The True Cost of Seafood

The True Cost of Seafood

David Neimanis David Neimanis
8 minute read

As part of the UN World Day Against Human Trafficking, we dive into human rights in the seafood industry.

Scout partners with Not For Sale (NFS) to address the toils of sea slavery, forced labour, and environmental irresponsibility within the fishing industry

The price displayed on a product at the grocery store isn’t arbitrary—it represents a deeper story. It represents variables such as the ingredients themselves, production, packaging, transportation, sourcing, and wages. When an effort to cut that price comes into play, a piece of that story gets sacrificed. That sacrifice generally starts with wages, freedom, and the health of our planet.

We need to think in terms of value rather than costs. This isn’t always easy, because as consumers we are price sensitive. The true cost of responsible seafood, however, means that everyone along the supply chain is being paid fairly, treated ethically, and that ecosystems are being respected and cared for in an effort to support endless generations of wild fish populations.

When the accepted price of a product is artificially low, the cost is no longer represented, as it is being paid for somewhere along the supply chain.

For example, behind a $2 can of tuna, of which many commodity brands make hundreds of millions of dollars, you’ll often find forced labour, child labour, and modern-day sea slavery. The fight for our oceans is not just an environmental issue, it's directly related to human welfare.

To make matters worse, COVID-19 buying patterns have resulted in an increased demand for canned tuna with little action taken to address the labour abuses at sea. In a recent study by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, it was found that among 35 canned tuna brands that only one in four companies have taken action to mitigate the heightened modern slavery risks for workers arising as a result of COVID-19.

Scout has partnered with Not For Sale (NFS), a global organization dedicated to the fight against modern slavery and exploitation, to make the pledge in working towards a seafood industry that functions entirely on a supply chain rooted in ethical integrity and transparency.

NFS has conducted extensive research and reporting on the devastating human rights and environmental violations within Thailand’s fishing industry, one of the world’s largest fishing industries and major suppliers of the global supply chain. It cannot be stated clearly enough that these findings do not represent all Thai fisheries, and that Thailand is not the only country engaging in and supporting unethical practices.

What exactly is sea slavery?

In an attempt to keep costs low, fishing operations will hire labor brokers or staffing agencies to source unpaid labour, generally using tactics that prey on desperation. The most common tactic involves visiting underserved rural regions within neighboring countries, providing promises of paid work opportunities. These recruited individuals will then be transported to new cities, stripped of their belongings and identification, and forced out to sea—some never to return.

The course of the life will forever change the very moment that they step onto that fishing vessel. Ahead they will likely be held at sea for multiple years in unsanitary, incredibly dangerous environments with no way out. Interviews with rescued workers have highlighted the dehumanizing conditions endured, including 20-hour workdays with no days off, physical violence, murders, and deprivation of sleep, food, and water. This is a human welfare catastrophe, and for what? To keep prices low.

How does overfishing impact humans?

Overfishing has a direct impact on human rights violations at sea. As our oceans become depleted of healthy fish stocks, fishing naturally becomes a much more difficult task, forcing vessels to go further out to sea in search of fish.

Deep-sea fishing is not only one of the most dangerous professions in the world, but it is also much more expensive, resulting in the worst possible conditions for fishing crews. Victims that are sent out to the deep waters of the oceans experience intense voyages that last for much longer periods, and where law enforcement is much less prevalent.

In search of maintaining profit, captains will pay their crew reduced wages, if any, while hiring fewer crew members. With a smaller crew, victims face longer hours and more difficult conditions, with no increase in compensation. It’s a chain reaction with very few winners.

Beyond direct human rights violations, there are many indirect human impacts as a result of overfishing. Seafood is one of the most traded commodities globally—a decimation of wild fish populations results in a direct reduction in job opportunities. In addition to employing close to 40 million people, fishing provided more than 3.3 billion people with 20 percent of their average per capita intake of animal proteins in 2020 according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. If these conditions do not improve, depleted fish stocks will have massive global repercussions, particularly on ocean-dependent nations.

How do migrant workers factor in?

The tactic of preying upon desperation is no accident. Among the Thai fisheries that were exposed, it was found that about 90 percent of the 300,000+ workers were migrants. Much of this is because compared to its neighboring countries, Thailand has a significantly stronger economy and a shortage of cheap labour—both factors leading to a large influx of migrants.

Statelessness is a major driver for migrant slave labour as well. In Thailand, people that are stateless, or not recognized by any nation, are at a unique risk of trafficking because they are unable to seek legal employment and are left with limited protection of basic human rights. Labour brokers knowingly take advantage of this by intentionally targeting migrants and stateless individuals, and making false promises of decent wages and work conditions.

Where does this fish end up?

While many international markets have made efforts to deter the import of seafood from irresponsible Thai fisheries, demand still prevails, allowing these fisheries that use forced labour to export their products around the world. This seafood ends up everywhere, from American grocery stores to European restaurants, with the main reason being consumer demand.

For example, increased demand for affordable prawns in the EU and US results in boat owners seeking cheap labour and increases the probability of human exploitation. Large corporations have since purchased seafood from providers that could not verify labour practices, while journalist investigators have explored these same supply chains and discovered that this seafood has been fished using forced labour.

Fair wages are nearly impossible to deliver if importers do not allow the price of seafood to rise as the cost of fishing in over-exploited oceans rises. Ultimately these decisions are driven by the consumer.

What can we do to become better allies?

While there is much action needed to restore order in the global seafood supply chain, it starts with consumer decision-making. When making decisions about what products to buy, consider the following:

  1. Understand supply chain transparency - is a company sharing information related to its supply chain? As a consumer, you have the power to contact the companies you support. If they aren’t willing to share supply chain-related information, look elsewhere.
  2. Know the source - look at the packaging and understand which waters the product is being sourced from and then cross-reference with a trusted source, like NOAA FIsheries. Keep in mind that certain species thrive in certain waters.
  3. Choose to buy regional seafood when possible - buying seafood close to home is one of the easiest ways to feel good about what you consume. Less trade in the supply chain allows for more transparency.
  4. Third-Party Certifications - looking for third-party certifications like the MSF blue fish label, when applicable, ensuring that the fisheries whose products end up in your home are not just sourced ethically, but responsibly.

Until corporations pay the true cost of seafood and properly trace their supply chains, many consumers globally will continue to unknowingly eat seafood harvested using modern-day slavery. Supply chain transparency and traceable sourcing practices are vital in reforming the fishing industry.

Scout sources 100 percent of its products from North America, where the company has thoughtfully built relationships with trusted suppliers, dedicating itself to value and transparency.That value of a product goes much deeper than taste and nutrition.

Lives and resources are involved in getting products into our homes, and for the sake of humanity, we must be willing to shop better. We must ensure that the companies we support engage in responsible sourcing practices. If a company is not willing to practice transparency in relation to its supply chain, know that there are others out there that would be proud to do so.

Next time you look at that price tag, think about what it represents. Think about the story.

For more information, please read Not For Sale’s report on Sustainable Fisheries and Human Rights.

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