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Human Trafficking and Imported Seafood


Photo by: Mike Markovina/Marine Photobank

While environmental sustainability is now a common topic for discussion during seafood procurement, less emphasis is placed on the social & human rights aspects of seafood supply chains. This paradigm is starting to shift out of necessity, in terms of both risk management and opportunities for story telling & promotion.

Along with the moral atrocities of human rights abuses, sales of even the most environmentally sustainable product could decrease significantly if human rights violations in the product’s supply chain were discovered and reported to consumers. Some companies are ahead of this curve, having found that highlighting the social benefits to regions and communities help consumers connect with the source of a product. For example, ThisFish allows consumers to email the fisherman directly, I Love Blue Sea dedicates an entire page to introducing you to their fishermen, Pacifical promotes its investment in Pacific communities by increasing local processing employment opportunities, and ANOVA details its social commitments in its Sustainability Report.

Unfortunately, fishing related industries—most notably shrimp peeling and processing operations in Thailand and “Flag of Convenience” (FoC) fishing vessels throughout South East Asia and West Africa—have been linked to human trafficking. Case studies by the Environmental Justice Foundation documenting so-called “modern slavery” practices in fisheries and/or aquaculture have included first hand and eye-witness accounts of child labor, deceitful recruiting, physical and mental abuse, hazardous working conditions, abandonment and/or refusal to repatriate, imprisonment, denial of fair and promised pay, and the withholding of official documents (i.e. passports).

The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report seeks to assess how well governments are addressing and responding to the crime(s) of human trafficking. According to the 2013 TIP Report, “human trafficking” and/or “trafficking in persons” are umbrella terms for “the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.”

Some of the most prominent seafood capture and export nations, such as Russia, Thailand, and China, have been implicated as failing to comply with minimum standards outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. For these reasons, up-to-date TIP Report information is of increasing relevance to the seafood industry. Each of the 188 countries and/or territories assessed in the TIP Report are assigned to Tier 1 (full compliance with TVPA standards), Tier 2 (working towards full compliance), Tier 2 Watch List (working towards full compliance but significant work remains), or Tier 3 (not making significant efforts to comply).

The U.S. imports 91% of the seafood sold in this country. The top 10 exporting nations and their corresponding TIP report ratings are:

  • China, 23.2%, Tier 3
  • Thailand, 15.5%, Tier 2 Watch List
  • Canada, 11.9%, Tier 1
  • Other Asian Countries, 7.9%, varies
  • Viet Nam, 7.2%, Tier 2
  • Indonesia, 5.1%, Tier 2
  • Ecuador, 4.9%, Tier 2
  • Chile, 3.8%, Tier 2
  • India, 2.7%, Tier 2
  • Mexico, 2.6%, Tier 2

These numbers are based on NOAA 2011 U.S. import volumes of edible seafood products.

Most notably in the 2013 TIP Report, both China and Russia received an automatic downgrade to Tier 3 for remaining on the Tier 2 Watch List for several consecutive years. Due to a recently adopted government plan to combat trafficking, Thailand was granted a waiver from the automatic Tier 3 downgrade (both China and Russia had received the same waiver in 2011 and 2012). There are currently 23 countries and/or territories with a Tier 3 designation, including North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Liberia and Yemen. 

Seafood companies should begin to ask their suppliers about compliance with social standards to ensure safe working conditions throughout the seafood industry. The country ratings in the TIP report can be used for prioritization, and if problems are uncovered, companies should switch sources or request supply chains make improvements or seek certification.

FishWise will release a white paper on human rights in the seafood industry, including detailed recommendations for seafood companies, later this year.


Update on Fukushima: Should We Be Worried About Radioactive Seafood?

radioactive-bluefin-imageIn March 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan suffered major damage when it was hit by a powerful 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, resulting in the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Over two years later, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) recently acknowledged that radioactive water from the plant continues to leak into the Pacific ocean at a rate of nearly 300 tons per day, causing global concern about contaminated seafood. 

Scientists have long suspected that radioactive water was still leaking into the ocean. Last October Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, found that levels of radioactivity in samples taken from fish, shellfish, and algae around Fukushima were not declining with time. A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Deep-Sea Research predicts that ocean water contaminated with radionuclides from Fukushima will reach Hawaii and the west coast of United States in early 2014.

Fears about the safety of seafood from the Pacific have prompted scientists to investigate some fish species for traces of radiation. To determine what effect the radiation is having on the marine food web further from Japan, another group of scientists from Stanford and Stony Brook Universities collected tissue samples from Pacific bluefin tuna caught off the coast of California. They found that all 15 tunas tested had trace amounts of radioisotopes from the Fukushima plant. 

Given all this disturbing news, should we avoid eating seafood from the Pacific ocean?

Not according to the marine scientists who published the studies described above. Physical oceanographers are more excited than fearful of the radiation plume heading for the west coast. By monitoring the plume's spread across the Pacific, researchers can study long-term ocean circulation patterns and improve their models. Due to the rapid dilution of radiation in the Pacific Ocean currents, levels of radionuclides in the plume will be far below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's safe limits for drinking water by the time it reaches our shores.

The majority of fish tested in waters near Fukushima had levels of radiation that were well below safe limits for consumption. The level of radiation found in the bluefin tuna off California was also considerably lower than radiation levels that are naturally found in the fish. In fact, the significance of the studies was not necessarily the implications for human health, but rather that scientists could use the signals from Fukushima to understand bluefin migration patterns across the Pacific.

Unfortunately the key results from these studies have been misrepresented in the media, and have led to the concern that seafood in the Pacific may be contaminated from the Fukushima plant and is unsafe to eat. While Japanese subsistence fishers may need to take extra caution, people eating seafood from the eastern Pacific do not need to spend too much time worrying. The latest report released by the Stony Brook University researchers assures us that, “although uncertainties remain regarding the assessment of cancer risk… the dose received from Pacific bluefin tuna consumption by subsistence fishermen can be estimated to result in two additional fatal cancer cases per 10,000,000 similarly exposed people.”

To learn more, visit Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's informative FAQ.


Genetically Engineered Salmon and the Pledge for GE-Free Seafood

Today, Greenpeace U.S.A. released the seventh edition of its Carting Away the Oceans report, which rates U.S. seafood retailers on sustainability. Once again, Whole Foods and FishWise partner Safeway held the top two spots, trading places from the 2012 report. One of the issues highlighted in the report is the likely FDA approval of genetically engineered (GE) salmon and the potentially grave risk it poses to wild salmon populations. Also today, the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society released a study conducted by McGill University that found that GE salmon (salmo salar) successfully interbred with brown trout (salmo trutta) to create a hybrid species that outcompeted both transgenic (GE) salmon and non-transgenic (wild) salmon. With many salmon stocks struggling globally, the introduction of a “super predator” GE salmon could have potentially devastating effects on a commercially important keystone species

GE organisms and the labeling of such products became a hot button issue in 2010 when the company AquaBounty applied for FDA approval of GE salmon, a fish designed to grow twice as fast as its native counterparts. As a result, more than 300 organizations and food companies, including FishWise, submitted letters to the FDA voicing serious concerns regarding the environmental and health risks associated with the product, in addition to more than 400,000 opposition comments from the general public. The effort to halt FDA approval of GE salmon continues, with almost 2,000,000 opposition comments submitted to the agency by April 2013, at the close of the most recent public comment period.


In 2012, the issue was magnified in California with the introduction of a ballot initiative requiring labeling of most GE food products. The Prop 37 campaign brought together an unprecedented coalition of organizations, consumer groups, activists, farmers, and retailers. Though outspent 5:1, nearly 50% of the California electorate voted for the proposition (more than 6 million “yes” votes) and polls show that more than 60% now favor labeling in CA. Importantly, this constituency is now mobilized and working in California and across the nation on new and improved ballot initiatives, state bills for labeling, and education campaigns. These groups are both praising companies that supported Prop 37 or that have pledged to not sell GE products, and are conversely critical of, and vocal towards, companies that are doing the opposite. 

In the wake of Prop 37’s narrow defeat, nearly half of all U.S. states have introduced bills requiring labeling or prohibition of genetically engineered foods. Major food and retail companies (including Walmart, Pepsico, and ConAgra) are taking notice and starting to support national GE labeling to ensure that there are uniform labeling laws, rather than those that would vary state by state.

Part of this growing movement is the effort to secure commitments from major grocery retailers to not sell genetically engineered seafood. Fifty-nine retailers, including FishWise partners Target and Hy-Vee, will not sell GE salmon. With the likely FDA approval of GE salmon approaching, allowing for the first-ever GE animal to enter the human food supply, it is expected that a pressure campaign will soon be launched to negatively target retailers that have not taken the GE seafood pledge.

There are many reasons for retailers to support the GE-Free Seafood campaign. These include the environmental and health risks of the products themselves, and the risks to company brands and reputations should they not join the campaign. In a 2010 survey, 65% of consumers say that they would not eat GE fish if allowed onto the market. Because retailers do not currently sell any GE seafood products, there would be few financial implications associated with taking the pledge. Additionally, because there is no labeling requirement, and growing consumer opposition, if companies do not sign the pledge and its customers are unable to distinguish between GE and non-GE seafood, sales of current offerings could be severely impacted. 

To learn more, visit


FDA Seafood List & Acceptable Market Names

Following our recent focus on seafood mislabeling, FishWise has conducted further outreach to the FDA to better understand the FDA Seafood List.

Here are some tips to determining or verifying the Acceptable Market Names for seafood products. We suggest you check this list periodically, as names do change as the FDA makes clarifications or responds to name-change requests.

1. Search the list by seafood name, and find in the search results the exact species of interest

2. Check if that species has a special rule (indicated by a * or † next to the Acceptable Market Name), if so labeling should happen in accordance with the rule and labeled with the Acceptable Market Name listed

• e.g. search halibut to see an example of species with a special rule

3. If a species does not have a special rule it can be marketed as its Acceptable Market Name or Common Name in the Seafood List

• e.g. Lophius americanus can be marketed as its Acceptable Market Name = Monkfish, or its Common Name = Goosefish

• e.g. Dissostichus mawsoni can be marketed as its Acceptable Market Name = Toothfish or its Common Name = Antarctic Toothfish

4. If a Market Name is not listed, or to determine if a particular name can be used, refer to the Principles in Section IV of the Seafood List Guidance

If you have questions about this list you may contact the FDA by email or phone (see last paragraph of bolded instructions) and suggestions for changes may also be submitted via email or letter (see second to last paragraph of bolded instructions).

Please note that this information is correct according to FishWise's best knowledge, but FishWise does not assume responsibility for the accuracy of the information provided here or any actions resulting from it. As always, we suggest conducting proper due diligence and/or contacting the FDA to ensure your labeling protocols are compliant with the most recent laws.

International Fisheries Stewardship and Enforcement Act, S. 269

The International Fisheries Stewardship and Enforcement Act (IFSEA; S. 269) complements other legislation, such as S.267, to help eliminate illegal fishing.

It was introduced on February 11, 2013 by Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV (D-WV) and has 10 co-sponsors: Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mark Begich (D-AK), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

IFSEA seeks to streamline and strengthen enforcement capabilities to identify and apprehend foreign illegal fishing operators and aims to help Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs) achieve sustainable quotas.

This legislation would:

  • Increase collaboration between agencies enforcing IUU fishing;
  • Establish an IUU vessel list and bring action against those vessels; and
  • Establish consistent and streamlined enforcement protocols in U.S. law pertaining to international fisheries.

S. 269 goes hand in hand with S.267, the Pirate Fishing Elimination Act, and the UN FAO Port State Measures Agreement. Follow links on each piece of legislation for more FishWise IUU policy blogs.

To learn more about S.269, see this excellent fact sheet by our colleagues at Pew Charitable Trusts.