Fish costs too much. You’d agree, I suspect. And since one filleted fish looks much the same as another filleted fish – and one frozen shrimp looks very similar to another – it seems a pretty easy choice to go with a cheaper option.

But, the price we pay in the supermarket for seafood products labelled 'product of Thailand' doesn’t even come close to covering the human and environmental cost of production.

What do I mean by this? There’s a human cost and an environmental cost to fish. Let’s start by thinking about the human cost. 

Around the world, fishing is considered to be a hard job. The hours are long and the work can be dangerous. But in some places, such as Southeast Asia and Africa – but also Europe and the Pacific, the job is far worse. This has been well documented – migrant workers leave their country in the hopes of getting a job elsewhere. They might pay some money to a broker who will tell them that they’ll be working in construction, or in a factory. In reality, once they arrive in the foreign country, they are taken to a dock, and told that they’re going to work at sea. In terms of human trafficking, we talk about this using the language of recruitment and transport by deception or abuse of a position of vulnerability. 

Once on board, the abuse starts. Fishermen report being mentally, physically and sexually assaulted by officers of the boat. This is coercion – used in order to force the men to work. These fishermen are being exploited for their labour. Many of them will see one of their crewmates die, and many will stay out at sea for years at a time without coming back to shore.

Fishermen report being mentally, physically and sexually assaulted by officers of the boat.

There is also an environmental cost to this. Around the world, fish stocks are being depleted. Owners of fishing boats are having to send their boats out further, and for longer, in order to catch the same quantity of fish. With such sustained intensity of fishing activity, fish reserves in a country – such as Thailand – don’t have the chance to replenish themselves. Around the world, companies who have allegedly been involved in human trafficking of fishermen are also seen to be breaking laws about dumping both oil and dead fish into the ocean, and trawling for fish without any consideration for the bycatch which is also caught – turtles, dolphins and whales, for example.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Fishing Slavery, Slave Free Seas

When the cost of fishing goes up, some companies rely on cutting human costs (wages) to keep making money. But when the costs get too high, and the fishing company can no longer stay in business, boats are sometimes simply abandoned at sea, with the crew on board – a problem which is both human and environmental in nature.

It’s obvious that there’s a crossover here. You can’t distinguish between bad fishing practices and human rights abuses like forced labour or human trafficking. In the fishing context, if you’ve got one, then you’ve likely got the other. As we’ve seen in many different situations globally (for example palm oil production, mining blood diamonds and growing pineapples), human rights abuse and environmental abuse are two sides of the same coin.

In my work with fishermen who have been trafficked, this separation of issues leads to a real problem of enforcement – and that basically comes down to this simple fact: the international law of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and the international law of human trafficking don’t match up. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Fishing Slavery, Slave Free Seas

When fishing companies are able to operate across borders, keeping their costs in one jurisdiction and their profits in another, the issue looks different depending on which country’s perspective you come from. Here’s an example – a Thai-owned fishing company uses migrant labourers from Cambodia on its boats which are fishing illegally in Indonesia. From the Cambodian point of view, this looks largely like a labour or employment problem. For Thailand, this is clearly human trafficking – but for Indonesia, this is an illegal fishing issue. A fundamental absence of communication between everyone involved means that the unfortunate result is a large degree of impunity for traffickers.

So what can we do? Right now the answer isn’t clear. Looking for 'responsibly sourced' fish certification at your supermarket is a start – but is problematic because traceability efforts don’t generally take into account the human cost of production. Using a concept of 'sea-to-table' might help with the environmental side of the equation, but it doesn’t show us the damage done to the men that work at sea for years at a time to catch that fish. Perhaps a better answer is to shop locally – ask your local fishmonger where the fish you’re buying comes from, and who caught it.

Can we afford fish? Not at this price. We need to pay more for fish.


- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. 

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