A year and a half ago, the Alaska pollock industry was unpleasantly surprised when the Marine Stewardship Council announced it would extend its blue label to Russian Sea of Okhotsk pollock. Russian-trawled Theragra chalcogramma is the same species as Bering Sea walleye pollock fished by Alaska trawlers.
Alaskans were not up in arms simply because they compete in the marketplace with their Russian counterparts. The shock came because the Alaskan fishery has been banking on its own MSC certification as well as its widespread reputation for a safe working environment, one the Russian fleet does not share.
Industry leaders across the globe began again to ask the question, “How do we define sustainable?” Does it not include safe working conditions for seafood harvesters? Does it not encompass a right to fair labor practices?
I woke up early this morning to the AP alert that 132 people were on the Russian Dalniy Vostok freezer trawler when it went down in a matter of minutes overnight. At press time, 54 people had died and 15 were unaccounted for.
Immediately, the questions began running through my mind: Was the boat well-maintained? Did it have safety gear? How many of the workers understood the language spoken onboard? Were they all there of their own free will?
On that boat were 78 Russians. The 54 remaining crew included foreign nationals from Myanmar, Vanuatu, Ukraine and Latvia.
Even if the foreigners were there voluntarily, imagine being on a sinking boat with alarms blaring as announcements come over the loudspeaker but you don’t understand what’s being said because it’s all in Russian, a language you don’t know.
So what can we take away from this? The same lesson we’ve carried since the first big story of slave labor on Thai shrimp farms broke in 2013: By relying on seafood labels that focus on stock abundance, gear impacts and habitat but not on the working conditions of those fisheries, we are being kinder to the fish we eat than we are to the people who bring that fish to our plates.
It seems unwieldy to attempt to certify the harvesting practices of foreign products (seafood and otherwise) to verify that they are simultaneously and reliably good for us, good for the environment and good for the people who harvest them.
I’m not asking MSC to create a human rights component for its label, nor has the organization shown an interest in incorporating this element. What we can do is use the information the federal government already has to source products from countries that have clean human rights records. That puts China, Russia and Thailand on the Red List, blue sticker or no.
Their leaders will respond to marketplace demands. After all, slave labor is a response to the demand for cheap goods. We don’t need a middle man to raise these issues. We know what they are and how to act. Let’s make a change by hitting them where it counts: their GDP.
When you buy seafood, ask where it comes from. Retailers are required to provide this information. Make use of it. Buy American. Buy wild. Eat well.