‘Ethics’ is the new ‘sustainability’ in the seafood supply chain

Published on
September 23, 2015

“Sustainability” has been the key word in seafood supply for the past decade, but as more and more stocks are certified as sustainable or acknowledged to be better managed, it is fast being overtaken by “ethics” as a non-negotiable market requirement.

This change comes as consumers, led by NGOs, become concerned not just about the future of fish and the oceans, but also about the human cost involved in seafood production. In short, they do not want their dinner tainted by slavery-like practices on vessels and in processing plants.

Interestingly, this issue is gaining attention from a wider sector of the public than mere sustainability, and is being talked about with the same abhorrence as child laborers making t-shirts and athletic shoes for global brands.

A new report produced by ethics consultant Roger Plant for U.K. seafood body Seafish looks at 15 regions supplying the U.K. market and focuses on the social issues surrounding human rights and the labor rights of fishermen.

“An assessment of ethical issues impacting on the UK seafood supply chain” includes a risk assessment profile for each region, along with strategic recommendations about how the seafood industry can help to improve conditions on fishing vessels and along the supply chain. Chile, China, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, Philippines, Russian Federation, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam are all covered.

Plant presented his report at the World Seafood Congress in Grimsby last week.

"The issue of slavery and labor brokering in the seafood supply chain won't go away and no country is immune to these activities. The only way to stop what is going on is through collective action by the seafood industry as a whole and across the globe. The supply chain needs to find ways to share information and be proactive in reporting findings during audits, as well as pioneering joint investigations on issues such as slave labor which will provide benefits to everybody involved,” he said.

Plant believes that the biggest change required is a code of conduct on social responsibility, similar to the FAO code on responsible fisheries, which has led to vast improvements in the sustainability of the marine environment. He cites precedents in sectors such as electronics and cocoa, where companies have been subjected to widespread allegations of slavery-like practices in their supply chains and have implemented a voluntary code of conduct to counter the issues.

One of the drivers for the report is the U.K. Modern Slavery Act, introduced in March 2015, which requires companies to report on their measures to prevent and eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains.

Seafish is helping to tackle the issue by including crew welfare in its revised Responsible Fishing Scheme. The organization also plans to carry out risk assessments for more regions in the future. Any social issues identified will be added to its Risk Assessment for Sourcing Seafood (RASS) tool, which currently provides risk scores on the environmental impact of fisheries.

“This will give seafood buyers a complete picture of the environmental and social risks linked to the seafood they buy,” said Libby Woodhatch, head of advocacy for Seafish.

Plant’s report points out that the trend from environmental to social is increasingly reflected in other private standards and labelling initiatives, including GlobalGAP, the Marine Ingredients Organization (IFFO) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). The large U.K. retailers also have their own company codes of conduct, which tend to have similarly comprehensive coverage of human rights and labor standards.

“Whilst the worst abuses have been documented by the media, there has been very limited systematic research beyond those countries most in the spotlight. If real progress is to be made, more systematic research is needed, together with more transparency regarding the origin of seafood products,” he said.

Plant said there will always be difficult choices for companies sourcing seafood from countries with an imperfect human rights record. They will need to decide on such important aspects as what minimum human rights requirements to accept before signing an import deal, how much due diligence to undertake, what level of violations to accept, and when to disengage.

“So far there has been almost no litigation against private companies for complicity in forced labor, slavery or human trafficking, but the risk is nevertheless here. The increasing media and NGO attention on human and labor rights in the seafood industry may well trigger some strategic litigation in future.” he said.

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