Q&A with Fiorenza Micheli: Monitoring human rights in the seafood sector

A group of scientists, including Stanford professor Fiorenza Micheli, has urged marine scientists to focus attention on human rights violations and other social issues in the seafood sector, in addition to advocating for sustainable practices.

A recent paper in Science calls on marine scientists to incorporate social responsibility into sustainable seafood metrics. Consumer demand for sustainable seafood has led to certification programs and protocols for environmentally sustainable fishing, but guidelines for the treatment of humans who work in fisheries have lagged behind.

Stilt fishermen in southern Sri Lanka. (Image credit: Kristen Weiss)

Authored by a team of 20 researchers at leading organizations, including Stanford University and Conservation International, the paper is the first integrated approach to meeting this global challenge. The authors presented the work as part of the United Nations Oceans Conference and the SeaWeb Seafood Summit, both of which took place June 5-9 in New York and Seattle, respectively. The paper identifies three key principles that together establish a global standard for social responsibility in the seafood sector: protecting human rights, dignity and respecting access to resources; ensuring equality and equitable opportunities to benefit; and improving food and livelihood security.

Fiorenza Micheli, a professor of biology at Stanford and a co-author of the paper, discusses why addressing human rights in fisheries is such a critical issue, and how the group hopes to move forward.

What brought the issue of human rights in fisheries to your attention?

The major catalyst for this paper was a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning news stories exposing the rampant slavery in seafood fishing and production internationally. Slavery is the most egregious kind of human rights issue to address, but there are also many other social issues occurring throughout the seafood supply chain. We need to think about providing sustainable livelihoods and well-being for workers that provides economic security and food security for people who are engaged in those fisheries.

Scientists and NGOs have been working on environmental aspects of seafood sustainability for over two decades now, but the aspect of social responsibility has been largely ignored. This paper represents a major shift in perspective. We think that consumers want to know not only that their seafood is harvested sustainably, but also that it is fished in a way that respects human rights.

In our own work with small-scale fisheries in Baja California, Mexico, we have seen the tight coupling of the ecological and social performance and governance of fisheries. We realized that promoting sustainability requires a focus on both ecosystems and people, while previous sustainability efforts had focused primarily on just the ecosystems.


Why publish this paper now?

This paper came out within a week of both the United Nations Ocean Conference and the SeaWeb Seafood Summit, where the issue of social responsibility was at the forefront.

Fishermen harvesting prawns in Kerala, India. (Image credit: Pixabay)

Nations manage their own fisheries, but there are guidelines that have been produced by the UN, including guidelines for labor practices for environmental and social sustainability in small-scale fisheries, so the UN Ocean Conference was a really important venue at which to discuss this framework. The SeaWeb Seafood Summit is where businesses and producers and distributors of seafood get together, and we rolled out our framework to individual businesses at the meeting to see if we could secure industry support and early adoption.


What has the response been so far to your social responsibility framework?

I was thrilled to see that nine of the world’s biggest seafood businesses signed an initiative at the UN Ocean Conference pledging to help end slave labor and work toward more sustainable fisheries, and nearly a dozen businesses, including the grocery chain Albertson’s, in attendance at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit signed onto the voluntary agreement. This is a big deal. The next step is to present our recommendations to a broader group of stakeholders from various international government bodies and the seafood industry, as well as to reach out to seafood consumers to increase public awareness about this issue.

The Center for Ocean Solutions, which I co-direct, hosted a meeting in Monterey last April with representatives from about 20 different NGOs and institutions that together drafted the social responsibility framework that we present in the Science paper. Because we worked together on it, these organizations already have significant buy-in.


How do you see the framework being implemented in the future to improve seafood sustainability going forward?

A first key step is to get agreement, similar to what happened when seafood sustainability started to become an issue. In that case, it began with general agreement among scientists, NGOs and industry that we need to think about environmental sustainability, and the details of implementation were developed from there. I hope that the paper brings attention to the need for much larger investment into both research and action to promote social responsibility into fisheries and aquaculture. I also hope that fisheries’ improvement projects and certification programs begin to include the social dimensions we outline in the paper in their sustainability assessments.

Fishermen in Vietnam. (Image credit: Pixabay)

How we move to implement social responsibility in specific regions will vary, but we will need the support of the scientific community – including natural scientists and social scientists – working together with stakeholders to help determine how to do so effectively. Many of the NGOs that were involved in developing this framework have already been working with seafood businesses to address social issues; we hope that we can now get some solid commitments from government and industry in light of this paper.

Fiorenza Micheli is co-director of Stanford’s Center for Ocean Solutions and the David and Lucile Packard Professor of Marine Science at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station. The work was funded by the Nippon Foundation’s Nereus Program, the NSF IGERT Program on Ocean Change, the Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Liber Ero Fellowship Program.