Overfishing has become a global issue that threatens marine ecosystems globally. But what about the people catching the fish?

The exploitation of workers in the fishing industry, including forced labour and human trafficking, continues to be a serious concern.

Human Rights at Sea interviewed Social Responsibility Director Zacari Edwards, who discusses the vital work of the IPNLF, the biggest threats facing the industry, and what consumers can do to drive change. 

Can you tell us more about your role and the work and mission of the IPNLF? 

So the International Pole & Line Foundation (IPNLF) is a charity that works to support, develop and promote one-by-one tuna fisheries  across the globe. The fisheries we are connected to are small-scale, use low-impact fishing methods, and produce a wide range of social and economic benefits that are retained by local coastal communities.    

In my current role at IPNLF as the Social Responsibility Director, I oversee the delivery of our Social Responsibility Programme. This programme was put together based on our aspiration to work towards a fair seafood industry that supports the welfare of the most vulnerable and enables coastal communities to thrive. What sets us apart is that our Social Responsibility Programme aims to go beyond ensuring minimum human rights protections are in place for workers towards increasing human wellbeing and improving the quality of life of the resource-dependent fishing communities we represent.  

At IPNLF, we see the integration of social equity and social responsibility as a key priority area that needs to be better addressed in the seafood industry, and our programme is tailored to ensure we maximise our unique position to make this a reality. Ultimately, we want to see the sector take more responsibility for improving the well-being of fishers and uplifting the coastal communities that provide us with the seafood we eat.  

In 2023, what do you think are the biggest threats facing the seafood fisheries sector? 

For me, there are two major issues that are closely linked and have a significant impact on both the marine environment and fishers' working conditions; these are overfishing and the "broken economics" of the seafood sector. These issues are interconnected because overfishing depletes fish populations, causing fishing vessels to take on higher costs to catch the same amount of fish, leading to fishing companies to recover some of these costs from workers' wages. What we are also witnessing is that companies don't always pay a fair price for seafood, resulting in another type of downward squeeze on prices throughout the supply chain. This ultimately affects workers' wages and, at worst, creates an environment where exploitative labour practices or forced labour may occur. A quote I often reference that perfectly encapsulates this situation is: "As the appetite for cheap fish worldwide grows, so does the demand for men who are paid little or nothing to catch it". 


Why do you think workers in fisheries are particularly vulnerable? 

There are a wide range of reasons, but I think, first and foremost, the nature of the work itself often involves long hours, physically demanding labour, and exposure to hazardous conditions. On top of this, isolation plays a significant role in contributing to the human rights abuses faced by workers in fisheries, with many fisheries operating in remote locations or on the open sea, making it difficult for authorities to monitor working conditions. This lack of oversight creates an opportunity for unethical employers to exploit workers, subjecting them to longer working hours, unsafe working conditions, and denial of basic rights. The isolation experienced by workers in fisheries often also results in limited access to support networks and resources. Workers may be far away from their families and communities, making them more vulnerable to exploitation. In simple terms, the isolation experienced by fishers at sea creates a situation where employers hold much more power and control over the workers. As a result, the longer a fishing vessel stays at sea, the greater the risk of potential abuses. 

Human Rights at Sea recently published its independent report "Does it Do What it Says on the Tin?" to raise awareness of the importance of tackling human rights abuses and empowering workers in the fishing and seafood industry. Many fisheries and aquaculture certification groups failed to adequately mention human rights, social wellbeing and welfare in their standards. Why do you think human sustainability is so often overlooked in the industry? 

I think, in general, there is significantly more focus on social issues in the seafood sector than, say, ten or even five years ago, but how to best address human and labour rights issues is still a relatively recent conversation in seafood in comparison to other sectors. It's no secret that almost all of the certification bodies covered in the HRAS report were initially created to address environmental issues only. What we are seeing now is certifications and standards that were invented for environmental reasons trying to readjust and deal with social issues retrospectively. So we are still in the midst of a rapid transitional period where many certifications are trying to copy and paste solutions that were designed to address environmental risks. 

In my opinion, this is a symptom of the sustainable seafood movement operating largely in silo when it comes to thinking about solutions to address human rights challenges. Many of these certification schemes have failed to capitalise on lessons learnt from other sectors, overlooking key criticisms in the human rights space around relying too heavily on social certifications to address human and labour rights risks. Given that we know all the additional risks that workers face in the seafood sector, I don't think this is acceptable. Obviously, some certifiers do a much better job than others, but going forward, I think almost all could improve their standards through increased knowledge exchange with human rights organisations and garnering a better understanding of what approaches have worked best in other sectors.  

school of tuna
Image credit: IPNLF

Small-scale fisheries are responsible fornearly half of the global seafood catches and are incredibly important to international food security, livelihoods, and the wellbeing of many fisherfolks; however, these communities are often caught between local necessities and external demands. What is IPNLF doing to secure a lasting social change in small-scale fisheries? 

I couldn't agree more, and one of the main problems is that, as an industry, we are simply not proactive enough in addressing key barriers to small-scale fisheries being able to enjoy their full suite of human rights. There are also many under-recognised human rights that are intrinsically linked to both livelihood security and fisheries having access to high-value export markets, such as the right to life and physical integrity, right to an adequate standard of living, right to adequate food and nutrition, and right to work and rights at work. This is why cost-prohibitive barriers that act as roadblocks to market access for small-scale fishers are particularly important to address. Eco-certification schemes and social certifications are prime culprits in this sense as they come with high costs and provide little to no provisions or cost structuring that helps small-scale fisheries fairly participate.  

Basically, it is not possible for small-scale fisheries to achieve equity or fair market access without businesses proactively addressing barriers to market access through their policies and purchasing practices. For this reason, as well as our programmatic work, we try to encourage increased business relationships between companies and small-scale fisheries. This is an important first step, as we shouldn't underestimate the importance of businesses forming long-term commercial connections to fisheries in terms of how that can progress human rights performance. There is a lot of talk about the need for greater investment in small-scale fisheries, but a company will simply not invest in a fishery where it doesn't have a commercial relationship in the first place. It sounds obvious, but when a company creates and maintains a business relationship with small-scale fisheries, that's the starting point for accessing the private industry's investment into its ethical trade initiatives.  


Can you tell us more about the responsibility and power consumers have in driving change? 

To put it simply, consumer demand is extremely powerful in shaping the souring practices of companies. Consumers can affect change if they're directing their purchasing practices towards products that they support. By favouring products from companies that uphold ethical standards, consumers can contribute to the demand for responsible business practices and create a market that rewards companies for respecting human rights. As a consumer, when you are steering your purchasing practices towards more ethical areas of the industry, you are indicating what type of products companies need to be sourcing more of. Boycotting products can be a useful tool in certain instances; however, if you boycott seafood products altogether, you are essentially giving up your power to positively influence the seafood industry through your purchasing practices. So I always say to consumers, if you are proactive and able to do your research, you can move supply chains in the right direction through your purchasing practices.  

In 2022, IPNLF launched its Sourcing Transparency Platform (STP) to increase transparency in the tuna supply chain. What impact has this tool had so far, and what has the response from the industry been? 

We built the Sourcing Transparency Platform (STP) with the aim of bringing more openness to the way tuna is caught and supplied to consumers. The STP was also designed to assist responsible small-scale fisheries that face challenges in getting their products to the market. An important focus of the STP is educating consumers. We understand that documentaries like "Seaspiracy" have made people more interested in knowing where their seafood comes from. Now that we have their attention, it's crucial to provide them with accurate and valuable information. The STP has been designed with this goal in mind, ensuring that the information consumers seek is easily accessible to them. Typically, when people buy a can of tuna, they only see limited information on the label, like the country where it was caught, or the fishing method used, which in most cases means very little to them. In response, the STP is designed to empower consumers to make more informed choices that align with their values. While it's a little too early to measure all the impacts, I feel that we have definitely made progress in enhancing consumer engagement. 

One aspect of transparency that the Sourcing Transparency Platform (STP) currently doesn't address, although we plan for it to do so in the future, is transparency at sea. If done correctly, enhancing at-sea transparency can provide a foundation for better monitoring of working conditions and can help ensure that fishers are not subjected to exploitative practices. By having better oversight of high-risk fishing operations, it becomes easier to quickly identify and address any violations, safeguarding the rights and wellbeing of fishers. That's why IPNLF also supports collaborative initiatives like the  Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI)and the  Coalition for Fisheries Transparency. Initiatives like these are crucial in fostering better transparency, accountability, and governance in the fishing sector, which all ultimately helps protect the rights of fishers. 

Contact: If you have any questions, please write to us at enquiries@humanrightsatsea.org

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