Do You Know Who Peeled Your Shrimp? Why Social Sustainability Matters

By Claire Dawson, Marc Hershman Marine Policy Fellow

Global issues like population growth and climate change are challenging the status quo on fisheries and aquaculture, forcing us to rethink how we interact with and manage marine resources like fish, shellfish and plants. At this year's SeaWeb Sustainable Seafood Summit in Seattle, seafood traceability, social sustainability and food security were among the most pressing concerns.

Juvenile tunas. PHOTO CREDIT: © Nick Hall

Seafood traceability simply means everyone along the supply chain, from the person who fished or farmed the animal, to the final consumer who eats it, knows what happened to that animal at every stage, in every place. The journey the fish has made from ocean or farm to plate is traced. Full traceability means people have access to this information, too, so consumers can make smarter decisions about the seafood they buy.

For companies who need to ensure traceability, the matter goes beyond making customers happy — it’s also about keeping them safe and protecting the environment. Companies that process, distribute and sell seafood need to be able to trace their products to where it was harvested, to know it was handled safely and meets standards set by the countries that purchase the end products.

As sustainability increasingly becomes a concern, companies also face a reputational risk from untraceable seafood products. When they don't know where or how something was caught or farmed, they are vulnerable to potential environmental, social or food-safety disasters. By ensuring traceability, companies can also appeal to the growing number of people around the world who are demanding greater access to sustainable seafood products.

Hauling in the catch on a commercial salmon fishing boat along the coast of the outer islands, west of Prince of Whales Island, off southeast Alaska. PHOTO CREDIT: ©Bridget Besaw

Knowing where our food comes from not only means knowing that the fishery is sustainable but that human rights are upheld throughout the value chain — the process or activities by which value is added to a product or good.

For example, without a proper traceability system, a U.S. company selling farmed shrimp from Southeast Asia may be unaware that the fishers supplying the feed for the shrimp farms are slave laborers.

Social sustainability at the Seafood Summit addressed the conditions and treatment of the human component within fisheries and aquaculture. In recent years, explosive news about slavery and the exploitation of undocumented workers in the seafood industry around the globe took consumers by surprise and made them care more about the issues: Are workers being paid a fair wage? What are their living and working conditions like? What are the broader implications of the fishery or farm for the local community? Is this fishery or farm contributing to strong livelihoods and wellbeing?

Poor working conditions are not limited to foreign seafood processing. Some domestic seafood processors have fallen under scrutiny for poor treatment of foreign guest workers. Guest workers are vital to the $38.5 billion American seafood industry, with more than 60 percent of butchers and fish processors born outside of the United States.

Vietnamese fisherman Dung Nguyen mends a shrimp net aboard a shrimp boat at the docks in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program is a partnership among our five Gulf State Chapters to accomplish conservation across the entire Gulf ecosystem. The Gulf Program employs conservation professionals in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas to restore and protect natural systems and natural areas across political boundaries. Photo credit: © Carlton Ward Jr.

For a long time, policymakers, academics, certification institutions (such as Seafood Watch, Ocean Wise and Marine Stewardship Council) and others have grappled with how to measure social sustainability in seafood. Many of the current standards that help inform our seafood choices address only environmental outcomes but leave out the human element. Marine sustainability experts are starting to bridge this gap and presented a framework that includes elements like protecting human rights and dignity, ensuring equality and equal opportunity and improving livelihood security. A long road remains ahead from theory to practice. But hopefully sustainability will soon expand to encompass not only environmental health but human health.

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