People & Society / Southeast Asia

The real cost of seafood

by Kathy Xu
Length 9 min

Have a taste for seafood? Have you ever wondered where it comes from and how it ends up on your plate? Not all seafood is sourced ethically. In some cases, slavery is involved. Humans have been consuming seafood for the past 50,000 to 100,000 years. Seafood is globally known for its protein value and health benefits. It accounts for 6.7 percent of all protein consumed by humans, and offers a rich source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, calcium, zinc and iron.

Nutritional information of some common seafoods. Data taken from U.S. Food and Drug Administration, January 1, 2008.

Trade and consumption

Fishes are among the most traded food types worldwide, and the value of the global fish trade surpasses the value of international trade of all other animal proteins combined.

In 2012, international trade represented 37 percent of the total fish production in value, with a total export value of US$129 billion. Of this, US$70 billion constituted developing countries’ exports, and the global total fish capture in 2014 was 93.4 million tonnes. Estimates suggest that small-scale fisheries supply about half of the worldwide fish catches.

Per capita trends in fish and seafood consumption over the years. Data taken from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017.

Where does most of the world’s seafood come from?

Naturally, coastal countries. But which coastal countries are the biggest players?

Seafood comes primarily from two sources—catches from the wild, and aquaculture, which involves the farming and cultivation of fish in enclosed spaces. Asia dominates the trade on seafood. The top three seafood producing countries in the world from wild marine capture sources are China, Indonesia, and the United States of America. The top three seafood producing countries from aquaculture sources are China, Indonesia and India.

In recent years, Indonesian Marine Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti has been known to step up measures to combat indiscriminate fishing by bombing illegal foreign vessels in Indonesian waters. However, it is unlikely that Indonesia’s seafood catches and production will reduce, as vessels will merely concentrate and step up their fishing efforts in safer waters due to lack of illegal competition.

Comparison of wild caught seafood volume by country. Data taken from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016.

Huge volumes of seafood are consumed and traded across the globe constantly, and at high values. To understand how this value is distributed, it is useful to see how much of the value of seafood is distributed among the fishing vessels and the secondary processors of the seafood supply chain before the seafood comes to the table and to consumers.

Seafood supply chain value analysis. Data from Gudmundsson, Eyjolfur, Frank Asche, and Max Nielsen. “Revenue Distribution through the Seafood Value Chain.” FAO Fisheries Circular, no. 1019 (2006).

The seafood supply chain can get pretty complex. This is especially so when it involves the middlemen. As seafood starts getting sold in more formal markets, the supply chains can include several different mixtures of mid-chain players, such as aggregators, primary processors, traders, wholesalers, dealers, secondary processors, distributors, and transporters. These players reconstruct the catches, package it, and move the product from point of production to the final sale. With less data and information available on the flow and handover in the mid-chain juncture of the supply chain, there is a higher likelihood that these processes could be illegal or fraudulent.

The stakes have gotten higher as seafood consumption has increased over the past few decades and the demand for seafood grows in more affluent countries.

Link between seafood consumption and GDP per capita by country. Data from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017.

A closer look in Asia

Thailand has 2,600 kilometres of coastline and is one of the top exporters of seafood in the world. The Thai seafood industry has a total export revenue value of over SGD$11 billion, with ten percent of its fishing fleet workers composed of cheap migrant labour. Most of the migrant labourers have been sourced from poor neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, and from impoverished parts of Thailand. A report by Human Rights Watch probes deeper into the horrific conditions that the slaves are under.

Slave trade in the seafood industry involves forced labor, abusive working conditions, excessive overtime, and the withholding of wages and identity documents. However, according to the International Labor Organisation, it was found that employers in Thai fisheries did comply in paying fishermen minimum wage and issuing of contracts. But forced labour and intentionally delaying the payment of wages for several months continues to be a problem. Migrant workers in the fishing industry of Thailand were getting paid THB$140 (US$4.50) per day and were unaware that it was illegal. Without being able to speak Thai fluently, it is hard for them to seek help, when they are unfairly treated or paid substandard wages.

An illustration of what happens when slave workers get recruited in the seafood trade.

Burmese slave worker, Myint Naing, was born in Myanmar’s Mon state, and his family was deep in poverty when an agent offered him and his family US$300 for a few months of work. It would have been able to feed his family for over a year. With just this promise, Myint was smuggled over the border to Thailand and thrown into eight years of slavery in the seafood industry. He was forced to work on a fishing vessel fishing off the Arafura Sea of Indonesia. After much pain and tribulations, Myint finally did make it home in a trade where many others had perished at sea—nameless. Extensive investigations like the work carried out by Associated Press, have helped shed led on and helped in the freeing of slaves from the horrors of the seafood trade bondage.

Currently, Thailand is scrambling to get their papers in order to register up to 1.6 million workers in the seafood industry. This comes after the European Commission gave Thailand a “yellow flag” in 2015, which constituted a formal warning notice to the country that they were not doing enough to stop illegal fishing and that it violated labour rights. If there are no improvements on Thailand’s efforts, the EU could possibly ban all fishing imports from Thailand.

The European Commission has inspected the Thai fishing ports in April 2018 and the report of findings are not out yet. Since the warning, the Thai government has been stepping up measures such as creating laws to regulate and improve working conditions, documentation, and proper wages for migrant fishermen. A “port-in, port-out” (PIPO) system was also set up, requiring boats to report for inspections, and to keep track of the fishermen on board, ensuring the time at sea was limited to 30 days.

A fishing port in Pattani, Thailand.
Fishing port at Pattani, Thailand

At present, Taiwan is under the most pressure in Asia. Taiwan exports around US$2 billion of seafood, shipping primarily to USA, Europe and Japan. The workers on board Taiwanese vessels, who hail mostly from Indonesia and Philippines, were interviewed by Environmental Justice Foundation (EFJ) and were also found to have been living in grimy and unsafe conditions on the vessels, with little or no money left to take home after expenses are deducted. Being held at gunpoint and then beaten up was also a common occurrence among the slaves on the boats. Most Taiwanese fleets do not dock for months and even years. They transfer their catch from boats out at sea, resulting in slave workers being abused on board in very isolated waters, and unseen, for a very long time. All eyes are now on Taiwan for their illegal fishing and abuse of human rights in the seafood industry. If not enough is done to stop the abuse of workers on board Taiwanese fishing vessels, there is a possibility that the European Commission may issue a red flag, which would impose a total ban on Taiwanese fishery products into the EU.


Are there sufficient available solutions to the problem?

There have been several efforts to tackle the problem of slavery in the seafood industry. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a Seafood Slavery Risk Tool that targets seafood buyers, and allows them to check slavery risk ratings to specific fisheries. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is also running a pilot project that aims to track the path of the tuna in the Pacific Islands, from catch to plate. There is also the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), or Seafood Traceability Rule that permits data reporting and recording, keeping requirements for importation of priority fish identified to be vulnerable to “Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU)” fishing. Fish 2.0 aims to link seafood industries to investors looking to fund more social and environmental positive impacts, hence making it attractive for investors and consumers to demand more transparency in the seafood industry supply chain.

If consumption of seafood is based on transparent information on nutrition and sustainability, consumers could perhaps then be a part of the movement to create change in industry practices and standards. By demanding for traceability and the ability to track exactly how and where the seafood comes from, sellers will be pressured to ensure that ethical and proper methods of catching are employed.

NGOs such as the Issara Institute and the EJ Foundation are also working on seafood traceability transparency, and are monitoring the slavery problem. Given the vastness of the Coral Triangle region which includes waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste, regulating the seafood slavery problem or even tracking all of the fishing boats would prove a great challenge. This is especially so without the proper joint support of all governments for enforcement. As such, these waters still have a long way to go before they can be well patrolled and free of illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing activities.