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Can tech end slavery?

Speed read
  • Forced labor and human rights abuses prevalent in global seafood industry
  • New risk tool raises awareness among seafood buyers
  • Blockchain and other tech may hold the key to tracing a complex supply chain

If you’ve purchased seafood from places like Walmart, Red Lobster, or Kroger, at least some of it was probably caught or processed by slaves.

Slave labor is used throughout the global fishing industry. The new Seafood Slavery Risk Tool hopes to improve transparency and accountability. Courtesy The Guardian.

Forced labor in the industry has been uncovered through numerous investigations by the Associated Press and advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch, yet the problem persists.

That’s why Monterey Bay Aquarium, Liberty Asia, and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership have combined forces to develop the new Seafood Slavery Risk Tool. Now both retailers and wholesalers can learn not only where unethically caught fish winds up, but also where it is coming from in the first place.

“This is a tool that we see helping companies do their due diligence—or at least figure out where there might be problems and investigate further,” says Sara McDonald, senior fisheries scientist at Monterey Bay Aquarium. “This is not an ending point but rather a starting point.”

<strong>Consumers may not want</strong> their sushi with a side of slavery, but current conditions make it very difficult to determine if the fish on your plate was ethically-sourced. Courtesy Unsplash.The Slavery Risk tool, which was made available in February, assigns slavery risk ratings to specific fisheries throughout the world. It took two years to design, in collaboration with Liberty Asia, an organization dedicated to preventing human trafficking through data and technological interventions and legal and industry advocacy, and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, another non-profit seeking to change the seafood industry.   

To develop the ratings, analysts examine credible, publicly-available information such as a country’s laws on slave and child labor, how well they have enforced it in the past, and what NGOs, academics, media organizations and inter-governmental organizations have found on the issue. Fishery ratings range from Low Risk (no abuses found) to Critical Risk (credible evidence of forced labor). They reevaluate and update ratings as new information becomes available.

So far, the group has collected information on nine countries, including the UK and Japan. However, the process is slow due to quality control and lack of information.

“With fishing, it occurs oftentimes on the high seas, which is outside of a country's exclusive economic zone. There's no enforcement out there,” McDonald says.

<strong>Mystery mix.</strong> Seafood caught with forced labor may be combined with legally-caught product at onshore processing facilities, making it even harder to trace product from plate to source.Seafood also passes through many hands. Fish may be caught on one vessel that uses forced labor, but then lumped together with other legally-caught product once it reaches land. There, it can be sold and processed multiple times through various countries until it reaches your local grocery store, making it almost impossible to determine what came from where and how it was caught.

“I think there's always going to be a big challenge because of the nature of fishing,” says McDonald. “But there’s a lot of room for improvement, and there are things that can be done. Technology can help us.”

Tech to the rescue?

The first focus of that technological assistance is better organization and improved communication.

Duncan Jepson, the founder of Liberty Asia, says the problem isn’t necessarily no information but unreliable information. The fishing industry doesn’t collect its own data, claiming that the system is just too big to track and monitor.

“You can't find out where the fish went because there's no system. And it's not because it can't be done, it's because no one is required to do it,” says Jepson.

That’s why Liberty Asia started a cloud-based victim case management system (VCMS) to help NGOs collect and preserve data about trafficking. Running on Salesforce, the database is an alternative to pen, paper, and Excel spreadsheets.

<strong>Blockchain technology</strong> could provide NGOs with better evidence to demonstrate that the problem of slavery in the fishing industry lies not just with one vessel or one country, but the entire system, stretching around the globe.Jepson speculates that improved record keeping could then feed into a blockchain. This way, advocacy groups would have better evidence to demonstrate that the problem of slavery in the fishing industry lies not just with one vessel or one country, but the entire system.

“It's possible to collect this data without all the technology, but we don't seem to be able to do it as human beings. Blockchain offers the tools to do what we don't seem to be able to motivate ourselves to do otherwise. It is, in a way, a testament to our failure.”

McDonald adds that traceability through both better records and technology like video surveillance will be another contributor to ending human rights abuses on the high seas.

“Once that happens, you're sort of opening up these supply chains to the sunshine, so they're not so murky,” McDonald says. “They still could be convoluted, but if you're able to trace a product through that entire supply chain, it exposes things a little bit more.”

Then, hopefully, once the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool and NGOs have better data, they will be able to hold the industry accountable. This, McDonald says, doesn’t happen by just terminating relationships and then moving on.

“It's kind of the opposite of what our environmental recommendations are, which is avoid purchasing. But every expert that we've talked to on human rights and human trafficking says keep it out in the sunshine, stay engaged,” McDonald says. “Have businesses stay engaged and pressure governments to do more and not only enact legislation but to enforce it.”

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