Rusting Fishing Vessel - Defending Our Oceans Tour. 4  Apr, 2006 © Greenpeace / Pierre Gleizes

There’s no easy way to say this: The seafood at your local supermarket may be connected to slavery. It’s heartbreaking.

Fishing operators in over 50 countries around the world are crewing ships through human trafficking networks – using “debt bondage, violence, intimidation and murder to keep crews in line and maintain cheap seafood on supermarket shelves,” according to one of many recent reports exposing this exploitation.

An Associated Press investigation in Indonesia earlier this year uncovered evidence of astounding abuse, including crew being whipped with poisonous stingray tails and being kept in locked cages to prevent escape. In Thailand, survivors of forced labor told the Guardian of “horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings.” And yesterday, the Guardian revealed how Rohingya migrants were being trafficked and sold into slavery on Thai fishing vessels.

Unsurprisingly, the exploitation of people goes hand-in-hand with the exploitation of the oceans.

Vessel operators who have little regard for labour laws often also have little regard for the environment or fisheries management regulations. Just days ago, the New York Timesexposed one such vessel for both labour abuse and environmental crimes, and others for murder.

Companies are increasingly motivated to employ cheap or forced labour and to fish illegally as fish populations dwindle from overfishing and demand for cheap seafood grows.

From shrimp, to tuna, to pet food: the global seafood market is tainted with seafood caught unsustainably and by workers who have been denied their most basic human rights.

 Shrimp laborers in Thailand. Provided by International Labor Rights ForumImage provided by International Labor Rights Forum

How can we ensure the seafood industry is fair to workers and the oceans?

Labour abuse – like overfishing – is an industry-wide problem. In order to address it, we need real commitment from every party involved: governments, suppliers, vessel operators, seafood companies, and retailers.

Ultimately, supermarkets that sell seafood must take their share of responsibility. If retailers are not careful about their seafood suppliers and policies, they may make themselves and their customers unwitting accomplices in forced labour or human rights abuses.

But the vast majority of supermarket chains have historically ignored labour abuse concerns, instead of investigating where their seafood comes from

That’s why last week, Greenpeace USA released the 2015 edition of the Carting Away the Oceans report, shining a light on which major grocery chains in the US are leaders in sustainable seafood and addressing human rights abuses in the industry, and which are falling behind. 

The findings are telling. While US retailers like Whole Foods are doing a better job of offering ocean safe seafood options, major chains like Walmart are linked to destructive fishing practices, and some companies are even linked to human rights abuses. Though several retailers have taken initial steps to address human rights concerns, all 25 retailers profiled in the report have significant work to do to. 

And it’s not just a US issue. Seafood linked to human rights abuses and environmental destruction is present in the global seafood market – a problem everywhere.

Shrimp at a fishing dock in Thailand. Provided by International Labor Rights Forum
Image provided by International Labor Rights Forum

What You Can Do 

Human rights violations and environmental exploitation are difficult to track down and stop at sea. Luckily, we can make a huge impact from far away by ensuring no one is profiting off this abuse. Here are five things you can do that make a mark on illegal and exploitative fishing. 

  1. Demand that your seafood is not connected to human rights abuses. Companies care about what their customers think, so let your local store know you need them to do better when it comes to sustainable, socially responsible seafood. Wield your consumer power!
  2. Act together. Invite your community to take action with you. Inform your friends and encourage them to tell their grocers that they want only sustainable, socially responsible seafood in a store they patronise.
  3. Know the facts. If you shop in the US, you can visit to learn the truth about your favourite US supermarkets and what these companies must to do improve. If you eat canned tuna in the US, you can find out which brands are ocean safe in this guide.
  4. Vote with your wallet. Reward grocers that are taking it upon themselves to make sustainable choices. Only purchase sustainable seafood and let the team behind the counter know you appreciate it.
  5. Eat less fish. Today’s demand for seafood far outstrips what can be delivered from sustainable sources. Reducing seafood consumption now can help lessen the pressure on our oceans, ensuring fish for the future.

In the year 2015, nearly 21 million people are trapped in forced labour worldwide. And the seafood industry is implicated as a top offender. We can’t let this continue.

Supermarkets need to take responsibility and hold the companies providing their seafood accountable. And all of us can help make that happen.

David Pinsky is a Senior Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace USA