Something Fishy With The Seafood

Written by Kate Darlington on 08 March 2012.

Question: Was the fish on your plate caught by slaves?

Answer: We can’t know for sure (and that’s the problem).

The last time I went to buy fish from the grocery store, I got so overwhelmed that I nearly gave up on the effort. Conventional neighborhood grocers provide little information about the fish they offer at the seafood counter. Even when they do offer info about origin or catch method, it’s hard to decipher what it all means-- and what is the best for our bodies, our environment, and our budgets. 5268939129_daa84116dd

And little did I know, I now have to worry about the human rights implications of my seafood purchases as well. I just read a recent investigative journalism piece in Bloomberg Businessweek that exposes rampant labor rights abuses aboard foreign fishing vessels. According to the article, several fishing operations in New Zealand have been manning their boats with what amounts to modern day slave labor. Indonesian men are hired by employment agencies to work on foreign-chartered vessels (FCVs) fishing off the coast of New Zealand. Coerced into signing contracts that strip them of all labor rights, the fishermen are sent to work in grueling conditions, subjected to physical and sexual abuse, and denied their wages. The fishermen are threatened with physical violence and economic ruin should they choose to complain to authorities or run away from the ship.

Several major food retailers --including Costco, Sam’s Club, Safeway, P.F. Chang’s, and even Whole Foods -- have been linked to New Zealand-based companies that charter the FCVs accused of practicing slavery. The frustrating thing, though, is that even the most dogged investigators have a hard time proving exactly where the suspect seafood ends up. Because of the long supply chain and the confusing network of employment recruiters, boat owners, fish processors, wholesalers, exporters, distributors, and retailers, it’s basically impossible to actually track the offending fish all the way to the dinner plate. The best we can do is conjecture.

For example, P.F. Chang’s buys squid exclusively through Turner, a California-based importer. Turner bought over half a million pounds of squid from United Fisheries, New Zealand’s eighth largest seafood processor. United Fisheries, in turn, sources their seafood from foreign-chartered vessels, including the South Korean Melilla fleet. Employees on the Melilla boats have reported extensive labor and human rights abuse, including indentured servitude and slavery. Incidentally, squid is one of the primary species that the Melilla crew catches. So is there something fishy with your order of calamari? Quite possibly.

I hate to end on such a depressing note, so I will say this: There are other options. In the Philadelphia area, where I live, Otolith Sustainable Seafood provides a direct link between consumers and environmentally responsible fishermen operating in Alaska. Through a Community Supported Seafood (CSS) model, Otolith can assure100% traceable seafood. This means no questions as to either the harvest methods or the labor conditions. Check out to see if there is a Community Supported Fishery near you.

Dig Deeper:

Read the whole story – The Fishing Industry’s Cruelest Catch, by E. Benjamin Skinner

Download a Seafood Watch pocket guide to help you make sustainable seafood purchases.

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