The US Is Finally Taking Aim at the Slave-Caught Seafood Industry

But can legislative changes on US soil really make a difference for acts committed on ships in the middle of the western Pacific?

The United States is on the verge of pushing through legislation aimed at, among other goals, taking down slave labor in the fishing industry. A United Nations initiative, an amendment to an 85-year-old law, and new requirements under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are all recent steps made toward preventing slave-produced seafood from landing in US grocery stores. But can legislative changes on US soil really make much of a difference for acts committed on ships in the middle of the western Pacific?

"The changes we're making here definitely will make a difference around the world for some fisheries and for many of the people that work on these boats, because the US is a huge market for seafood," John Hocevar, the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign, told me over the phone. "But, there are whole bunch of buts and caveats to that."

Last week, the Senate voted in favor of closing a long-criticized loophole in the Tariff Act of 1930 that allowed the import of goods produced by slave labor as long as the US wasn't able to produce enough of those goods at home. So even if we knew full well that a shipment of, say, shrimp were produced using slave labor, it was perfectly legal to import it because we can't produce enough shrimp here to meet demand. It was a controversial loophole that legislators have been arguing to close for years. President Obama is expected to sign that decision into law later this week.

Obama also recently ratified the Port State Measure Agreement, a UN initiative to build an international framework for port state measures—requirements and interventions that vessels have to comply with in order to enter a port—that would bar ships suspected of participating in illegal, undocumented, or unreported fishing. That brings the number of nations that have signed on to 20, and the UN needs 25 to bring the agreement into practice. Getting the US—one of the biggest seafood importers in the world—on board was a big step.

But the most specific changes are under NOAA, which introduced plans for a traceability program, requiring a point-by-point history for 16 species of fish imported into the US, including shrimp, tuna, and King Crab. NOAA plans to expand the list to other species in 2017, after running the program for a trial period.

Each of these moves takes a hit at sea slavery in the fishing industry, a widespread problem where fishing boat workers are forced into free labor for months or years at a time, stranded on the sea and sometimes literally chained to the boats where they work. The depth and breadth of this problem has been recently exposed through a number of journalism investigations. The US imports roughly 91 percent of the seafood consumed in this country, and is consistently one of the top importers of fish around the world. A number of investigations have traced slave-produced seafood from ship to US shores, making it as much an American problem as an international human rights issue.

"Today, you can walk into almost any supermarket in the country and buy seafood that was caught illegally and harvested or processed by slaves," Hocevar said. "So to get from that to a situation where you can actually be confident that the seafood you buy in the US is ethical and environmentally sustainable is going to take a lot of work."

Part of the problem is that the fishing industry is built on long chains of steps with many moving pieces, separating the tuna in your sandwich from the boat where it was first caught. A vessel catches the fish then sells it to a trader, which sells it to a processor, which sells it to a brand, which sells it to a supermarket chain, for example. There's also the issue of transshipment at sea: a practice of transferring a cargo of seafood from the boat where it was caught to a boat that transfers it to shore, allowing the fishing vessel to stay out and catch more fish.

"This makes it more cost effective for them to keep fishing and fishing and fishing, which adds to the overfishing problems we have," Hocevar explained. "It also creates a situation where workers can be literally trapped on boats for months or years at a time with no chance to escape. That's an environment where many are facing all kind of labor and human rights violations."

Hocevar said these legislative changes are an important first step, but there's more that needs to be done. Implementing better oversight to ensure what's being reported aboard a vessel is actually what's happening would be an important step, Hocevar said, one that the US could demand of local fishery management organizations from which we import our seafood. Another important piece is to have private corporations get on board to ensure their products are ethically-produced, regardless of government regulations, he said. And that change is most likely going to come from consumer pressure.

"The fishing industry is going to have to make a lot of these changes themselves," Hocevar said. "We see supermarket chains starting to react to these scandals by cleaning up their own brands. They haven't done it yet, but they're thinking about it."