Fishing is big business. Millions of people around the world rely on it for their livelihood, and billions more eat fish as part of a healthy diet.
Huge and rising demand for fish is exhausting fish stocks and many global fisheries have been overfished in recent decades. The decline in fish is pushing fishing vessels to stay out at sea for longer, travel further afield and fish harder for a diminishing catch. Increasingly, they’re turning to illegal methods of fishing (e.g. using small nets that catch young fish) and illegal labour in the form of trafficked workers, many of whom are forced to work as bonded or slave labour, to cut costs and keep profits.
Thailand is a case in point. While its seafood industry has grown continuously since the 1960s, a lack of controls and extensive corruption across the sector has resulted in massive over-fishing of Thai marine territories (and further afield). Most of the high-value commercial species and much of the astonishing wildlife that once populated these waters has been wiped out.
The volume of fish that Thai vessels now catch is tiny compared to the 1960s, despite more efficient technologies. This has created powerful economic incentives for wrong-doing among the fishing companies that struggle to make a legal profit. It has helped drive the massive use of trafficked workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam on fishing vessels. They are forced into slave or bonded labour in dangerous, harsh and degrading conditions, violently abused and denied basic rights or pay. There is even evidence of extreme forms of violence including executions at sea.
These shocking abuses of people and the wholescale destruction of marine environments are driven by us, right here in the UK. Seafood fished under these conditions is found in our restaurants and supermarkets, in our ready-meals and pet foods.
How can we end this slavery and violence? By voting with our wallets and demanding seafood products that are legal, sustainable and ethical. By demanding that governments across the world support legitimate businesses that respect the environment, workers and human rights, and by ensuring that fishing supply chains are regulated, transparent and traceable.
We must be willing to pay a price for our seafood that reflects the true cost and not buy the ‘cheap’ products that may have been produced at the cost of the devastation of our seas and oceans, or a worker’s dignity, liberty or even life.
This summary draws heavily on a blog written by Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation and one of the speakers at this Food Talks. The full blog is available here.
Note: key questions to ask and/ or top tips
Ask your fishmonger, supermarket or restaurant where it sources its fish, and if it’s been certified by the MSC or equivalent.