Although I don’t currently work in the fisheries industry, I have conducted research into the current state of existing protection efforts and legal frameworks that address human rights and IUU in the fishing industry (see my April 2014 blog). In addition, I have extensive experience working directly and indirectly in several sustainable or ethical commodity initiatives (e.g. cotton, biofuels, minerals), and this experience has provided insights that I feel should be considered when trying to develop a scalable and effective program to address human rights and sustainability in fisheries. I would like to share with you here some of the key points that were raised at the workshops and during subsequent conversations with select participants.
The seafood supply chain is complex and involves many actors.
Fish and fish products are among the most traded commodities worldwide, with 197 countries reporting exports in 2010.
I refer to commodity supply chains – such as fisheries – as “supply webs” because a multidirectional web more accurately represents the numerous connections and shifting suppliers than a linear supply chain does. To further complicate things, different sources of fish are mixed and consolidated in several points along the web, including while at sea, which is largely lawless terrain where monitoring is extremely difficult. In addition, fish matter is used as a feed in aquaculture, extending the supply web into other segments of the fishing industry.
The initial focus should be on IUU fishing and on forced labor and human trafficking.
Fragmented governance and weak enforcement are common issues that limit the effectiveness of international laws in many regions. Experts estimate that IUU fishing accounts for up to a quarter of the world's total catch of wild fish.
IUU fishing has strong correlations with other crimes, including human trafficking and forced labor. IUU fishing is also recognized as a large contributor to the overexploitation of fisheries and an obstacle to more sustainable fishing in the industry.
Combating illegal behavior, especially IUU fishing, is a logical area to begin with because every person and business should be held accountable if they are unable to meet the minimum criteria of conducting business within the rule of law. Focusing on IUU will level the playing field by preventing some actors from benefiting from operating illegally – and from saving associated costs and being subject to catch limits. The initial focus should be on monitoring and enforcing existing laws and norms, making use of existing frameworks to the extent possible. Such a program should involve and foster coordinated, cross-border, multi-agency efforts that leverage work by other stakeholders such as non-government organizations (NGOs), United Nations agencies, law enforcement, military, and surveillance and intelligence gathering agencies. It must also be aligned and work in concert with needed policy and trade advancements.
A strong, effective system that addresses IUU could be expanded upon to address other supporting and related issues, depending on local contexts and activities (e.g. protection of fishing grounds rights, enforcement of legal catch restrictions). Additional issues or segments of the supply chain can be incorporated when the system is established and functioning. The intended outcomes (e.g. reduction in forced labor and human trafficking, healthier fishing grounds) and additional benefits (e.g. improved fisheries management, worker empowerment) can be monitored and evaluated over time, with appropriate adjustments made as needed.
While traceability should be an option, it should not be the focus of a solution.
There is a lot of interest in developing a traceability system as a tool to promote responsible sourcing of raw materials, including fish. However, we must recognize the limitations of – and cost to implement – traceability systems in complex commodity supply chains with global origins, such as fisheries. It would be best to design a program to keep fish product from entering the supply chain if it was caught, produced or processed with the involvement of any human trafficking or forced labor. The electronics industry’s conflict-free smelter program (CFSP) is an example of a program that successfully takes this approach. The goal of the CFSP is to keep conflict minerals from entering their supply chain at the first step of processing and mixing (e.g. smelters). The CFSP does not allow smelters to receive any conflict minerals if they are to qualify as a conflict-free smelter. Smelters cannot simply segregate “good” minerals from potentially conflict minerals, a practice allowed in most certification and traceability systems. The CFSP’s approach motivates smelters to take appropriate measures to ensure all of its suppliers and raw material sources are conflict-free, driving compliance further down and across the supply web.
Another feature of the electronics industry’s CFSP that could be applied to human trafficking and forced labor in fisheries is its risk-based model. The CFSP requires additional documentation as well as on the ground assessments and chain of custody systems in areas of high risk (regions surrounding conflict minerals production). A risk-based approach should hold all players to the same standard without penalizing regions and actors that are already acting responsibly.
A three-pronged approach will drive legal behavior.
Taking a three-pronged approach – one that empowers vulnerable workers, creates market drivers, and advances policy and legal enforcement simultaneously – will promote systemic change more effectively than a single approach.
While a market driven solution can be powerful and effective more quickly than policy changes, it must be implemented at an industry level, because individual brands don’t have the level of influence on the powerful processing companies. Such an effort must be well-coordinated throughout the industry, with consistent expectations, to be effective. We must recognize that buyers have limited resources and often lack specific fisheries or human rights expertise. We must develop a systems approach that takes these and other business realities into consideration. An approach that is simple, flexible, and easy to implement will likely allow for wider adoption across businesses of all sizes and regions.
Policy, legal, and – where appropriate – trade restrictions will also be an important part of the solution. Policies that ban IUU fish from entering key markets (e.g. European Union) are helpful drivers and should be expanded (to the US) and strengthened.
A future initiative should be designed to grow both in scale and possibly in the breadth of issues it addresses over time, and it should work closely with and complement existing initiatives (e.g. Marine Stewardship Council, Aquaculture Sustainability Council). It should work within – and strengthen – a wider system.
Leverage international frameworks and relevant regulations.
Several governing bodies monitor and act on human trafficking in fisheries. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), International Labour Organization (ILO), and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have long cooperated on the safety of fishers and fishing vessels. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), INTERPOL Fisheries Crime Working Group, and OECD High Seas Task Force are specifically addressing IUU.
Momentum to address the labor and human rights violations in fisheries is building. Some legal instruments exist in the consumer regions that could be expanded upon to encourage wider participation in the industry as well as deter illegal and unethical behavior. These include:
EU Regulation to prevent, deter and eliminate IUU and its implementation through the Control Regulation have been effective, although there is some displacement of the issue (i.e. IUU fish) to the US and China. This regulation has also led to a ban of catch by Korean vessels in New Zealand waters over concerns of illegal fishing and extensive human rights and labor abuses. It has been claimed that South Korean vessels fishing overseas have recently been required to be equipped with a vessel monitoring system.
California Transparency Supply Chain Act requires retailers and manufacturers doing business in California with more than $100,000,000 in sales worldwide to publicly disclose their efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains.
The discussions at the October workshops were fruitful and there is commitment from several experienced entities and large buyers to create an effective initiative to address human rights, IUU and sustainability in fisheries. With this said, I hope the future initiative includes alternatives to traditional certification and traceability models, for reasons I have just shared.
 The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2012, pg 70.
 Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch: Wild Seafood.
 South Korean fish exports to face EU ban.