Not the Only Fish in the Sea, Hopefully: Two Ethical Issues to Consider When Buying Seafood

Contrary to the popular idiom there may not in fact be plenty of fish in the sea. Indeed, overfishing is threatening fish stocks worldwide. Meanwhile, industrial fishing can cause wider ecological damage and forced labour on fishing vessels is an endemic challenge. This week, I discuss two key ethical issues to do with the seafood industry. 

But first, here are some basic facts about the fishing and seafood industry:

The seafood industry is large, and growing, as humans are eating more fish each year. You might be surprised to learn that per capita annual fish consumption has increased from 9.9kg in the 1960s to 19.2kg in 2012. And the average Canadian eats slightly more than this, at 23.1kg.In addition to capturing spectacular worldwide demand, fish is a global industry because it is a highly traded commodity: approximately 200 countries export fish and fishery products. 

This is how the supply chain for fishing typically works:

  1. Fish and shellfish (A) living in open waters or (B) raised via aquaculture in ponds, tanks or bounded coastal waters are harvested.  
  2. They are packed and transported to processing facilities.
  3. Processors convert the fish to consumer products (i.e. canned, frozen, filets, smoked). In some cases processing takes multiple steps while in other fish are transported live.
  4. Wholesalers receive the processed or unprocessed fish and distribute the product to retailers and restaurants.
  5. You buy/eat it.

There are two core ethical issues that you might wish to consider when purchasing seafood – sustainability and human rights – both of which are linked to the problem of illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. These are complicated topics, but I have tried to explain the gist in the sections below.


It is impossible to overstate the importance of sustainability with regards to seafood; 85% of global fish stocks overfished. “Overfishing” refers to a situation when more fish are caught than can be replaced through natural reproduction. It has several causes, including rising demand (we are eating more fish), new technology (makes catching lots of fish easier), and governance gaps (IUU fishing). A study of catch data published in the journal Science in 2006 predicted that if fishing rates continue at the same rate, all the world's fisheries will have collapsed by 2048. The problem of overfishing is so bad that some have argued for giving the oceans their own seat at the United Nations.  

Fun fact: I made this image by photoshopping over Harper's face. 

Fun fact: I made this image by photoshopping over Harper's face. 

The global ocean plays a central role in supporting life on Earth. Oceans cover 3/4 of the planet and contain 80% of all life. Overfishing affects the entire ocean ecosystem. For example, the population of large predatory fish has dropped by an estimated 90% since the industrialization of fisheries in the 1950s.

Overfishing is bad for workers as well as the environment: because fish stocks have been declining, vessels must take longer and longer voyages to find fish, meaning that workers are stuck aboard for long periods of time; declining stocks also make fish processing an increasingly precarious job. You might recall the collapse of the Newfoundland Grand Banks cod fishery in the 1990s: this put between 50 000 and 40 000 people out of work. Fishing is central to the livelihood and food security of an estimated 200 million people. Sustainable fishing matters for the environment, for animals, and for people.

In addition to overfishing, sustainability also concerns the broader environmental impact of fishing processes. For example, if gear is lost during the fishing process or if fishing entails destructive processes, such as the use of dynamite and poisons, this can cause more widespread ecosystem damage. Additionally, some farming processes can cause harm through the spread of farm waste, chemicals, disease and parasites.  

Human Rights

Thailand is the third largest exporter of seafood in the world (the country’s seafood industry is worth $7.3 billion USD annually); it is also notorious for crewing fishing boats with slaves trafficked from Burma and Cambodia. A form of bonded labour is typical: in this scenario, trafficked fishermen are sold to fishing boat owners and then must work to pay off a given price (the ka hua). In addition to being enslaved, workers on such ships are exposed to overwork, violence, torture, and even executions at sea. Each year the U.S. State Department produces its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. In 2014, that report downgraded Thailand to a Tier 3 ranking due to a lack of improvements. The report revealed that the Thai government ignored instances of human trafficking and even sought to punish those attempting to bring these abuses to light.

Thailand is often used as an example of human trafficking in the fishing industry because of the size of its fishing industry and inaction on the part of its government (regulation of the Thai fishing industry is woefully inadequate).

Nonetheless, this is a problem that exists worldwide. While Southeast Asia is the biggest problem region for slavery on fishing vessels, this is a global phenomenon. Human trafficking is endemic in the fishing industry. Some fishing operations in at least 51 countries crew their ships with slave labour. 

To give you an idea of the scope of the human trafficking problem in the fishing industry, I created a table that shows how each of the 10 biggest fish exporting countries (as of 2010) were rated in the 2015 TIP report. Tier 1 countries are those that comply fully with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA), while Tiers 2, 2 Watch List, and 3 are all for out of compliance countries but vary according to the level of effort that a country is putting into stopping human trafficking. As you can see, three of the top 5 fish exporting countries does not comply with the TVPA.

Canadian fish and seafood imports generally match the global trend. The top five countries of origin for our fish and seafood imports are: the U.S. (36.7%), Thailand (14.9%), China (14.6%), Chile (5.1%) and Vietnam (4.6%).

The problem of forced labour on fishing vessels is extremely difficult to tackle, as it is linked to illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing (IUU fishing also goes hand in hand with overfishing).  

IUU Fishing 

IUU fishing is a huge problem: it is estimated that IUU fishing accounts for 30% of all fishing activity worldwide.  Structural loopholes in international maritime law, specifically on the high seas, allow for IUU fishing to proliferate. Outside of a country’s exclusive economic zone (on the “high seas”, which cover 64% of the surface area of the ocean) ships are governed by the laws of the country in which that vessel is registered (the “flag country”). Often, fishing vessels are registered in countries with no meaningful link to their operations. IUU fishing occurs in primarily on the high seas and poorly regulated national waters. For example, along the coastline of sub-Saharan Africa forced labour is a problem on European and Asian fishing vessels in poorly regulated waters.

IUU fishing is a big problem, one that drives overfishing and labour abuses on fishing vessels. As such, it is worth considering how you can avoid being complicit in these ethical challenges. Next week, I’ll explain seafood eco-labeling and offer some practical advice for you when shopping for fish.