Was Your Seafood Caught With Slave Labor? New Database Helps Retailers Combat Abuse : The Salt Many seafood lovers use the Monterey Bay Aquarium's ratings to choose sustainable fish. Now it has rolled out a tool to help corporations assess the risk of human trafficking in seafood supply chains.

Was Your Seafood Caught With Slave Labor? New Database Helps Retailers Combat Abuse

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There's a new tool to help fix a problem on our dinner plates. That problem - seafood fished with slave labor. NPR has covered this issue for years. Back in 2012, we sent reporters to Thailand and Cambodia to investigate. And there, they met Vannak Prum, a Cambodian man forced into working for three years on a Thai fishing boat.


VANNAK PRUM: (Through interpreter) We work day and night. And sometimes we fished three days and nights without stopping. After work, we'd bathe. If we used more water than we were allowed, we would be beaten up. It happened not only on my boat but on every boat.

SHAPIRO: To bring us up to speed on the latest developments, reporter Clare Leschin-Hoar joins us now. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: That clip we just heard is about 6 years old. Is the problem as bad now as it was then?

LESCHIN-HOAR: Yeah, unfortunately it is. Human Rights Watch came out with a report last week talking about conditions in Thailand and how they have not improved despite media reports and government pressure on Thailand to fix the problem.

SHAPIRO: Why is it such a hard problem to fix when there's all this pressure and media reports about it?

LESCHIN-HOAR: Part of the reason is because slavery in the seafood supply chain happens far from sight. There are people who are on ships at sea that don't come back to dock. They don't have a way to call for help. And the people who are doing this - if they're willing to enslave someone and even kill them, they're not going to be clean on their paperwork. So it's a really difficult problem to fix.

SHAPIRO: This latest attempt to fix the problem comes from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is known for its Seafood Watch program which highlights which fish are overfished, endangered, good or bad for consumers to purchase. Tell us about this latest tool, the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool, it's called.

LESCHIN-HOAR: Well, up until now, when we talked about sustainable seafood, the focus has been on environmental issues - so things like overfishing, pollution, mangrove destruction. But as news reports emerged that there is a human component to the seafood supply chain, Monterey Bay Aquarium got a lot of requests from retailers to help them develop a tool because they did not know how to get this problem out of their supply chain.

SHAPIRO: And so the tool actually lets people type in, I want to buy - I don't know - Skipjack tuna from Thailand. What's the risk of slavery?

LESCHIN-HOAR: Right. It'll say a critical risk or a low risk. And it doesn't mean that it's in that specific fish they're getting, but it alerts the retailer that there's the potential that it's there, and it gives them the opportunity to work with their distributors and importers to ensure that the fish that they're getting is clean.

SHAPIRO: Except that if, as you say, the supply chain is so murky, how does anyone actually know whether something is tainted by slave labor or not?

LESCHIN-HOAR: Well, the aquarium spent a lot of time working with NGOs who study the issue. They track ships that are at sea and how long they're there.

SHAPIRO: Oh, how long they're a season indicator because if somebody's being treated humanely, they'll be allowed off the boat.


SHAPIRO: So if a boat's at sea for years, they're going to raise some suspicions.

LESCHIN-HOAR: Exactly. If a boat doesn't come in, that's a flag.

SHAPIRO: This is only as effective as the retailers who use it. Do you get the sense that grocery stores and restaurants are actually eager for a tool like this, or are consumers going to have to pressure them?

LESCHIN-HOAR: I don't think consumers will have to pressure them, though that doesn't hurt. I do think nobody wants slavery-produced seafood in their supply chain, but supermarkets and retail chains are very reluctant to talk about it openly. And NGOs - they don't want retailers to walk away from a supply chain because it just drives it underground. The more they stay engaged and work on the issue, the better chance it has of solving the problem.

SHAPIRO: Clare Leschin-Hoar joins us as part of a collaboration between NPR and the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Thanks so much.

LESCHIN-HOAR: Thank you.

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