Do We Need Fair Fish?
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In addition to environmental problems long-associated with the fishing industry, reports and media coverage in recent years have shed light on labor abuses including child labor, forced labor, and wage theft.

Fair Trade USA (FTUSA) has identified the need to address labor as part of sustainable fishing and in this they are a leader. Their sustainable fishery program attempts to draw attention to problems in this industry and differentiate those who are doing better. It is also rooted in the fair trade movement to the extent that it focuses on fisher associations that make democratic decisions, a welcome change from their recent focus on expanding their work with plantations and factories that provide unfair competition to small-scale organized producers.

However, FTUSA is also a leader in assuming its own limited certification approach is the one-size-fits-all solution to all ills in the food and agriculture system and this is no exception.

A Food and Water Watch report looked at several eco-social fishery labels and concluded that, among other things, they tend to undermine government’s role and that no label sufficiently covered all areas that comprise sustainability. Though they did not look at FTUSA, some of the common shortfalls they did find, like lack of carbon footprint standards and insufficient public input, could be applied to FTUSA as well.

A review of the specific compliance criteria also reveals:

  • A fair payment is not required. Added value is expected through the premium payment for community projects, which means that fisher incomes may not increase at all through participation in this program. This is part of a troubling trend as FTUSA has also elected to focus on a premium payment rather than paying living wages in its hired labor standards for both farm and factory workers.
  • Though the focus is on members of fisher associations, there does not appear to be a specific focus on small-scale fishers. This is significant because there are several compliance criteria specifically for the case where there are a “significant” number of workers, many of which are not mandatory until year 3 or beyond. This means that in the case of a fisher association made up of larger fishers, workers may be the primary participants but not the primary beneficiaries.
  • As an example of the above, where there are a significant number of workers, a written contract is only required starting in year 3. Further, workers are not guaranteed a voice in creating the contract, including pay or working conditions, unless they have opted to create a worker organization. In other words, democratic voice in the workplace and living wages are not guaranteed even in the case of “significant” workforce.
  • Wages do not need to exceed “regional averages” or legal minimum, i.e. conventional wages, even when many workers are employed.
  • Overfishing of primary fish is prohibited only at year 3 and overfishing of secondary or by catch only prohibited at year 6.

In addition to these specific concerns is the over-arching concern about whether FTUSA has the capacity to adequately implement its own standards.  Much of the abuse that occurs in the industry happens out at sea and a once-a-year audit is unlikely to uncover major problems.

Retailers, brands, and consumers, do have power to help create change. Here are just a few ways:

  • Retailers and brands who buy fish should sign fair contracts and insist on fair contracts throughout the supply chain in which fishers negotiate a price that allows them to fish in socially and environmentally sustainable ways; financial audits that do not lead to a label may be useful in ensuring trust and transparency
  • Retailers and brands can use resources such as the Food and Water Watch report referenced above and other reports from reputable neutral organizations to understand which fish and which sources are never sustainable

The United States (and other countries) should use trade policy to ensure worker and small producer rights are upheld, rather than promoting corporate interests; visit our trade policy page to advocate


One Response


Thanks for posting this! When I first heard FTUSA was doing this, I didn’t really understand how that worked and if it even worked, it just didn’t seem to be the best approach to solving the issues in that industry. Thanks again, FWP rocks!

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