Overcoming the double whammy of slavery in seafood


If a CEO wakes up to a 911 phone call over a newspaper headline linking the company name to fishing by slaves, what should they say?  Ideally: “We’re on it.  Let me show you what we have done to reduce risks of exploitation for the fishing crew and factory workers in our supply chains”.

If a seafood importer receives a 911 phone call because a consignment of seafood has been pulled by US Customs to investigate ties to slavery, what should they say?  Ideally, exactly the same thing.

For now though, before this option has materialized, speaking up is still fraught with risk of association to the issue.

US companies are suddenly exposed to any product ties to slavery.  In 2015 the US Department of State cited trafficking in fishing in 55 countries and nine of the countries appear on the Department of Labor’s (DOL) list of fish goods produced with exploitative labor, flagging them for scrutiny under the 2016 import ban.

The first step for showing compliance is figuring out the supply chain and prioritizing the risk.  BUT… in a market where even the national trade association is keeping quiet on the issue, a company that acts could cause itself brand damage.  Any reporting on it (even positive press) means Google could inadvertently link the word “slavery” to the company’s name.


Petitions against the new trade rule for goods from Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines and other countries appearing on the DOL list will trigger seafood inspections.

Yet amid a stream of media accounts and class action suits associating the US seafood industry to modern day slavery, and even an Executive Order obliging federal contractors to certify they’ll act to eliminate recruitment fees, ID confiscation and so on, US companies largely have not initiated due diligence measures.

Further, ‘acting’ is not simple for US retailers and importers who may purchase up to 100 species of fish from close to 200 fisheries worldwide.  Their seafood departments often lack the domain expertise, information and tools that would allow them to understand trafficking risks within their supply chains and to proactively work with them to reduce and mitigate the risk of buying illegal products that could lead to brand damage, lawsuits, broken relationships and supply chains and lost supplies.



There are things businesses can do to reduce their own risks.  These are not necessarily the same things as are needed to reduce risks of slavery for the human beings held captive and unpaid in seafood work.  Both need urgent progress.

Many sectors have gone through it and offer clear lessons.  Seafood is tricky due to the intricacies of trading across multiple platforms and watery geographies.  However, two things are constant:


1.) Companies who can show they are already doing something will fare better than if they were doing nothing. 

When a particular shipment is tied to a particular facility and an association is made, where companies are doing more ‘stuff’, that will be considered a mitigating circumstance, according to Shawn Macdonald from Verite.   Customs officials (Inspections and Customs Enforcement-ICE) will be looking at how to trace products from high risk origins.  They will make associations based on the evidence.  In US investigations, companies who link their risk profile to product tracing look better than if they didn’t.

What ‘stuff’ also reduce risks of slavery — in any meaningful way for real people??

2.) Ultimately, the only way the promises stick from certifications or codes of conduct is when all of the elements are pushed down through contracts.

Understanding there is no simple way to create an assurance of completely eliminating slavery from fishing and fish processing, seafood buyers now have the challenge of proving they don’t condone it passively in their purchasing.

Contact us for assistance.

Safe Seafood = Safe Fish + Safe People

Seafood sustainability is a value-adding proposition.  Ethical seafood on the other hand is a deal maker or breaker.  Today the market needs assurances food is safe, not only from tests along the cold chain showing food is safe to eat, but environmentally and ethically.  The big retailers have environmental procedures their vendors comply to, but what about tests to verify the production conditions behind the food are safe for people?  For food producers?

Not yet, but they are coming.

Today I was on the phone with an executive at a large US retailer who will be conducting vessel audits when he could be Christmas shopping.  He is a higher up who is going in person to the audits to make sure they are done right for his company but also potentially industry-wide.  He’ll be coming here to Hawaii where we are also preparing a model for protecting the rights and entitlements of fishing crew, which we have been working out together with the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB). We have an “auditable” set of procedures now and we are curious to see if they align with the retailer’s set.   It’s a great sign that agreement is around the corner and alignment is near, which means safe labor controls could be added to control systems for keeping food safe, alongside temperature and time controls.

It’s been awhile since I have made a post because I’ve been preoccupied with working out this equation, Safe Seafood = Safe Fish + Safe People.  I think we are getting there, and that is why I am speaking up.  There have been breakthroughs over the past months.  I’ve had the pleasure of hearing people speak up and asking questions about the producers behind our seafood.  They were always there, but we are starting to see the human face, and it is wonderful.  It is wonderful because there are a lot of honor and grace in seafood work, and there are benefits as well as risks, and we need to start putting these things back together in our programming.  Something I’ve been keen to rediscover in sustainable sourcing is the role of the customer and people passionate about good food.  I’ve been listening to executives and academics, policy makers and grant makers and also to school kids, fishers, processors and exporters these past months.  I was invited to speak at a number of events but have  focused on listening.

For a mini 2016-in-review these include the US-Japan Ocean Conservation Symposium in September, the Sustainable Shrimp Task Force meeting in Bangkok in June, the policy makers table at a celebration of sustainable seafood hosted by the Prince’s Charitable in London in June, the USAID Feed the Future Asian Agriculture Summit in Bangkok in May (GREAT event), an event to define the “high road” for firms at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights in Business at NYU-Stern in New York City in April, Partnership for Freedom bootcamp in Washington DC in February, and the SeaWeb event in Malta in January.

I listened for: what are people perceiving as risk?  What about seafood makes them feel healthy?  Where do they seek information? What are the factors they loofe Seaffok at to make up their mind?

I was surprised by what I heard.  Attention has shifted from fish to people.  Seafood producers are characters in the story behind the food.  They are starting to be seen.  It won’t take long, I predict, for sector leaders to come to see producers as the key to future success, like in agriculture.  In 5 years we’ll be in a better place on ethical sourcing, and customers too.

Thank you and Aloha to the many people contributing to the shift.