Marine Life / Marine Preservation / Policy / Science / The HumanitSEAS

A shrimp tale: how human trafficking in the Thai fishing industry makes buying sustainable seafood even more difficult

Do you eat seafood?

Most of us do. It is delicious after all. By now I’m sure you are aware of issues involving sustainable seafood. Not all of the fish we eat are fished (or grown) sustainably (ex: orange roughy ).

The unusual (and unsustainable) Orange Roughy (

The unusual (and unsustainable) Orange Roughy


In recent years, sustainable seafood has been on the minds of many and several resources exist that allow consumers to see if a particular type of seafood is harvested sustainably. Perhaps the best resource for this is Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. This website gives you seafood recommendations in three groups: best choice (sustainable, or close to it), good alternative (not necessarily sustainable, but not horrible), and avoid (non-sustainable, avoid at all costs). Consumers can search for a particular type of fish or even a species to find a list of sustainable and less sustainable options.  Along with the recommendations come links to information about how consumers can help, sustainable recipes, and restaurant partners. The website is great, but it is not the only resource Seafood Watch has for consumers. They make pocket guides for sushi and regional fish (US only). If you would rather not use all of that paper, a mobile app is available. From the mobile app you can get regional guides, the national guide, a sushi guide, as well as reviews from local markets. Seafood Watch updates frequently and is easily the most widely available resource when it comes to buying sustainable seafood in the United States.

Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch App

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch App

However, sustainability is not the only thing a consumer needs to consider when buying seafood. A recent report by The Guardian shows a rash of human rights violations (slave labor, servitude, beatings, murder, mistreatment, etc…) in the Thai seafood industry, particularly the shrimp industry. The Guardian executed a 6-month investigation into human trafficking in the Thai shrimp trade, culminating in a lengthy report and the previously linked article. They also produced a 20 minute film complete with on the ground coverage, interviews with trafficked people, and depictions of the conditions and problems in the Thai shrimping industry. If you are curious about the subject at all, you should check out the video (embedded in this article). So, who buys shrimp from Thailand? Costco, WalMart, and a variety of other corporations. Walmart states that it is working with NGO’s to end human trafficking in the Thai shrimping trade, while Costco has indicated that it will require suppliers to take corrective action (story here). In fact, this story was quite huge and was picked up by many media outlets (CBS, NYT, Globe and Mail). Washington also caught wind of it (along with other reports). In the 2014 edition of the Trafficking in Persons report, which dropped a week or two after the story from The Guardian, Thailand was listed as Tier 3 (lowest rating) in terms of human trafficking (You can read the report here, the fishing industry is mentioned specifically). There may be sanctions in the future, and it is likely that some businesses will sever ties with Thai suppliers, but there are no guarantees as of yet.

Now, here is where things get difficult. Seafood Watch is great and incredibly helpful, but in the case of Thai shrimp, it doesn’t quite do the job. Shrimp form Thailand are listed as a “Good Alternative” because they are farmed. However, they are fed with fish meal made from “trash fish” that are caught on illegal Thai fishing vessels, and therefore potentially slaves or those involved in human trafficking or other rights violations.

Thai Shrimp in the Seafood Watch app

Thai Shrimp in the Seafood Watch app

In the newest update to Seafood Watch, Monterey Bay Aquarium released a statement about human rights violations. They state that Seafood Watch is built to deal with issues of sustainability, not human rights, but that there are major concerns in the seafood industry with human rights. They link to a list of nonprofits that are working on such issues and these links provide plenty of information about areas of concern with regards to human trafficking. Perhaps in the future human rights will be directly integrated into the Seafood Watch, but for now, consumers just need to be aware that issues exist and should be researched. In summary, buying seafood is very tricky, your best bet is buying local. If you can’t do that, please do the research and purchase responsibly. Consumers have the power in these situations, if demand decreases (or goes to 0), then we can end corruption and human rights violations on the production end.

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