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Charting New Waters

news2Fishwise celebrates 10 years, authors white paper on human rights

When the founders of the Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Fishwise began their uncharted journey in 2003, they had one goal: to provide retailers with the information and tools they needed to give customers the ability to make informed decisions about the seafood they put on their table.

Partnering with New Leaf Community Markets for their initial pilot program, Fishwise found that the people of Santa Cruz County not only appreciated knowing the environmental impact of the seafood they were buying, but they actually bought more.

“Everyone in this town wants to do the right thing,” says Chris Farotte, meat and seafood director at New Leaf Community Markets. “So we brought them a program that allows them to make informed decisions, and they were happy. And it was a great move for us because we actually increased sales.”

Upon realizing that the services they were providing to retailers were also raising their profits, Fishwise began to employ market-based strategies alongside the incentive of preserving the world’s ocean life to entice other grocers to carry and label more sustainable seafood options. This bottom-up strategy has started to change the way distributors and fisheries do business.

“The key approach was to provide consumers and retailers with the information they needed to make sustainable choices, and we quickly found that that resulted in increased sales,” says Tobias Aguirre, Fishwise executive director. “So from that dynamic we really built out our program to be a market-based approach.”

Now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, Fishwise has grown substantially since its start with New Leaf Community Markets. Over the past decade, Fishwise went from partnering with other natural grocers and markets, to catching the attention of Safeway, who they partnered with in 2010, followed by Target in 2011. Fishwise now works with more than 3,700 storefronts across North America.

With its success at the consumer end of the seafood supply chain, Fishwise sought to promote sustainable fishing practices closer to its source. In one of its efforts, Fishwise joined forces with a coalition of seafood distributors, and formed Sea Pact, which seeks to improve the conditions in both the wild fishing and fish farming facilities that these partnering distributors purchase from.

As Fishwise’s scope moved up the supply chain, problems with seafood traceability became more apparent. Using illegal techniques, such as transshipment, where one boat stays out at sea, while another brings the stationary vessel’s catch back to port, some vessel operators are able to hide the sources of their seafood. Out on the high seas, and in other regions of the world where law enforcement is difficult, both environmental and human rights violations are likely to occur.

“Illegal fishing practices often go hand in hand with human rights issues,” says Aguirre.

With this in mind, Mariah Boyle, traceability and IUU director for Fishwise, began to investigate human rights violations in the global seafood industry, and compiled her findings in a white paper, which was released in mid-November.

“I think we have seen in some cases where the human element can sometimes be as important if not more important to communicate to the consumer than the environmental sustainability element,” says Boyle. “We’re seeing quite a few seafood products tell the story of the place, and of the fish, and of the people.”

The white paper outlines how a lack of enforcement, governance gaps, and shortcomings in transparency and traceability in supply chains contribute to environments aboard fishing vessels and in seafood processing facilities that are conducive to human rights violations.

Since fishing vessels often need to travel further out into the high seas to procure seafood, it makes it easier for the vessel owners and operators to commit human rights violations without being caught. The white paper refers to case studies from the last 10 years where laborers were forced to work 20-hour days, withstand physical and mental abuse, and in one report cited in the paper, more than half of the crewmembers of a fishing vessel witnessed a coworker who was murdered.

One of the specific examples given in the paper involves the human trafficking and forced labor of migrant workers in Thailand. Due to the economic success within the borders of Thailand, their unemployment rates are low, and Thai citizens are unwilling to endure the grueling work aboard fishing boats. Because of this, migrant workers from surrounding countries are often forced to work long hours under harsh conditions.

Thailand isn’t the only hot spot for human rights violations in the seafood industry. According to the white paper, areas surrounding the Ukraine, Indonesia, and West Africa are all high-risk areas for coercive and deceptive labor practices.

Although human rights violations committed at sea are difficult to combat, Boyle believes that with the efforts of government legislation, and socially conscious companies and consumers, these crimes can be reduced in the coming years.

“Just as we saw environmental sustainability take off in seafood in the last 10 years, I would anticipate that human rights will follow,” says Boyle. “It will be something in the future you will just be able to talk about for any product quite easily.”

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