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Pescetarian Nightmares: Incognito Fish and Forced Labor on the High Seas

You aren’t ready to go full-throttle vegetarian. Sure, you can eat vegan with the best of them, but you still want your occasional omega-3’s from your scaly, fishy friends. Who doesn’t love sushi?



But there’s danger lurking on the menu. What you see isn’t always what you get. Fish fraud is real, and chances are you’ve been a victim. Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported (IUU) fishing costs the regulated fishing industry somewhere between $10 billion and $23 billion in lost profits each year. IUU fishing harvests massive amounts of seafood illegally and way beyond sustainable limits. Real fishermen care about sustainable oceans; pirates do not.

The first hint that something was rotten came in 2011 when a Boston Globe investigation revealed that half the fish on the city’s menus were mislabeled. Escolar instead of tuna; swai instead of flounder; hake instead of cod; 24 of 26 red snapper samples weren’t. Fish marketed as fresh and local is often frozen and from a nonlocal ocean. Invariably, the substitutions were an inferior fish that customarily sells for much less on the market. Some of the substitutions can have serious health effects.

This lil’ guy wants you to know that he’s the real deal: A bona fide grouper. Source:

This lil’ guy wants you to know that he’s the real deal: A bona fide grouper. Source:

On the other hand, fish at the grocery store is more likely to be what it purports to be, but not always. The culprit can be anyone in the supply chain: The fishermen, the importers, the wholesalers, the restaurants. Often, fish fraud is driven by the fact that the desirable species are overfished and largely unavailable. People continue to order red snapper because it continues to appear on menus, even though red snapper is rarely what the diner receives. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 57.4 percent of fish stocks are exploited and in danger of collapse; 29.9 percent are completely depleted.

A Consumer Reports investigation in 2011 broadened the Globe’s findings. Their study found that 20 percent of their fish purchases at East Coast grocery stores were mislabeled. Fortunately, some high end cuts were always correctly identified: Chilean sea bass, coho salmon, bluefin tuna, and ahi tuna. Lemon sole and red snapper were most likely to be misidentified.

Good thing the government’s got our back. The Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud has released an action plan. The problem has long been tracing where our seafood comes from. Quite frequently our packages and menus lie. To counteract this, the action plan outlines 19 steps organized into four general themes:

  1. International: Combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud at the international level.
  2. Enforcement: Strengthen enforcement and enhance enforcement tools to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud.
  3. Partnerships: Create and expand partnerships with state and local governments, industry, and NGOs to identify and eliminate seafood fraud in the U.S.
  4. Traceability: Create a risk-based traceability program to track seafood from harvest to entry into the United States to prevent entry of illegal fish into the supply chain and better inform retailers and consumers.


While the Presidential Task Force is fighting the good fight, perhaps I buried the lede:

IUU pirate fishing vessels are even guilty of human trafficking and slave labor. Think about that the next time you pick up a package of shrimp that was farm raised in Thailand, which is one of the regions that pirates love. Time magazine said it best: Child Slaves May Have Caught the Fish in Your Freezer.

Fishing has always been an industry that relies on migrant workers, who are vulnerable to trafficking and forced labor. Fishing is ideal for the practice, because once aboard a vessel, workers are captive in the middle of the ocean for months—sometimes even years—at a time. And fishing boats are the most dangerous workplaces in the world. They always have been, but now it’s especially true when they take risks to go after declining fish populations.

Child slaves in Ghana. Source:

Child slaves in Ghana. Source:

Many forced laborers in the fishing industry are children. As always, the root cause of the problem is poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa, children who have been orphaned due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic are especially vulnerable. In the Philippines, according to the International Labor Office:

Children are engaged as swimmers and divers in muroami (a type of net) fishing, targeting reef fish—an extremely hazardous form of work. Child labourers are reportedly at risk of ear damage, injuries from falls, shark attacks, snake bites and drowning.

This actually sounds preferable to child labor practices in Bangladesh:

Child labourers in shrimp processing (de-heading) depots in Bangladesh tend to work hours that prevent them from attending school. They often work for nine hours without a break in extremely unsanitary conditions, and are frequently cheated of their pay. Cuts to hands and feet are common and can become badly infected, abscessed or swollen. Sexual abuse, including rape, is also reportedly common. For unmarried girls, the very fact that they work in the industry can mean their reputations and marriage prospects are tarnished.

It goes on and on. Malawi, Ghana, Indonesia—those operating in different countries have created different ways to exploit children based on the regional characteristics of their fishing and aquaculture sectors.

The Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud does not address the labor issue specifically, nor are children and/or workers on fishing vessels mentioned in the U.S. Department of State’s Progress in Combating Trafficking in Persons: The U.S. Government Response to Modern Slavery. Looks like for the foreseeable future, exploited workers will need to rely on the UN’s International Labour Organization, which is responsible for monitoring topics as diverse as multinational enterprises, social dialogue, and wages. Child labor and human trafficking are just one program area among many.

But good journalism always helps. In April, 2015, the Associated Press ran a story about hundreds of men imprisoned on the island of Benjina in Indonesia, enslaved and beaten as fisherman, living without wages for up to 10 years. Embarrassed by the story, the Indonesian government stepped in and helped rescue many of them.

Source: AP. An enslaved fisherman on the island of Benjina, Indonesia.

Source: AP. An enslaved fisherman on the island of Benjina, Indonesia.

Slavery is a story as old as time but it will never stop being shocking. At least, let’s hope we never lose our ability to be shocked. The children and the dispossessed are relying on us.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: May 5, 2015, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , ,

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