Of shrimp & slaves

National Post, July 2, 2014

Retailers need to take modern day slavery in the Thai fishing industry as seriously as they would take a food-safety scandal.

By Melissa Marschke

British repIMG_20140703_131958orters have shed insight into Thailand’s open secret: state-sanctioned slavery within the country’s offshore fishing fleets.

Approximately 370,000 economic migrants, mainly from Cambodia and Burma, work in Thailand’s fishing industry, paying brokers to help them find work. Some are tricked into slavery, purchased by boat captains who face labour shortages. Migrants are forced to work under horrific conditions: enduring 20-hour shifts and regular beatings, living on one meal a day consisting of rice and a little fish, and, in extreme cases, witnessing stomach-turning executions of fellow slaves as a method of forcing compliance. Some men are out at sea for months, or years, at a time.

These men, whose labour enables “ghost” or illegal vessels to function, harvest a mix of high-value species such as tuna and low-value species such as inedible “trash fish.” The latter is turned into fishmeal and fed to farmed fish throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. While harvesting trash fish is back-breaking work, the job requires relatively few skills.

Investigators from Britain’s Guardian newspaper spent six months unravelling the logistics of a supply chain that uses slave labour – Thailand’s farmed shrimp industry, the products of which are exported to Europe and North America.

The supply chain looks something like this: Trash fish are caught on boats that use slave labour, sold and made into fishmeal at any number of factories, and then bought by CP Foods (a Thai conglomerate), which uses fishmeal for its shrimp-feed production. CP Foods exports shrimp to Europe and North America, accounting for 10% of Thailand’s shrimp exports. Retailers such as Walmart and Cosco buy this shrimp (the investigation focused on U.K. retailers, but it’s unlikely that most shrimp coming into Canada is not fed some form of trash fish).

Trash fish in the form of fishmeal is commonly used to feed most farmed fish. So the case study presented in The Guardian suggests that slave labour is likely an issue across the fisheries industry, at least in Southeast Asia.

Retailers claim that it’s impossible to trace complex supply chains. And it’s certainly true that it’s far more difficult to audit an off-shore fishing boat than a garment factory. Even on-shore operations can be opaque. Anyone who has spent time in a fishing port, anywhere, can attest that it’s a rough and tumble world.

Yet if supplier standards stipulate that suppliers should comply with industry standards and International Labour Organization and UN conventions, then independent auditing is a must; and suppliers need to figure out how to ensure that this happens.

Within a day of this news story breaking, CP Foods’ Australian branch promised better audits of its supply chain. That’s the right thing to do. Retailers need to take modern-day slavery as seriously as they would take a food safety scandal (in which case, a supply chain would be immediately shut down and then very carefully monitored).

The Thai government needs to acknowledge that labour shortages in the country’s fishing industry, coupled with growing fish-farming operations, likely are fuelling economic migration. Regulating captains, and considering something like a Canadianstyle “temporary workers program,” might make sense, to ensure that people have legal employment within the industry.

Economic migration is driven by poverty in neighbouring countries. Many migrants are fishers who simply cannot make a livelihood on their small boats, and hope that they might have a better chance of earning their livelihood as a fish worker in Thailand. Global demand for cheap, plentiful shrimp (and other seafood) fuels poor working conditions. We’re all complicit in this story. We need to change this system.

But not through a total boycott: If we stop eating Thai shrimp, many fishers, buyers and tradespeople who are not complicit in the slave trade will be put out of a job. Rather, we as consumers should pay more for the shrimp we do eat so that people are paid fair wages and shrimp can be farmed in more sustainable ways. We need to insist that retailers actually audit their value chains, and shame the Thai government into doing something to address an issue that they’ve long ignored. Given the health benefits associated with fish and its importance as a source of protein, this industry must transform itself, immediately.

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Stardust ‘sakura’ shrimp: a great niche product managed by a local Japanese cooperative

Since I had never heard of stardust ‘sakura’ shrimp (Sergia Lucens), was curious to learn more about fisheries cooperatives in the Japanese context, and wanted to do a field trip that would take me from Mount Fuji to the coast, I joined other IASCP 2013 participants on this field trip to Sugura Bay.  What we saw was super impressive from a commons organizing perspective.

Globally two stardust shrimp fisheries exist: one in Taiwan, mainly for the ornamental fish trade, and a larger stardust shrimp fishery at Suruga Bay.  The Japanese fishery is known throughout Japan, with people coming from all over the country to buy and eat these tiny shrimp.  Stardust shrimp, with their spectacular dusting of bright red spots, have a jaw-to-tail length of four to five centimeters and a lifespan of 15 months.  They spend their days floating at a depth of 200 m, aggregating around dusk and ascending towards the surface.  Fishers, using a pair-boat trawl net, fish in the early evening hours.

Stardust shrimp, freshly caught.

Stardust shrimp, freshly caught.

The fishery began in 1894 when several mackerel fishers caught the stardust shrimp in their by-catch.  Although a ‘race to catch the last fish’ mentality ensued, with time local fishers were keenly aware of decreases in catch levels and market fluctuations, particularly when the markets were flooded with stardust shrimp.  In 1968 a co-management cooperative body was established to include three local fishing associations: by the late 1970’s fishing effort coordination coupled with a pooling arrangement system had emerged for the stardust shrimp in Sagura Bay.  This is known to be one of Japan’s most successful fishing cooperatives (Uchida and Baba 2008).

What, then, makes this system work?  A key feature of the stardust shrimp fishery is the flat benefit sharing system strictly followed by all members of the cooperative.  The total harvest of the stardust shrimp is divided into equal pools based on consistent rules followed by the 120 vessels (60 paired boats, since the vessels go out in pairs with a trawl between them) that fish in 60 designated areas.  A fishing committee decides annual harvest goals, does daily monitoring of catch, determines fishers’ fishing grounds, and carefully follows the market price for the stardust shrimp.  Total landed volume is closely controlled.  Limits have been placed on both boat and net size, and on the fishing season itself (there are two openings, with significant time for stock recovery in between).

The benefit sharing arrangements are purposely flat.  Vessel owners and crew members get a slightly higher share for boat maintenance and labour costs and then after common costs are deducted – a 5 % fee goes to the co-op and fuel – the remaining revenue is distributed back to each member equally.  Note that there are more members in the cooperative than there are fishers, and more fishing boats than needed for any one day, which makes this sharing system even more interesting.  In this arrangement, there is no incentive to fish more than someone else since you will not get paid more.  At the same time, peer pressure ensures that people maintain their boats and do their share of fishing, and that a free rider mentality does not ensue.  This process ensures the welfare of all cooperative members.  The social scientist in me is super curious to further explore this, and the Yui Fishing Association (one of the three fisheries associations that form the co-op) members’ admitted that most people were skeptical when they heard about their benefit sharing system.  Except for minor quibbles fishers’ felt that this system was working well (see Uchida and Baba 2008 for more details on the benefit sharing system).

Income from this fishery is not enough for fishers to make a living:  many fishers also fish for white bait, horse mackerel, cutlass fish or young sardines, or do construction work and other off-season jobs.  Still, the fishery is profitable.  In 2012, the Yui Fishers’ Association net profit was $USD 20,077, which was significantly down compared with 2007 profits of $USD 52,821.  Fishers link the decrease in profit to stock declines, since the market price is relatively stable, and suspect the 2011 tsunami and climate variation to be having an impact.

Fishing boats, fit between roads and hills.

Fishing boats, fit between roads and hills.

In 2009, the Stardust Shrimp Two-boat Seine Fishery was granted Japan’s Marine Eco-Label (www.melj.jp).  This certification helps the co-op to further market and brand their product.  The Yui Fishers Association, as an example, have an on-site store that sells the stardust shrimp in many forms: frozen, kettle fried, in sausage form; and also sells seaweed and other aquatic products.  They also completed new port facilities for the stardust shrimp in 2012 which include a state of the art processing plant, ice making facilities, a cooking demonstration room and a conference room to host guests and school children.

There are reasons why this system is successful: entry is limited by a license system administered by the prefectural government; the stock is confined to Sugura Bay; and fishers have exclusive access to this resource.  This fishery is a de facto monopoly.  Fishers here have twin objectives: maintaining shrimp prices and resource conservation.  And, this particular cooperative is well connected, with members sitting on the national cooperative board.  This is an example of a flexible governance system with local leadership that responds to resource and market conditions.

Yet, even with this success, questions do remain.  There may be an effort challenge since stocks appear to be declining in recent years and the only way to reduce license holders is through attrition.  From a resource conservation perspective it might be important to further limit the number of boats entering the fishery each year.  How this might be negotiated and what this might mean for cooperative members is unclear.

For more information see: Uchida, H. and Baba, O.  2008.  Fishery management and the pooling arrangement in the Sakuraebi Fishery in Japan.  In: Townsend, R. and Shotton, R. Case studies in fisheries self-governance.  FAO Fisheries Technical Paper, No. 504.  Or visit the Yui Fisheries Association website: www.jf-net.ne.jp/soyuikougyokyo.

Fisheries (mis)management and the closure of Tonle Sap fishing lots

Hun Sen bans industry fishing at Tonle Sap lake permanently, Phnom Penh Post, Feb 29, 2012

Cambodia’s Prime Minister has announced an indefinite closure of 35 fishing lots around the Tonle Sap Lake, citing “illegal overfishing to the detriment of local villagers”.

The closure of these fishing lots marks the end of an era of fisheries management that began during French colonial times, whereby prime fishing grounds in the Tonle Sap Lake were parceled off for the exclusive use of elites and industry.  Fishing rights were auctioned to private bidders to raise revenues: the highest bidder then held exclusive fishing rights over a particular area, with Chinese merchants monopolizing the market.  Large-scale fisheries comprised of the most productive parts of the floodplain for which exclusive concessions were granted for two to four years.  Medium- and small-scale fisheries were essentially open access licences, allowing fishing gear of a certain size to be used in all areas except fishing lots.  This system pervaded, with minor variations, for over 140 years, and fishing lots have always been a major source of revenue for fishing lot owners.  Fishing lots have also provided jobs for local people, and been a source of fingerlings for small producer fish farmers.

In 2000, linked to village protests, declining fish stocks and access issues, an initial fisheries reform took place whereby 56 % of all fishing lots in the Tonle Sap were released to the public as a way to increase access of local villagers to fishing grounds.  After an initial chaotic period, fishers and fisheries officials settled into new forms of management which included a role for community fisheries and local resource management.  However, even with such reforms, life in fishing villages has not become that much easier.  Fishers have been increasing their fishing effort to ensure that they can meet their livelihood needs.  Fishers continue to struggle to send their kids to school, waste management remains an issue, and access to health and other social services remains difficult for these floating or stilt housed villages.  For these reasons, when fishers first heard about the proposed fishing lot closures in the Tonle Sap that were announced in the summer of 2011, they ware jubilant (especially given their experiences with the fishing lot releases in the early 2000s).

It is unclear, as of yet, if these fishing lot closures are really a good news story.  After conducting a dozen or so household interviews and several focus groups in February 2012, a time when the temporary closure of fishing lots in the Tonle Sap was already in place (I did interviews in Kampong Thom, Kampong Chaan, and Pursat), it became apparent to me that both small and medium scale fishers were not necessarily benefiting from such closures.  There are several reasons for this:

  • The fishing lots are completely closed — not released to the public — meaning that villagers cannot access these areas and no new fishing grounds have been opened up.
  • Fish migration patterns appear to be shifting with the closure of the fishing lots, with reports of far more fish being found downstream of the Tonle Sap rather than in the Tonle Sap lake area.
  • The Tonle Sap Technical Authority is strictly enforcing the Fisheries Law — most small scale and medium scale fishers use more fishing gear (i.e., a greater amount of gill nets or using fences and traps to catch fish) than is legally allowed to earn their livelihood.  Such a crack down impacts livelihood options.
  • Medium scale fishers are feeling the impact of the lot closures since there is no supply of fingerling for raising fish and people who use bamboo traps and nets have had their gear destroyed.
  • Poorer households with limited fishing gear may be benefiting (a little is what was suggested to me); however, for those households that had family members working on the fishing lots (some fishing lots employed up to 60 workers) a valuable source of wage labour is now gone.  Some labourers have moved to work in cassava plantations.

It may be that strict enforcement combined with the closure of commercial fishing lots will enable fish stocks to recover, and this may be an important move in terms of the sustainability of this ecosystem.  To assess this, however, requires careful, consistent monitoring.  To my knowledge, no government authority or NGO is measuring catch levels other than for the dai fishery.  How this impacts small and medium scale fishers vis-a-vis food security and poverty alleviation also requires far greater attention.  Moreover, it is hard to know if the current strict enforcement of the fisheries law is linked to the lead up to the commune elections or if this is a new normal.

In sum, this is a reform that may not lead to enhancing local peoples lives (although we would all like it if it did) or enhancing the resource base.  Time will tell.