Social and human rights abuses on agenda at SeaWeb, UN Oceans Conference

A new scientific paper by Conservation International, the University of Washington and other partners is calling on governments, businesses and the scientific community to take measurable steps to ensure seafood is sourced without harm to the environment or people that work in the seafood industry.

The paper, presented at the United Nations Oceans Conference in New York and also at the Seafood Summit in Seattle this week,  offers the first integrated approach to taking account of social issues and human rights violations in the seafood industry. 

Published on 1 June in Science, the work is in direct response to investigative reports by the Associated Press, the Guardian, The New York Times and other media outlets that uncovered human rights violations on fishing vessels. The investigations tracked the widespread use of slave labor in Southeast Asia to produce seafood products, and chronicled the plight of fishermen tricked and trapped into working 22-hour days, often without pay, while enduring abuse. Subsequent investigations have documented the global extent of these abuses.

"The scientific community has not kept pace with concerns for social issues in the seafood sector," said lead author Jack Kittinger, Conservation International's senior director for global fisheries and aquaculture. "The purpose of this initiative is to ensure that governments, businesses, and non-profits work together to improve human rights, equality and food and livelihood security. This is a holistic and comprehensive approach that establishes a global standard to address these social challenges."

Conservation International also organized a volunteer commitment, calling on all sectors to improve social responsibility in the seafood sector. More than 50 organizations have signed up so far.

The paper is being discussed in detail at the United Nations Oceans Conference, taking place at U.N. Headquarters in New York this week, where heads of state and government, along with ministers, have joined ocean leaders, experts, businesses and civil society organizations to discuss solutions to restore the health of the world’s ocean. In particular, the conference is exploring how to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 14, which seeks to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

Seafood is the world's most internationally traded food commodity. By 2030, the oceans will need to supply more than 150 million metric tons of seafood to meet the demands of a growing population, and their health is paramount to achieving this.

In the lead-up to the conference, a surge was noted in the number of voluntary commitments by countries, businesses and civil society groups to take action to improve ocean health. More than 600 commitments were received, targeting a wide range of ocean problems, including protection of coral reefs, strengthening of sustainable fisheries, reducing plastic pollution, and addressing the impacts of climate change on the ocean. 

“The Ocean Conference is where we truly begin the process of reversing the cycle of decline into which our accumulated activities have placed the ocean,” said Peter Thomson, president of the U.N. General Assembly. “By adding to the conference’s register of voluntary commitments, producing practical solutions to the ocean’s problems at the Partnership Dialogues, and through affirmation of the conference’s ‘Call for Action,’ we have begun that process of reversing the wrongs.” 

The conference will result in a Call for Action that will be formally adopted at its conclusion on Friday, 9 June. In this, countries agree to implement long-term strategies to reduce the use of plastics and microplastics, including plastic bags and single-use plastics. Countries also agreed to develop and implement effective adaptation and mitigation measures that contribute to ocean and coastal acidification, sea-level rise, and increase in ocean temperatures, and to addressing the other harmful impacts of climate change on the ocean. The call takes note of the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

The Call for Action includes measures to protect coastal and blue carbon ecosystems such as mangroves, tidal marshes, seagrass, and coral reefs, and wider interconnected ecosystems, as well as enhancing sustainable fisheries management. Countries are called upon to decisively prohibit fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.


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