With ships so far from shore and constantly in transit, often operating on the high seas where national governments have limited jurisdiction, it’s not easy to follow the movement of seafood through the supply chain. In the many handoffs of catch between fishing boats, carrier ships, processing plants, and exporters, there are gaping holes in traceability, said Sally Yozell, the director of the environmental-security program at the Stimson Center, a research organization in Washington, D.C.
The United States is the world’s largest importer of seafood, with more than 80 percent of what it consumes caught or processed abroad. It imports over $2 billion of seafood caught via illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, according to a 2021 report of the U.S. International Trade Commission. American consumers increasingly want to know where and and how their seafood was caught and expect their restaurants and grocery stores to ensure that their products are not tied to illegal fishing or forced labor.
There are programs already in place to ensure transparency in the seafood supply chain, but they are narrow in scope. In 2016, the government created the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which requires importers to keep detailed records on their catch as it moves from point of harvest all the way to its entry into the United States. Squid and other key species, however, were not included among the program’s thirteen monitored seafood species. The program only covers approximately 40 percent of seafood imports.
The Seafood Import Monitoring Program already provides tools to help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection more effectively identify imports and track products’ chain of custody from point of origin to their end destinations in restaurants, grocery stores, and markets. Yet a coalition of NGOs, including the Stimson Center and Oceana, have called for the expansion of the program to account for more of the seafood imports coming into the United States.
In 2022, NOAA announced a proposal to expand the program to cover more species, increase the use of electronic catch documentation and verification, and expand enforcement and auditing efforts. A research report compiled by the nonprofit ocean conservation group Oceana in 2023 called on NOAA to monitor potential labor rights abuses throughout the supply chain, including on vessels and at processing facilities via the Seafood Import Monitoring Program.
Lawmaking efforts are currently underway to further protect American supply chains from illegally harvested seafood. Legislation proposed by a bipartisan group of five senators, called the Fighting Foreign Illegal Seafood Harvest (FISH) Act, aims to more effectively prevent the entry of illegally caught seafood into the United States by, for example, directing the U.S. Coast Guard to increase its at-sea inspection of foreign vessels suspected of illegal fishing. Two of those senators, Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), also introduced the Wild USA Seafood Act to update labeling requirements to distinguish between products caught in U.S. waters and those imported from abroad.
Judy Gearhart, a senior researcher on corporate accountability and workers rights with the Accountability Research Center, at American University, said that the government needed to intensify its efforts to increase traceability in seafood supply chains across government agencies by requiring reporting on key data elements such as the date and location of landing, offloading, or transshipment, and the commingling or transformation of a product. “Greater transparency and cooperation from seafood producers and importers is needed to make these initiatives effective and raise the bar for accountability in the seafood industry,” Gearhart said. She added that retailers need to play a more proactive role and demand more transparency from their suppliers instead of relying on third-party certifications, which have proven to be ineffective.
“Retailers need to change their business model to ensure compliance by sharing data and improving how they investigate seafood production,” Gearhart said. “Accepting the word of their producers or the seal of a voluntary certification is clearly not sufficient.”
Despite calls for increased transparency across the seafood industry, certain corporations are lobbying for decreasing public access to trade data. Trade records including bills of lading, except for shipments by vessel, are already subject to restrictions from public access under U.S. law, but several major corporations have lobbied to limit those records even further. The Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee (COAC)—which advises the Departments of the Treasury and Homeland Security on the commercial operations of Customs and Border Protection—includes representatives from Walmart and Amazon. It proposed in October 2022 that vessel manifest data should also be made confidential.
Numerous supply-chain laws exist to prevent the import of prohibited goods into the United States. Aside from the sanctions on nations such as North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Russia, the United States has passed legislation meant to block products associated with various forms of forced labor. The Tariff Act of 1930 was amended in 2015 and has since become the country’s principal tool in blocking imports of products associated with forced, child, and convict labor. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was signed into law in 2021, introducing a legal presumption that all goods produced from Xinjiang, China, or by ethnic minority workers from the province, are products of forced labor unless proven otherwise. Customs and Border Protection has used the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act to ban imports from Chinese companies using North Korean labor. “Controls have worked in other industries, including solar panels, auto parts, computer parts, palm oil, sugar, and tomato products,” said Robert Stumberg, a professor of law at Georgetown University. “Seafood should be next.”
The Tariff Act of 1930 gives Customs and Border Patrol the authority to issue a Withhold Release Order to prevent imports from entering the United States if they are linked to forced labor in overseas production or processing. The pace at which the agency has issued these orders has increased considerably since 2015. Between 2016 and 2020, Customs and Border Protection issued 15 such orders; between 1930 and 2015, it issued 33. The agency has issued five active Withhold Release Orders targeting companies in the seafood industry. Several proposals are under consideration.
Greenpeace has provided evidence for several recent Withhold Release Orders targeting tuna vessels, but the organization has also been advocating for a more systemic approach. “Illegal fishing and modern slavery are too widespread to fight one vessel at a time,” said John Hocevar, the director of Greenpeace USA’s oceans campaigns. “The government can afford to do better than that.
Despite tangible improvements in seafood traceability, many importers are still unable to identify illegal labor practices in their supply chains. Moreover, Stumberg said, “American importers use this information gap to excuse their reliance on suppliers who use forced labor.” Gearhart added that seafood companies generally fail to check if their imports are tied to labor crimes at sea and on land, and are unlikely to do so until the U.S. government requires companies to conduct effective human rights and environmental due diligence. This could include risk-mitigation plans and more reporting on how suppliers are performing on traceability, seafood production, and labor practices.
As consumers become increasingly aware of human-rights and environmental issues on the oceans, and express concern about where their seafood comes from, grocers and restaurateurs are turning to nonprofit groups, such as the Marine Stewardship Council and FishWise, and for-profit firms, such as SCS Global and Trace Register, for consulting services and supply-chain audits. But Hocevar said so-called corporate-responsibility programs tend to be ineffective, because they are largely self-policing, lack third-party oversight or verification, focus primarily on environmental concerns instead of human-rights issues, and typically reach only as far as processing plants rather than the ships where crimes are most likely to occur.
Consumers and businesses don’t have many resources to guide their seafood purchase. One option is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, which produces seafood report cards that rank fish environmentally as “red” (avoid), “yellow” (good alternative), and “green” (best choice). Human-rights and labor concerns, however, are not incorporated into these ratings. In response to growing awareness that seafood is often tainted by forced labor, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has since introduced a series of tools to help corporate buyers identify these risks in their supply chains. Yet unlike Seafood Watch, the new tools do not seek to advise retailers on which species to purchase. Instead, the goal is simply to raise awareness. Despite calls from advocacy groups to adjust their sustainability rankings to incorporate the forced-labor risk, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has not done so.
The seafood industry has also turned to the Marine Stewardship Council to assess the sustainability and legality of certain species. The organization uses an ecolabel and fishery certification program to assess, recognize, and promote sustainable fisheries and fishing practices. It uses three criteria within its criteria to assess sustainability: the status of the stock, the ecosystem of the stock, and the relevant fishery-management system. As of 2021, Marine Stewardship Council-certified fisheries account for approximately 14 percent of all global fish landings.
Yet the standards applied focus not on labor rights but “fisheries’ environmental performance and sustainability and seafood supply chain assurance” as opposed to labor rights, according to MSC’s website. The Marine Stewardship Council issued its first policy on labor standards in 2014 and then published more detailed guidance through its Labor Eligibility Requirements, which established criteria for applicants and certificate holders. The requirements vary depending on whether the entities operate predominantly at sea or on land. All entities are supposed to attest that they have not been convicted of forced or child labor in the previous two years, but in practice the information provided is often incomplete and is not enough to establish whether or not a company has used forced labor, Hocevar said. In response to questions from The Outlaw Ocean Project about the challenges of detecting forced labor, Jackie Marks, the Marine Stewardship’s senior public-relations manager, said that the Marine Stewardship Council was not a human-rights or labor organization.
The Marine Stewardship Council has faced recent scrutiny from environmental and human-rights groups. The organization On the Hook, a British-based coalition focused on reforming the organization, said in a 2023 report that the Marine Stewardship Council has failed to promote sustainable fishing and hasn’t met customer and market expectations. The International Labor Rights Forum, a human-rights organization dedicated to protecting the rights of workers globally, has criticized the Marine Stewardship Council’s certification process, arguing that it fails to adequately address forced labor in certified supply chains. In a 2019 press release, the International Labor Rights Forum stated that “requirements for assessing risk and preventing child labor and forced labor will not provide buyers and retailers with the assurance that child labor and forced labor are not present in their supply chains.” These concerns were widely publicized, but to date the Marine Stewardship Council has not adopted any new policies to address them.
Human Rights Watch and the Workers Rights Consortium argue that audits fail to prevent serious rights abuses in a range of industries. Our investigation shows that audits are not detecting forced labor in the seafood sector, either. “The tool is completely broken,” said Sarosh Kuruvilla, a Cornell University professor whose analysis of over 40,000 audits has shown that almost half were unreliable. “It’s a tick-box exercise on the part of the auditor, but it’s also a tick-box exercise on the part of the brand.” Despite mounting evidence of critical shortcomings, the use of social audits is expanding into more challenging territory, with companies such as SGS now marketing services to audit fishing vessels. Hocevar pointed out that workers are often “either not consulted at all or are engaged in a way that does not give them the security to speak freely without fear of reprisals.”
Re:Structure Lab, a coalition of academic researchers representing multiple universities and focused on addressing labor and human-rights issues globally, propose that auditing firms need to be overseen by a professional oversight body and be liable for flawed audits to achieve greater accountability. The auditing processes, the coalition said, should also be adjusted to allow for more participation from workers. Finally, the coalition proposed that providing workers with accessible grievance mechanisms and the ability to pursue remedy or compensation for wrongdoing is a more effective approach than audits alone.
Current fishing practices are unsustainable, and many marine scientists have called for the creation of more marine-protected areas that are mostly or entirely off-limits to large-scale commercial fishing and other industrial activities. Researchers such as Ray Hilborn, a marine biologist and fisheries scientist at the University of Washington, and Rashid Sumaila, an expert in fisheries economics at the University of British Columbia, argue for scaling back the size of global fishing fleets, tightening the quotas that limit how many fish can be pulled from the water, and removing the government subsidies that make seafood artificially cheap. All of these goals require aggressive enforcement and a commitment from governments to prosecute illegal fishing companies. They also require significant improvements in transparency across the seafood supply chain to be effective.
The Coalition for Fisheries Transparency, a consortium of advocacy organizations pursuing expanded traceability in the global seafood industry, has outlined a number of policies to expand access to information about fishing vessels and their activity at sea. These include increasing access to vessel licenses and authorizations; requiring beneficial ownership disclosure; and increasing data collection on catch data and vessel crews. The coalition argues that greater transparency can support fisheries-management practices that promote more sustainable seafood production, free from environmental crimes and labor abuses.
At the vessel level, civil-society organizations such as Global Fishing Watch and Greenpeace have called on governments to require that any vessels catching or carrying fish have a unique vessel identifier, or International Maritime Organization number, that remains consistent throughout the vessel’s lifetime, regardless of change of name, ownership, or flag. If a ship lacks this type of identifier, companies that procure fish or other goods from it have no way of knowing where it traveled, whether its workers had contracts, and whether it is on any of the illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing lists maintained by regional fishery-management organizations.
Knowing where a fishing ship is authorized to fish and for what species is critical, according to Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ending Illegal Fishing team. Human-rights advocacy organizations such as the International Justice Mission and the Environmental Justice Foundation have called on countries to publish lists of ships and companies with licenses, authorizations, and previous infractions in their waters. Lack of access to this information makes it difficult to determine if a vessel and its catch were legally obtained, especially since fishing vessels and companies operate across multiple jurisdictions and the high seas. Vessels penalized for illegal fishing in one country’s waters can escape into the waters of another country or into the high seas, which do not belong to any one nation.
While at sea, fishing vessels are able to hide where they are fishing and who they might be meeting with by turning off their AIS transponders for days or even weeks. Very few regulations exist to properly regulate this type of behavior across the world’s distant-water fishing fleets. AIS darkness makes it difficult for law enforcement authorities, purchasers, and consumers to trace and verify the legality of seafood.
Global Fishing Watch, a non-profit that tracks fishing activity worldwide, has called for national and international mandates that would require vessels to continuously broadcast their positions and would strengthen existing tools such as port controls and at-sea boardings. Such mandates would help prevent illegally caught seafood from entering global supply chains. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, has called on the U.S. government to require larger fishing vessels to carry Automatic Identification Systems devices to improve transparency of global fishing operations and lead by example.
Over the last decade, the dangers facing fishermen on the industrial fishing ships that catch the seafood we eat have become more visible to consumers, the seafood industry, and governments. Crew members on fishing vessels, which are traveling further and staying at sea longer in hopes of catching the minimum amounts needed to remain profitable, are subject to debt bondage, inhumane working conditions, and severe abuse. Policies to protect these workers, however, have been slow-moving, and enforcement against the worst perpetrators has been limited.
Several groups, including the Environmental Justice Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace, and the International Labor Rights Forum, publish investigative reports about labor abuses on fishing ships, especially in South and East Asia, gathering accounts and evidence from deckhands, ship captains, and other stakeholders involved in the industry. These groups play an important role in highlighting the dangers faced by crew. They also push for stronger laws and better enforcement to protect workers on these boats.
The UN’s International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 188 (C188), also known as the Work in Fishing Convention, is a global labor standard that sets out the rights and working conditions for seafarers, including minimum age, working hours, rest periods, and safety measures on board ships. But only twenty-one countries have ratified C188. Organizations such as the FISH Safety Foundation have argued that broader adoption and stronger implementation of this treaty is necessary to establish better safety and oversight standards for fishers around the world.
Forced labor is more common on fishing ships that stay at sea longer. These ships avoid docking and spot checks by onshore inspectors, sometimes for years, by relying on transshipment, a practice that involves carrying supplies to fishing boats and transporting their catch back to shore. Transshipment enables unscrupulous fishing boat operators to keep crews captive at sea and to lie about their catch on the documents they give to customs authorities, obscuring evidence that the vessel has been fishing illegally.
Labor and environmental advocates, such as Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch, argue that governments and fish buyers should require fishing ships to make more frequent visits to shore. They also contend that transshipment at sea should be banned or limited. A coalition called Tuna Forum has developed a set of best practices to ensure transshipment is transparent and well-managed. One proposal includes requiring observers to be present on both fishing and carrier vessels to monitor all at-sea transhipment events. A group led by FishWise has also proposed a series of measures to protect at-sea observers from harm or harassment.
Transshipment not only enables fishing ships to keep workers at sea for perilously long periods but also allows vessels to avoid oversight from port and coastal authorities and makes it difficult for companies to know where their seafood was caught. The Maritime Labor Convention has made eleven months the maximum amount of time that someone can be required to work on a ship without visiting a port, but organizations such as Greenpeace and the International Transport Workers Federation advocate for significantly shorter limits.
Stella Maris, a charity that supports seafarers and fishermen, and the International Labor Rights Forum, have together launched a campaign calling for the mandatory provision of Wi-Fi for fishermen and deckhands at sea. Simply providing internet connectivity for crew who spend months, or even years, at sea would vastly improve working conditions and labor rights, the campaign argues, while at the same time limiting exploitation and giving at-sea workers access to grievance mechanisms.
Distant-water fishing captains often refuse to carry sick or injured crew back to shore because of the cost of lost time, spent fuel, and missed work. As a result, seafarers are forced to remain at sea for years on end and face a bevy of health risks, including beriberi, a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1. Beriberi—which is a particular concern on ships that stay at sea for years and rely heavily on transhipment—is preventable and generally reversible. “Beriberi fatality at sea is a red flag for severe neglect or captivity,” said Nicola Pocock, a specialist on the topic who teaches at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “There is absolutely no reason people should be getting, much less dying, from this disease.”
Besides China, other countries with documented problems of human trafficking within their fishing fleet have also struggled to counter beriberi. A Thai government investigation into beriberi found that hard labor and extensive working hours, alongside transhipment, raised the risk of beriberi and could contribute to otherwise preventable deaths at sea. The Thai government’s Office of Disease Prevention and Control has suggested that one step to prevent beriberi outbreaks would be to require fishing companies to provide B1 supplements to crew members on ships that stay away from shore longer than 30 days. Pocock said that in addition to those preventative steps, fleet operators and seafood companies should only serve B1-bolstered rice and pasta and ensure that captains and crew know how to identify the disease when it starts.
The U.S. and international bodies do not typically include forced labor in their definition of IUU fishing, which some advocates say has undermined efforts to tackle forced labor across the seafood industry—on fishing vessels and at processing facilities. Many experts agree that policies to counter illegal fishing that fail to take into account labor conditions cannot adequately solve the issue, because the two are often linked. Advocacy organizations such Oceana and Greenpeace, as well as members of the United States Congress, have repeatedly called on the U.S. government to adopt a broader definition of illegal fishing that includes forced labor. In 2022, the agency announced plans to do so, potentially expanding the avenues through which enforcement can occur. “Adding forced labor to the definition of illegal fishing would give patrols the mandate and resources to inspect and screen for trafficking victims as they complete IUU inspections,” said Nate King, the director of Congressional Affairs at International Justice Mission, a human-rights organization.