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“Sustainable Seafood” is not enough

fishingHundreds of foreign fishermen working on Hawaiian ships, under a US commercial fleet, are prevented from leaving those ships, often for years on end. At the discretion of their American captains they may be kept in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, working for less than $1 an hour, on boats that do not comply with basic internationally recognized labor standards, without access to their own passports. And it’s legal.

You can read the full report from the Pulitzer Prize-winning AP series here, or if you have limited time or attention, listen to the NPR interview with the lead journalist. The conditions, while inhumane, are not surprising to anyone familiar with labor practices in the agriculture industry, where 59 different goods are produced worldwide by child labor and 27 by forced labor, according to the DOL’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs. What makes this fishing situation distinctive is that it is happening on American ships with minimal oversight by Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard.

A legal loophole allows certain Hawaiian fishing vessels to bypass the requirement that 75% of shipping crews be American citizens, and since they are not citizens and do not have visas, and are considered foreign workers instead of foreign-based workers, the owner of the vessel is legally obligated to keep the largely Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander crews on board. Until they get their visas. Which they don’t. Because the owners don’t apply for them. Because it’s cheaper and easier to do without and just keep the workers on board for the length of their contract, which may be 2 or 3 years.

I bring this to your attention not to ruin your day or get you freaked out about eating Hawaiian fish, but to provide another example of the endemic problems in the industrial food system. In promoting and endorsing the idea of cheap food, and crafting a pricing system in which worker health and safety are externalized, it makes sense for participants in the commercial fishing industry to take advantage of any loophole they can in order to remain competitive. This type of practice is not unique in our current food system; it is exactly what our food system requires of its participants. I agree with Michael Pollan (quoted in the AP article) that the behavior exposed is “certainly not morally sustainable,” but morals will only get us so far. It may ultimately get a law changed or regulation passed, but that change will have to be acceptable to the politically influential food industry, which means that the legal bar will be set 1/4 inch above immoral, and far below decent. When it’s not ignored entirely. Which it may be, remember, in at least 59 different agricultural industries around the world, including fishing.

Much of the fish from these ships is considered environmentally sustainable and Hawaii has some of the strictest catch limits around. Restrictions are good – better than the alternative, certainly – but sustainable is a misleading word. What these ships do would more accurately be described as killing less marine life than the other guy. The fish population is sustained longer if we don’t catch, sell, and eat as many of them, but fishing is inherently unsustainable in its current state because we are not replenishing what we remove from the oceans. So that label is questionable even from its narrow environmental perspective. But mistreating and underpaying fishermen is also unsustainable for the foreign workers themselves, who even in the more humane ships endure brutal conditions and backbreaking work for inadequate compensation. It is a life that cannot be endured for very long, and which takes its toll on their families, communities, and leaves them vulnerable to further economic exploitation in the future.

The human element of food production is only ever factored in as an economic loss, which is why industrial agriculture is inherently unjust and unsustainable.

*photo from AP article
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