The concept of sustainable fishing has been of interest in recent years, with many grocery stores and restaurants labeling seafood as “sustainable,” “organic,” and “wild-caught.” Despite these misleading labels, people are growing aware of the environmental toll that fishing, both wild-caught and farmed, has on the biodiversity and overall health of the oceans. What is less known, however, are the disastrous human rights issues associated with the fishing industry. In the past six years, the abuse that workers face at sea in Southeast Asia has come to light through various investigations. A lot of this awareness is due to news sources, such as the Associated Press, exposing the slavery and child labor on fishing boats in Thailand through shocking videos and articles. In 2012 alone, about 11.7 million people in Southeast Asia were subjects of human trafficking, and investigations have found that many of these people work on fishing boats in unthinkable conditions. Migrant workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, and because fishing is Thailand’s biggest source of income, fisheries are incented to continue to exploit trafficked people who are abused and even killed at sea.
Even though this exploitation is occurring oceans away, the United States plays a role in perpetuating abuse and trafficking. Take shrimp for example. Shrimp is one of the United States’ most consumed seafoods, with demand increasing in recent years as a result of its being marketed as a lean, healthy protein source. More than 90% of shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported from other countries, much of it coming from Southeast Asia and Latin America, with Thailand being the world’s largest exporter in 2020. Not only is shrimp farming a major contributor to the increase of greenhouse gasses, it also is a product of child labor and human rights violations. It is no wonder that the fishing industry relies on slave labor to satisfy the excessive demand for seafood in U.S. supermarkets, for the average American consumes about four pounds of shrimp per year.
With the demand for seafood on the rise for various reasons, the world’s largest exporters of fish and shrimp are motivated to increase their yield for a low cost. With this demand comes the exploitation of workers, many of whom are migrants or trafficked from other countries. As of 2018, the Thai fishing industry employed 250,000 migrants from Myanmar. According to the Harvard International Review, “Inadequate food and water, 18-hour shifts, physical abuse, and countless days at sea” are common occurrences for workers aboard fishing boats. Migrant workers are enticed by promises of a stable job but end up facing deadly working conditions with little or no pay. Even though awareness surrounding this issue has grown, it appears that little has been done at the structural level to eliminate trafficking and exploitation, and officials have even been reported to be complicit with labor abuse. A main barrier to combating trafficking and exploitation is the challenge of monitoring how employees are treated at sea for long periods of time.
Overfishing is undeniably an environmental issue. But it is also a social justice issue and a threat to the treatment of the most ignored people and non-human animals on earth. The lack of transparency from seafood companies, our disconnect from the origins of our seafood, and the ability for these problems to be hidden at sea all play a role in minimal public awareness about fishing. The good news is consumers have the power to prevent social and environmental injustice in fisheries around the world through our food choices. What can you do from thousands of miles away? Understanding where your seafood comes from and the consequences of its production are crucial. We not only have the ability to make socially and environmentally just choices, but we have the responsibility to do so for the future of our planet.
With a large amount of seafood, particularly shrimp, being exported from countries with a history of human trafficking and exploitation, it is best to avoid these products altogether when you are able. Most importantly, we must consider the many hidden aspects of the fishing industry, including additional environmental and ethical concerns. To learn more about the environmental consequences of overfishing, read these posts from other FFAC interns.
Audrey Bailey is an FFAC intern and an Environmental Studies and Spanish student at Lake Forest College.