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Expanding social responsibility in fisheries

Human trafficking, child labor, and other egregious human rights abuses in the global fishing industry gained international attention two years ago. Where do we stand now? And what will it take to prioritize human wellbeing as much as environmental responsibility in sustainable seafood?

Fishing boat
Photo credit: Susmita Saha/Unsplash

Over the last decade, consumers and industries alike have been concerned with the way their seafood is caught. Does the catch process consider the current or long-term health of the species? Does it also consider bycatch (the unintended catch of other non-target species) or habitat destruction by fishing gear? Is the fishery managed responsibly with sound policies based on best-available science, and capacity for enforcement and monitoring?

Today more and more retail and food service markets, like grocery stores, have adopted environmentally sustainable seafood policies. This marks a huge step forward for the seafood industry. However, until recently a critical component of global fisheries has been ignored: the well-being, health, and safety of fishworkers and fishing communities.

Social issues like modern slavery and child labor have only recently been a part of the global dialogue around sustainably-sourced seafood, while in other sectors (including coffee, palm oil, and garment production) industry, policy makers, and human rights advocates have been trying to address and eradicate these types of abuses for over a decade. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) around 200 million people around the world depend directly or indirectly on the seafood industry for employment. Therefore, it is crucial for the seafood sector to catch up and address some of the biggest social issues that are occurring across industrial and small-scale fisheries.

Elena Finkbeiner, a fellow with Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions and  Conservation International, co-authored a paper in Science in 2017 titled "Committing to socially responsible seafood," which describes efforts to integrate critical principles of social responsibility into fisheries assessments, policies, and practices, address and eradicate social abuses in fisheries, and ensure that human rights are protected for fishworkers and fishing communities. She now discusses her aim to see a system that prioritizes human wellbeing as much as environmental sustainability in fisheries worldwide.

What does “social responsibility” mean for fisheries?

The discussion around social responsibility in fisheries sparked in 2016, when high-profile journals published exposés uncovering modern slavery, human trafficking, child labor and other egregious human rights abuses occurring across fisheries from both developing and developed countries of origin. This was a major catalyst for convening representatives from across academia, human rights and environmental nonprofit organizations and the seafood industry to tackle these issues. 

The first product of this effort, the above paper published in Science, defined social responsibility in seafood by three critical principles, aiming to include a wide spectrum of social issues across small-scale and industrial fisheries: protect human rights, dignity, and access to resources; ensure equality and equitable opportunity to benefit; improve food and livelihood security.

The paper was released at a very strategic time, just weeks before two important meetings for global fisheries and the seafood sector. The first was the Seaweb Seafood Summit in Seattle, and the second was the UN Oceans meeting in New York. By the completion of both meetings, over two dozen businesses had signed a voluntary commitment to support these three principles of social responsibility. 

How do we move from principles to practice?

What does a commitment to socially responsible seafood entail, and how is it operationalized on the ground? How can we provide guidance, best practices, and tools for the public and private sectors to follow these three principles in practice? And how can we hold these entities accountable? These are the key questions for next steps in this effort – moving from high-level principles to tangible practice. A critical aspect is leveraging existing tools employed in fisheries to drive improvements. One such example is called a Fishery Improvement Project (FIP). 

Fishery improvement projects


Fishery improvement projects, or FIPs, have gained popularity over the past decade as a way to drive environmental improvements in fisheries using market incentives. Fisheries making sufficient progress toward sustainability goals are rewarded with preferential market access. (Photo credit: Danilo Cedrone/NOAA)

How can FIPs be used as a tool to address social responsibility?

FIPs were originally designed to drive environmental improvements in fisheries using market incentives. First, a fishery is evaluated based on three principles of ecological health. Second, where deficits are identified, a multi-stakeholder group is convened to develop a workplan for driving and benchmarking improvements. If the fishery makes sufficient progress in driving improvements, the fishery is rewarded with preferential market access. In some cases, a FIP is used as a means to get the “gold standard” of seafood sustainability – The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. In other cases, MSC certification may not be the end goal, but FIPs are still used as a tool to drive environmental improvements. 

My colleagues and I at environmental and human rights NGOs, along with industry members and academics, are working together to integrate the three published principles of socially responsible seafood into FIP assessment protocols and workplans. Therefore, a FIP can be used as a tool to drive not only ecological improvements in a fishery, but social benefits as well. In April 2018, we held a workshop in Seattle to co-develop an assessment protocol for measuring and benchmarking social responsibility in FIPs. We are currently in the revision stage, seeking input from diverse stakeholders. Once the revision stage is completed, we will pilot the assessment protocol in various fisheries to further improve the process.

How will social data be collected in these assessments?

Information on social responsibility will be primarily collected through direct interviews with fishworkers (this could include fishers, farmers, or processors), as well as with other key actors up the supply chain. As such, this will likely be a sensitive and time-intensive process, and will require direct engagement with the local stakeholders, including all those affected by the fishery or FIP. Additionally, information will be obtained from secondary sources, such as national and international censes on health, and other important indicators of human well-being.

Is conducting human-subjects research difficult?

Collecting social data and doing human-subjects research can be tricky. It is most important to establish trust and rapport with the community before diving into data collection. Anytime you do research in rural fishing communities, the first thing you want to do is go there and spend plenty of time just getting to know the town and the people, understanding cultural norms, fostering relationships and developing trust. 

As a social scientist working in fisheries, people ask me all the time “how do you go into these towns and tell them [fishers] what to do; how to fish more sustainably?” In reality, that’s not what I do at all. I go into these towns and I learn from them and their wealth of knowledge generated by interacting every day with the ocean. I ask them what they are doing and why. In this case I am not the expert – they are. I am there to learn their strategies, how they adapt to what is going on around them, and how they interact with the ocean and marine resources on which they depend. And I seek to understand this behavior in the context of the larger political, economic, and social system in which they are embedded.

Overall, will integrating these three new social principles into FIPs make an impact?

Only time will tell. However, we have already seen a shift in the way consumers buy their seafood and how businesses source and market their products. Businesses want their customers to know they are being sustainable, both environmentally and socially.

I feel that this initiative is using a unique and holistic approach to fisheries sustainability that may be a crucial key to progress.  In general, my sense is that for the longest time we have considered fishers as the problem and we haven’t really gotten very far in solving overfishing with that perspective. How can we expect fishers to be dedicated to environmental sustainability when they don’t have access to basic services or are stripped of their human rights? I think that if we reframe this issue and tackle social issues affecting fishing communities, and see fishers as part of the solution, then a lot more can be achieved.

What are the next steps?

I am eager to see the efficacy of our social responsibility assessment tool for FIPs, how it is received on the ground, and whether or not we can generate positive change. I am also excited about the alignment, dialogue, and coordination between human rights and environmental interests in this initiative. Everyone is beginning to understand that we can’t have sustainability in fisheries without human justice and wellbeing. 

ocean krill

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Media Contacts

Elizabeth Ramsay
Center for Ocean Solutions, 714-717-1616

Elena Finkbeiner
Center for Ocean Solutions, 925-528-9050

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