Seafood Traceability Definitions

Created on Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Seafood traceability is a complex topic, and without a common lexicon it can be difficult the advance the conversation. As part of our ongoing work in this area, FishWise has created a preliminary list of definitions to help all stakeholders use a common set of terms when discussing seafood traceability. These were first shared during our multi-stakeholder Traceability and IUU Strategy Meeting in October of 2014.

We hope this information will be a useful resource and we look forward to updating these terms over time to reflect ongoing traceability efforts.  

What is seafood traceability?

There are numerous definitions of seafood traceability being used by those in academic, industry and NGO circles. The definitions range from general to more specific:

“The ability to access any or all information relating to that which is under consideration, throughout its entire life cycle, by means of recorded identifications” (Olsen and Borit, 2012).

“The ability to systematically identify a unit of production, track its location and describe any treatments or transformations at all stages of production, processing and distribution” (Magera and Beaton, 2009).

When thinking about traceability, it is important to remember that it is a tool than can be used to track product information both WITHIN a company and AMONG companies. Internal traceability is a form of traceability that “enables a company to follow a product through their system after receipt from the supplier” while external traceability “allows for the connection with immediate supply chain partners” (see FMI’s guide for retailers).

Companies who have external traceability choose the most appropriate method for their business in how they track traceability information and who they share that information with (see GTFC’s Traceability Tool). Records may be kept in the following ways:

Paper-based Traceability: Manual paper-based records of the source, transformation, aggregation, destination, and other associated information related to seafood products for traceability purposes.

Basic Electronic: Computerized record keeping of the source, transformation, aggregation, destination, and other associated information related to seafood products for traceability purposes.

Integrated Hardware Traceability: Integrated hardware (e.g. bar codes and readers, RFID tags and scanners) implemented to capture the source, transformation, aggregation, destination, and other associated information related to seafood products for traceability purposes. Integrated systems are frequently interoperable, meaning “different information technology systems and software applications [can] communicate, exchange data, and use that information” (GFTC, 2014). 



When traceability systems only track from whom a company purchased or received products to whom they sent them to, it is known as “one up, one down sharing” or “one forward, one back sharing”. Permission-based sharing can involve formal agreements (e.g. non-disclosure agreements) between businesses in the supply chain pertaining to the sharing of more detailed traceability information (e.g. information related to harvest method, location, etc.).  Finally, some firms have commercial transparency, in which traceability information related to their products is freely accessible to the public on their website, or via a consumer-facing application or certification register.


A PDF of these traceability definitions can be downloaded here.

UN FAO Port State Measures Agreement

Created on Friday, 10 April 2015

The Leaders

First, let’s begin with a big high-five to Chile, Gabon, Mozambique, Myanmar (Burma), New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Uruguay, and the EU which have ratified or approved this agreement (source: Pew Charitable Trusts).

Now let’s review why this is an important piece of legislation at the United Nations:

Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported (IUU) Fishing is a serious problem. Estimates of fishing losses to illegal activity range from $10-23.5 billion, representing 11-26 million tons of seafood (Agnew et al. 2009). Some countries suffer greatly (40% of West Africa’s total catches may be illegal) and, in others, illegal fishing may double the documented harvest numbers (Agnew et al. 2009). Furthermore, developing countries often bear the brunt of IUU fishing through lost revenue, decreased food security, and loss of biodiversity (FAO, 2012).

The Port State Measures Agreement, or PSMA, seeks to make it harder to land illegal product. Countries that ratify the treaty must: 1) designate ports through which foreign fishing vessels may enter; 2) conduct dockside inspections following set standards; 3) block entry to vessels known or believed to have been involved in IUU or those on an IUU vessel list of a Regional Fishery Management Organization (RFMO); and 4) share information with the governments of vessels with IUU product, when discovered during inspection.

What about the United States?

The U.S. has signed, but not yet ratified the treaty. On February 5th, 2015 members of Congress from both sides of aisle introduced the PSMA as a new bill (H.R. 774: Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act of 2015). The bill has now been referred to the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, where it awaits a vote.

Next Steps

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) approved the PSMA to ‘Prevent, Deter and Eliminate IUU Fishing’on November 22, 2009. This treaty will go into effect once 25 countries have ratified the Agreement (ratified by 11 nations to date). It will likely take a few more years to have enough countries ratify the Agreement to move the PSMA forward to implementation.

While the PSMA is still awaiting ratification by 14 more countries, progress in some countries has been made to support implementation of the Agreement. For example, in April 2012, a global series of capacity-development workshops to support implementation of the Agreement was launched in Thailand, to cater to countries from Southeast Asia (FAO, 2012), a toolkit has been developed that outlines how to conduct a needs assessment (PSMA Toolkit), and work is being done to compare current RFMO traceability requirements against those of the PSMA (e.g. Pew, Closing the Gap, 2011). Seventeen countries have initiated the ratification process (See the PEW PSMA tracker).

FishWise will continue to monitor progress of the PSMA and let our retail and NGO partners, along with the public, know how they can help encourage the process.


Human Trafficking, Forced Labor and Seafood Q&A

Created on Friday, 27 March 2015

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

Created on Tuesday, 24 March 2015

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

Created on Thursday, 19 March 2015

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”: