Op-ed: Buyers sourcing from FIPs must not ignore social responsibility

FishChoice's Kristin Sherwood

Kristin Sherwood is program director at FishChoice, an organization that creates online tools to further the sustainable seafood movement, including FisheryProgress.org.

FisheryProgress.org is the website where 96 percent of global fishery improvement projects (FIPs) report their progress so that seafood buyers can determine which FIPs meet their sustainable seafood commitments. FisheryProgress was initially designed to be a platform for reporting on environmental improvements. However, in May 2019, FisheryProgress received an allegation of a human rights abuse in a FIP reporting on the website.

This allegation, taken together with the many investigations led by credible media and human rights organizations, made it clear that buyers sourcing from FIPs on FisheryProgress were buying from fisheries with egregious human rights abuses. And FisheryProgress was complicit in allowing those abuses to go unaddressed.

We undertook two years of intensive stakeholder consultation, engaging with hundreds of FIPs, businesses, and conservation and human rights NGOs, to design a starting-point approach to social responsibility that sought to align with international human rights standards while being feasible for FIPs to implement in the short-term.

The result of this engagement was the FisheryProgress Human Rights and Social Responsibility Policy, launched in May 2021. The policy includes five core requirements for all FIPs reporting on the website: a public policy commitment to human rights; a vessel list; efforts to make fishers aware of their rights; a grievance mechanism; and a self-evaluation against criteria for increased risk of forced labor, child labor, and human trafficking. FIPs that meet one or more risk criteria must also complete and submit a human rights risk assessment using elements of the Social Responsibility Risk Assessment Tool (SRA) and develop a workplan to address any areas of high risk.

Meeting these policy requirements is new territory for FIPs and there are several barriers that have emerged. First, FIPs have struggled to raise funds, build technical expertise and capacity, and secure the time of qualified consultants. Second, some FIPs found FisheryProgress’ requirement to complete an SRA assessment duplicative of existing social audits or certifications. Finally, and most importantly, FIPs are not receiving strong and consistent demand from their buyers to meet the social policy requirements.

In response to these challenges, FisheryProgress made changes to the social policy effective immediately through the end of 2025 to provide FIPs with additional time and flexibility to meet the requirements. Specifically, FIPs can now request 12-month extensions on unmet social policy requirements with proper justification and FisheryProgress will accept alternative assessments such as from other social audits and certifications in lieu of completing a risk assessment using the SRA. FisheryProgress will also add prominent labels to FIP profiles on the website so that buyers can more easily understand the status of their efforts to meet social requirements.

Our top priority is to keep FIPs reporting on FisheryProgress while they do the hard work of addressing social and environmental challenges. Additional time and flexibility – coupled with transparency about the efforts FIPs are undertaking – will keep more FIPs on FisheryProgress while giving seafood buyers information to evaluate whether FIPs are working in good faith toward meeting the social requirements.

Companies that buy and sell seafood, like all businesses, have a responsibility to prevent and mitigate human rights abuses in their supply chains. For fisheries engaged in improvement projects, buyers have a unique opportunity to support FIPs to go beyond business-as-usual by taking essential steps to assess and address human rights risks.

Seafood buyers can use their buying power to reward and encourage FIP progress by committing publicly to source from FIPs making demonstrable environmental and social progress; communicating the expectation to suppliers that addressing social issues is a high priority; and engaging directly with FIPs to provide funding and encourage progress. FisheryProgress has developed resources and features to help businesses take these steps. Our Guide for Seafood Buyers to Encourage FIP Impact gives seafood buyers concrete guidance.

Prevention and mitigation of human rights abuses in seafood supply chains will ultimately require a systemic approach that extends to all fisheries, fish farms, and processing plants. As noted in a recent Seafood Source op-ed, this must include labor union engagement, legally binding agreements, and ratification of international treaties and labor conventions. Until then, we believe the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. FIPs receiving market recognition must take immediate steps to begin addressing their human rights risks. And buyers must make this expectation clear to FIPs they source from as part of their human rights due diligence efforts.

Photo courtesy of FishChoice


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