Seafood Choices

The True Cost of Fish

Herring are an important forage fish species. Photo: NOAA Fishwatch.

This month, a startling series by Ian Urbina of the New York Times has provided an in-depth look at the desperate state of international fishing: due to increasing demand for cheap fish, combined with rising fuel costs, and a lack of accountability for illegal practices, the sea has become a no-mans-land rife with abuse.

As Urbina notes in his piece ‘Sea Slaves: The Human Misery that Feeds Pets and Livestock’, mariners on these international vessels face brutal working and living conditions that can only equate to modern day slavery.

Most abuses occur in the South China Sea, where vessels primarily fish for forage fish species. Shockingly, the supply chain ultimately linked to these vessels finds its way into the U.S. market, mainly in American pet food, meaning that many American companies and consumers are unwittingly supporting slave labor (along with alarming living conditions for workers) and harmful illegal fishing practices that produce high amounts of bycatch.

Urbina also notes that companies who package and sell seafood to major companies often have labor laws and human rights standards. But, due to the prevalence of “motherships,” which collect the fish from the trawling boats (both legal and illegal), it is virtually impossible to track exactly where the fish came from, and whether they were fished legally. He reports:

“Lisa K. Gibby, vice president of corporate communications for Nestlé, which makes pet food brands including Fancy Feast and Purina, said that the company is working hard to ensure that forced labor is not used to produce its pet food. ‘This is neither an easy nor a quick endeavor,’ she added, because the fish it purchases comes from multiple ports and fishing vessels operating in international waters.”

There are, however, companies who are seeking to avoid the use of slave labor in the supply chain.

“By 2020, [Mars Inc.] plans to use only non-threatened fish caught legally or raised on farms and certified by third-party auditors as not being linked to forced labor.”

The lack of traceability of fish caught in international waters is just one piece of the lawlessness surrounding the ocean: Ships are required to be registered and fly a country’s flag – and only that country can prosecute human rights or illegal fishing violations, which rarely happens, according to Urbina.

The rampant illegal activity exposed by Mr. Urbina should be a wakeup call to consumers of seafood everywhere, including here in the United States, to demand better regulation and practices on a large scale. This starts with consumer demand.


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