Task Force Report on Human Trafficking in Seafood Supply Chains Emphasizes Need to Leverage Access to the U.S. Market to Reduce Forced Labor

Last month, the Task Force on Human Trafficking in Fishing in International Waters released its report addressing labor that may have been subject to human trafficking to harvest fish in international waters.

The Task Force’s report was mandated by a Senate Report accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 (P.L. 115-141) that directed the U.S. Department of Justice to lead a multi-agency task force of federal government official experts in order to develop a coordinated response regarding the proper application of U.S. law to the issue.   The Task Force began its work in October of 2018 and, after five months of interagency meetings as well as meetings with stakeholders, began work on drafting its report in March 2019.

In the recently released report, the Task Force provided an overview of the seriousness of the problem of forced labor and human trafficking in seafood supply chains and identified gaps in the capacity of the federal government to respond to such practices, both for U.S.-flagged and foreign-flagged vessels operating in international waters. The report additionally identified tools and resources available to seafood industry members to identify risks in their supply chain of human trafficking, forced labor, and forced child labor, including the U.S. Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, that agency’s Comply Chain website tool, the U.S. Department of State’s Responsible Sourcing Tool for the Seafood Industry, and USAID’s Seafood Alliance for Legality and Traceability website.

Discussing potential responses to human trafficking in seafood production, the Task Force emphasized the importance of trade policy as a tool to reduce forced labor in seafood supply chains, observing that: “Access to U.S. trade benefits provides a potentially powerful carrot-and-stick approach toward foreign governments.” Building on this observation, the Task Force recommended that the “Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) should negotiate future agreements to include a prohibition on the importation of goods produced by forced labor.” The Task Force explained that “[t]his prohibition is important to combat trafficking in the fishing industry, as they restrict markets in which fish produced by forced labor may be sold.”

Further, the Task Force stressed the correlation between illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and human trafficking:

Each documented example of human trafficking is an individual human tragedy and the continued potential for human trafficking and abusive labor conditions in some sectors of the international fishing industry is a major policy concern. Beyond the significant human costs, there is also often a connection between human trafficking on distant water fishing vessels and depletion of fish stocks through illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, another priority area of concern to the U.S. government and the international community. “…[I]llegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing undermines the sustainability of American and global seafood stocks, negatively affects general ecosystem health, and unfairly competes with the products of law-abiding fishermen and seafood industries around the world,” according to a recent Executive Order. International experts have also noted that entities engaged in IUU fishing are more likely also to violate internationally recognized worker rights, raising red flags for the presence of human trafficking. As unsustainable fishing practices and IUU fishing deplete fish stocks, operators of fishing vessels must increase their level of effort and may be forced to travel further to maintain profitable catch rates. In combination with other adverse social and economic factors, create, the resulting higher operating costs create a downward pressure on labor costs to compensate.  Vessel operators often employ migrant workers that can be paid lower wages. 

Because of this connection, the Task Force argued that although the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (Port State Measures Agreement or PSMA) “does not address forced labor” joint efforts to deny access to ports by vessels engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing as well as increases in inspection activity “may deter other illicit activity like human trafficking that may coincide with IUU fishing.” In order for these initiatives to be effective, the Task Force underscored the importance of traceability in seafood supply chains to ensure that seafood harvested using forced labor as part of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing did not enter international trade streams through countries that were not part of the PSMA: “This creates a need for strong market and other measures that implement traceability of seafood products throughout the supply chain, and can aid in detecting IUU fish and fish products landed in nations lacking strong port State controls.”

The Southern Shrimp Alliance believes, contrary to the position taken by the Task Force, that fishing through use of slave labor, on its own, constitutes illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and that NOAA Fisheries should interpret its authority to preclude market access for seafood harvested through IUU fishing to encompass circumstances where there is evidence of forced labor and/or human trafficking. While NOAA Fisheries has previously asserted that addressing forced labor is outside the scope of its authority, the Task Force’s report stressed that NOAA was often in the best position to identify forced labor practices on certain vessels. Indeed, the Task Force specifically recommended that Congress clarify that NOAA Fisheries has a formal role in identifying incidents of human trafficking:

The Administration recommends that Congress consider legislation authorizing appropriations to NOAA to train observer personnel on how to identify indicators of human trafficking and refer to appropriate authorities. While NOAA already has sufficient authority to train its U.S. observers on human trafficking issues, there is no explicit requirement for it do so. As a result, the agency best placed to identify human trafficking indicators on U.S. vessels in international waters may not always be able to prioritize these activities. An authorization of appropriations would offer clarity from Congress regarding NOAA’s role.   

As NOAA Fisheries is tasked with identifying and address human trafficking aboard fishing vessels in U.S. waters, it is equally important that NOAA Fisheries take steps to use its expertise to identify and address efforts to import seafood that were likely produced by labor that has been subject to human trafficking.

Read the January 2021 report of the Task Force on Human Trafficking in Fishing in International Waters here: https://www.justice.gov/crt/page/file/1360366/download

Visit the Southern Shrimp Alliance’s updated “Check Your Suppliers” webpage on forced labor, including links to the U.S. Department of State’s Responsible Sourcing Tool and USAID’s Seafood Alliance for Legality and Traceability website: https://www.shrimpalliance.com/take-action/foreign-food-safety-resources/forced-labor/

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