harsh realities of human trafficking and forced labor within seafood operations in Southeast Asia. A video, seen below, accompanied the article.

Last year, evidence of human trafficking, forced labor and other human rights abuses within the Thai shrimp industry were described by The Guardian and further substantiated by the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report released by the U.S. State Department.

Please read our Q & A below and visit our Human Rights Resources page for more information regarding these issues.

Consumer Questions

How can this be happening?

Human rights abuses occur in seafood supply chains when demand for low prices undermines responsible business practices. The AP story further exposes the complex issues that exist within seafood supply chains and shines a light on specific conditions in Southeast Asia. Thailand has large and complex supply chains that do not have adequate oversight. This lack of regulation opens the door for various labor and human rights abuses.

One of the biggest issues is that U.S. seafood buyers, who are trying to do the right thing, cannot verify supply chain compliance with labor laws and human rights standards in Thailand because products cannot be traced back to the point of origin.

As a result, leading seafood buyers worldwide are unknowingly and indirectly supporting these egregious abuses by buying and selling Thai seafood. Many seafood companies who have worked hard to create environmentally sustainable seafood sourcing policies are unaware that human rights abuses are most likely happening in their own supply chains

What type of fish is safe to eat?

While the AP and Guardian articles name specific types of seafood associated with trafficking or forced labor, these stories are just glimpses into a problem that affects the entire seafood industry. However, the majority of this industry operates legally and employs fair labor practices. Some certifications inspect labor conditions and can be an added assurance that the product is abuse-free, such as the Fair Trade USA certification.

Where can I shop to avoid this type of seafood?

It depends, but asking questions is a great way for consumers to learn more. When purchasing seafood in a store or at a restaurant, ask where it came from and if it’s a responsibly sourced item produced with fair labor standards. If in doubt, purchase seafood from companies that are working hard to improve human rights and promote fair labor practices. 

Should I boycott?

No. Boycotting specific stores, types of seafood, or even countries does not guarantee avoidance of this issue. The majority of seafood sold in North America is imported from overseas, where tracking its origin can be a challenge for even the AP investigative reporting team. The market for seafood is not only in the U.S. and EU so if we stop supporting that industry these products may just be sold elsewhere. That’s why FishWise and other leaders are calling for systematic change to the entire industry, which requires a participatory, collaborative effort.

What can I do about this?

Talk to your seafood retailer about how they trace their seafood and how they’re supporting efforts to improve labor conditions in their supply chains. This sends the message that this topic is important to you and customers want more transparent information, encouraging the retailer to take action. If they’re interested in specific steps businesses can take, see the industry questions below.

You can also voice public support to improve regulations and enforcement to protect human rights throughout the industry. And you can still make informed and sustainable seafood purchasing decisions by using seafood buying guides such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch pocket card or smartphone app.

Industry Questions

What can the industry do?

All companies will have to be vigilant to ensure that human trafficking, forced labor, and other human rights issues are not present in their supply chains. U.S. retailers, foodservice providers, distributors, and others in the supply chain can use their buying power to help eradicate human trafficking and forced labor in today’s global seafood industry.

What specific steps can seafood businesses take to ensure they are not buying seafood associated with human rights abuses?

  • Map it: Ensure 100% traceability to the farm, feed mills, and the vessels, ensure products can be traced to origin and names and addresses of all entities that handled the product can be identified.
  • Audit: Support unannounced labor audits of all steps in the supply chain, including vessels, and worker interviews via certification or as required by vendor agreements.
  • Pledge and Track: Ensure that each link in the supply chain makes a binding, documentable pledge to their customer to avoid all forms of labor abuse.
  • Communicate with suppliers: When identified, share concerns regarding human trafficking and labor violations with suppliers, then stipulate that continued procurement will be based on improvement by agreed upon timelines.
  • Communicate with consumers: Provide clear information to consumers on the origin of fisheries products and the actions taken to guarantee products are not connected to human rights abuses, labor violations or environmental damage.

Human rights terminology, case studies, and links to IUU fishing

To reduce the prevalence of illegal fishing and labor violations, companies should source products that have been harvested and caught legally, are free of trafficked and forced labor, and are traceable back to its source vessels or farms.

Fortunately, many seafood companies and organizations are already working to improve human rights in the seafood industry. With a shared understanding of the inter-related issues, actions that have helped other sectors advance, and a common set of terminology, these multi-stakeholder groups can strategically move forward together.

Acknowledging that IUU fishing and human rights are complex issues, FishWise offers three documents to provide some clarity. We hope this information will allow seafood stakeholders to adopt the established human rights lexicon and improve understanding of these issues.

FishWise presents the following public documents:

To learn more about FishWise’s work on human rights, please contact us

EJF strongly recommends that Thailand remain on Tier 3 in the 2015 TIP Report

ejf-brokenIn February 2015, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) published a briefing Broken Promises: Why Thailand should stay on Tier 3 in the 2015 US Trafficking in Persons report pointing to inadequacies in the government of Thailand’s response to human trafficking and labor abuse in the Thai fishing industry. The briefing illustrates cases of trafficking and forced labor documented over the last 12 months in Thailand’s fishing industry, demonstrating the persistent and widespread nature of abuse occurring in the industry.

In contrast, Thailand recently released its Trafficking in Persons 2014 Country Report, emphasizing Government efforts to combat human trafficking and indicating that it had taken sufficient steps to have the country removed from Tier 3 in the U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. Tier 3 status is reserved for “countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so”, including the worst offenders in the world for human trafficking like North Korea and Russia.

EJF’s review of the Thai Government’s actions in the last year concludes that the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking have not been met. EJF strongly recommends that Thailand remain on Tier 3 in the 2015 TIP Report, as a clear signal to the Thai Government that a substantive program of actions and series of reforms must be implemented.

The Broken Promises briefing draws attention to the continued occurrence of systematic trafficking and abuse in the Thai fishing industry. EJF reports that the Government has failed to:

  1. Address one of the key factors perpetuating trafficking and abuse into the fishing sector, namely the existence of an unregulated industry of labor brokers;
  2. Make substantive progress in its ability to identify victims of trafficking, forced and bonded labor aboard fishing vessels;
  3. Enforce existing laws and regulations in an unbiased and rigorous manner, particularly with regards to state officials engaged in human trafficking;
  4. Adopt a victim-centered approach to the protection of those who have escaped or been rescued from modern-day slavery.

Download the Environmental Justice Foundation’s “Broken Promises:  Why Thailand should stay on Tier 3 in the 2015 US Trafficking in Persons report”:


HR 774: Bill to combat IUU fishing garners bipartisan support

houseofrepsOn February 5th, 2015 Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo (D – GU) and five other members of Congress from both sides of the aisle introduced a new bill (H.R. 774: Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act of 2015).  If passed, the bill would enhance the enforcement authority of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Coast Guard to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the United States.

The proposed legislation would strengthen and expand the sanctions on countries whose vessels engage in IUU fishing by:

  • Increasing capacity for the inspection and monitoring of illegal foreign ships
  • Mandating greater data sharing from foreign countries importing seafood to the U.S. as a means for NOAA to identify nations not complying with fisheries management regulations
  • Incorporating civil and criminal penalties for those found to be in violation of certain international agreements to which the U.S. is a party
  • Implementing the Port State Measures Agreement

H.R. 774 has most recently been referred to the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation where it awaits a vote.

The Port State Measures Agreement goes into effect when 25 nations have ratified it. The ratification count so far is 11. Nations that ratify the PSMA commit to refusing port entry to foreign-flagged vessels known to have engaged in IUU fishing. If vessels suspected of illegally fishing enter ports they will be subject to inspection and the results will be shared with the relevant authorities.

FishWise can help seafood businesses write letters of support for HR 774 or support PSMA ratification by other nations. Please contact us to learn more.

New Guidelines and Website Help Businesses Evaluate and Source from Fishery Improvement Projects

Alliance-FIP-GuidelinesThe Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions released today updated guidelines for fisheries that want to improve their environmental performance so they can sell to customers seeking more sustainable seafood options. The guidelines define the types of fishery improvement projects, or FIPs, members of the Conservation Alliance will consider recommending to their business partners for participation or seafood sourcing.

The Conservation Alliance also announced the development of a new website that will be a one-stop shop for information about FIPs that meet basic minimum requirements. The Conservation Alliance FIP tracking website will be a comprehensive, public online database that makes information about fishery improvement projects accessible to conservation groups, suppliers, and retailers so that they can publicly track FIP progress and make informed sourcing decisions.

“The Conservation Alliance guidelines have been invaluable in our efforts to create fishery improvement projects in fisheries we source from,” said Adriana Sanchez-Lindsey, sustainability coordinator with Sea Delight. “Now the new tracking website will be an excellent tool for communicating the progress that FIPs are making and connecting them with more buyers for their products.”

The updated guidelines introduce two distinct categories of fishery improvement projects. Basic fishery improvement projects are a good entry point for fisheries to begin addressing specific environmental challenges to improve their performance against the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standard. Comprehensive fishery improvement projects aim to address all challenges necessary to achieve a level of performance consistent with an unconditional pass of the MSC standard. The two categories allow the Conservation Alliance and industry to meet fisheries where they are along a journey toward sustainability and more easily distinguish between different types of FIPs.

“These new tools will help us better meet the needs of our business partners so that they can support fisheries that are making crucial improvements in their environmental performance,” said Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, director of Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, on behalf of the Conservation Alliance.

The Conservation Alliance released its original set of FIP guidelines in 2012 and updated them this year based on feedback from the Conservation Alliance community, seafood industry, and fishery stakeholders. The new guidelines reflect advances in the fishery improvement project landscape during the past two years.


The Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions connects 20 leading conservation groups that work with businesses representing more than 80 percent of the North American grocery and food service markets. We work together to solve sustainable seafood’s biggest challenges so that oceans and the businesses that depend on them can thrive. Visit to learn more. 

Read: Guidelines for Supporting Fishery Improvement Projects (PDF)