Sustainability, seafood… and slavery?

16 May 2014 by
Sustainability, seafood… and slavery?

Responsible sourcing of seafood may be a huge priority, but do we know enough about the people who pull up the catch? Elly Earls asks what needs to be done to ensure that we not only know our seafood has been treated well, but that the crew have been too

Sustainability is a huge buzzword across the hospitality industry, particularly when it comes to seafood sourcing.

More and more restaurants are choosing to work only with suppliers who can prove that their seafood is the product of sustainable fishing practices, ie that the marine environment and its inhabitants have been treated responsibly.

Slave ships: making the headlines
In recent months, the fishing industry - both globally and in the UK - has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. In South Africa in late January, for example, three tuna longliners were detained by authorities for fishing without permission and holding 'modern-day slaves' on board. It was said that these workers had not been paid for years and were forced to live in inhumane conditions.

Closer to home, The Sunday Times reported in the same month that some British skippers were alleged to be forcing Filipino fishermen to work 22-hour days for no pay, with little food and under extremely harsh conditions. Moreover, the paper revealed, a wide-scale police investigation is being conducted into
the alleged systematic abuse of migrant fishermen on Britain's fishing boats.

Since this investigation was launched in 2012, raids involving more than 150 officers have been carried out in England and Scotland, and at least 50 suspected victims, mostly Filipinos, have been discovered, according to the National Crime Agency. The policeman leading the Scottish end of the investigation, Detective Chief Inspector Mark Hollis, described the statistic as "the tip of the iceberg".

Martin Foley, national director of seafarers' charity Apostleship of the Sea, the organisation whose discoveries of the mistreatment of Filipino fishermen two years ago triggered the police investigation, agrees. "I would suspect that the problems are more widespread than we have been led to believe thus far," he says.

"However, there is definitely a greater level of awareness now about this issue than when we first came across this abuse. What we need to do is continue to raise people's awareness of where their fish comes from and the need to be responsible consumers."

The policing challenge
But why raise awareness? Why not crack down on this activity in the first place? For example, all vessels over 12 metres in length within the European Community (and therefore the UK) are required to have a vessel monitoring system (VMS) fitted. These systems give nominal 'pings', normally every two hours, to allow the Marine Maritime Organisation (MMO), which runs this system in England and Wales, and Marine Scotland in Scotland, to see where
the vessels are, all of the time.

The MMO can increase this ping frequency to every two minutes when they want to place extra scrutiny on vessels. Vessels can also only return to designated harbours and ports at designated times or they have to call and announce their arrival in advance.

But all of this is of limited use when it comes to combating the problem of slave crews. Many of the boats involved in the practice are known as IUU fishers - illegal, unlicensed, unregulated - and cannot be monitored.

To cap this off, no UK organisation has responsibility for random or regular inspections of crew welfare and treatment (although the Marine and Coastguard Agency does have regulations for accommodation and equipment on board as part of its checks). Indeed, the people being exploited often have a deep mistrust of the authorities in their home nations and are reluctant to report their situation, so policing it is far from easy.

It is often only when things go wrong, and bodies like the Apostleship of the Sea or the Fishermen's Mission get involved and call in the police, that abuses like the ones reported recently come to light.

The tide has turned
More and more fishing industry codes and schemes are being either launched or revised to ensure consumers can choose whether their seafood has been caught by fishermen working under acceptable conditions.

London-based Iris Consulting, for example, has just launched a new certification system, the Fishermen's Welfare Accreditation (FWA) Scheme, which allows fishing vessels to demonstrate that their employees are well cared for and that the conditions on board are appropriate for the size and operations of the vessel.

The accreditation consists of a questionnaire for the operator, through which he or she is required to provide information relating to the provisions for crewing and operating the vessels, along with an inspection of the vessel, and a confidential questionnaire and interview of the crew by the FWA's inspectors in the crew's native language.

According to John Harvey, managing director of Iris Consulting, the scheme has come about because of pressure from operators across the fishing industry.

"It's really a few rogue operators that are in danger of giving the rest a bad image," he says. "The good operators want to show they're doing the right things and have systems in place, and they need to be independently accredited."

Even the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which is focused on the sustainability of fisheries from an environmental perspective, is increasingly taking the issue into account.

"Currently, there is a note in the standard that requires fisheries to obey all local and international laws, which would include the slavery issue. But the MSC has an ISEAL standard [a body that polices workers' welfare] and, as part of that, we have to review our standard every five years. One of the things we're doing in our review is making sure the slavery issue is considerably more firmly addressed, in terms of making it very obvious to anyone just casually reading the standard," says the MSC's UK communications manager James Simpson.

According to Simpson, it would be very difficult to go further than this. "It's been suggested to us to have fishermen's welfare incorporated in our standard but, as the MSC is a global standard, the rules would have to be applicable to everything from a 90m trawler off the coast of Scotland to a one-person fishing boat off the coast of Bali."

Industry body Seafish has also started to wake up to the importance of fishermen's welfare. Its Responsible Fishing Scheme (RFS), initially launched in 2006, is being revised to recognise there is a problem. Seafish technical director Tom Pickerell says this is because the current certification system, which focuses on fishing practices, crew competence and vessel safety and stability, is no longer suitable for the UK fishing sector.

"We were getting feedback from the catching sector and the seafood supply chain from people saying they're not sure it's focusing on the areas they think it should be," he explains.

"In the past couple of years it's become increasingly clear that fishermen's welfare is an issue we should be concerned about."

Industry standards
Many hospitality operators already do all they can to source responsibly, taking the welfare of fishermen into account as much as possible. Contract caterer Bartlett Mitchell, for example, works only with MSC-accredited suppliers and sources locally when it can. "We support better welfare for both the product and the people delivering it, and we have strong UK and EU laws and compliance systems, which gives us more confidence about buying in this way,"says managing director Wendy Bartlett.

At M&J Seafood, the UK's largest independent seafood supplier, responsible sourcing is also high on the agenda. "Crew ethics and safety is something M&J Seafood takes very seriously. Indeed, our director of fish and seafood, Mike Berthet, sits on the steering group set up by Seafish as part of its Responsible
Fishing Scheme," a representative of the company said.

Improvements are needed, however, to ensure that operators can assure their customers they have taken into account absolutely every aspect of the seafood supply chain, including fishermen's welfare.

"It's really important that the rogue operators are put out of business and that the reputable operators can continue to trade and employ migrant workers on good terms and conditions," says Foley.

Speaking of the new schemes under way, he adds: "This is a very positive development to help protect the migrant workers who are really the lifeblood of the UK fishing industry."

Slave ships around the world

Reports of workers on fishing boats being treated as modern-day slaves have surfaced in recent months from Malaysia, Thailand, South Africa and the east and west coasts of Scotland.

The BBC reported in January that Human Rights Watch described the use of forced labour on Thailand's trawlers as "systematic" and "pervasive". "The biggest problem we've seen is that if people can't work, people aren't useful on board [and] they can be killed and thrown overboard," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, who wrote a report on this issue for the International Organization for Migration.

'Systematic' is a word that has also been used to explain the abuse of migrant fishermen in UK waters, despite the fact that the country's fishing industry is
increasingly reliant on foreign workers (the number of Brits working as fishermen halved between 1980 and 2012).

According to The Sunday Times, a police investigation is ongoing into one company in the UK, which is said to have used recruitment agencies in the Philippines.

These agencies promise high wages to lure workers to Britain where, in reality, their passports are often confiscated and they receive little or no wages.

Martin Foley, national director of seafarers' charity Apostleship of the Sea, says: "I would say the majority of vessel owners and skippers look after their crew and take crew welfare very seriously.

Therefore, I would have thought they would welcome accreditation to distinguish themselves from these rogue operators."

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