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The Disturbing Irony Of Using Prison Labor For ‘Sustainable’ Seafood

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We’ve deceived ourselves into assuming that a company making good choices for the environment will also make good choices for people.

I’ve always had more than a few bones to pick with the environmental conservation movement.

Specifically, I’ve closely studied how the movement often disregards human rights; this is a movement that was born of privilege, is steeped in racism, and is at times willfully ignorant of inequity. I’m certainly not the only person to bear witness to the cruelties of conservation; the explosive growth of environmental justice organizations over the past few decades signals a growing, global response of people demanding that human rights be incorporated into environmentalism.

The birth of new organizations and the redirection of existing environmental organizations is described in the book Blessed Unrest, which illustrates how the human rights and environmental conservation movements are coming together. This is all to say, I know I’m not alone in advocating for sustainable seafood and worker’s rights — but I am calling out all the ocean activists I’ve met who put fish before humans.

I don’t just read about how conservation can hurt people, though, I’ve witnessed it myself. I saw it on the coastlines of the Philippines where the beaches revealed a sharp dichotomy of traditional use—i.e. fishing—and new, “sustainable” use—although the mounting tension between these uses are not shared with most tourists. Small fishermen lost access to public beaches to launch and land their boats because of the expansion of German- and American-owned eco-hotels. You know, the kind of hotels that might have a “5 green leaf” certification, advertise a privatized beach, and—ironically—their fresh-caught fish.

I’m calling out all the ocean activists I’ve met who put fish before humans. Click To Tweet

I hear it from the mouths of peers who put marine mammals on a pedestal and express their disgust of the whaling practices of indigenous people like the Makah Tribe. Despite a legally protected treaty right to hunt a robust population of gray whales, the Makah people are a frequent target of nasty words by elite environmentalists.

I see it on the grocery store shelves, where the proliferation of eco-labelling can be seen on everything from shampoos to bread. The number and diversity of products with eco-labels far surpass the number of products with labels like “Fair Trade.” Eco-conscious consumers must pay more attention to whether these products are good for people, especially when it comes to seafood.

flickr / Victoria Reay

I will say this. The average piscivore’s lack of knowledge about human rights in the seafood industry isn’t entirely their fault; it’s the outcome of an industry that is used to operating under significant secrecy. When The Guardian exposed slave labor on Thai fishing boats or when the AP exposed slave labor on Hawaii fishing boats, we were all shocked. But nobody dug deeper. Nobody really questioned whether slave labor in the seafood industry occurred within our borders. I certainly never expected it. I was blind to the possibility, and I’ve been studying the seafood sector for years.

How can you look for something you don’t know exists?

I also know I’m not alone in being a seafood consumer with high ethical standards. The proliferation of eco-labels is the response of the seafood industry to consumer demands. The growth is significant: Sustainable seafood was the #1 culinary trend last year. Some of the eco-labels come from third party certifiers, like Marine Stewardship Council. These labels signal to the consumer, “you can trust us.” And sometimes there is no label, and the conscientious consumer depends on a guide, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch App.

We’ve deceived ourselves into assuming that a company making good choices for the environment will also make good choices for people. In fact, food marketing rarely has anything to do with labor rights. Food marketers are exponentially more focused on finding the right picture of a farm for a cereal box and applying a few choice buzz words to draw you to their product; when the smoke clears, neither one actually means anything.

Like the poorly regulated yet ubiquitous term “natural,” the term “sustainable” has been slapped all over seafood menus and packages to draw your spending dollars and sense of fighting the good fight with those dollars. “A recent survey of 3,000 Americans…suggests that a majority of consumers want to feel good about the seafood they buy,” reports NPR. “The poll by Truven Health Analytics found that almost 80% of the people who eat seafood regularly said it is ‘important’ or ‘very important’ that their seafood is sustainably caught.”

Food marketers know they need to watch their language—because consumers increasingly care about transparency and social accountability—but these feel-good terms are often meaningless or misleading.

That’s the state of food marketing today. And seafood is particularly vulnerable to this, because most of us have no idea how to match a picture of a real fish to the generic white fillet on the plate, much less determine whether the fishery is being managed sustainably or not.

flickr / James Skinner

Ethical seafood consumption is complicated. In the 1990s, the “Give Swordfish a Break” campaign was a popular conservation program that used the celebrity of chefs to advocate not eating swordfish — but whether that was effective turned out to be more complicated than expected. Now, with changes in policies and fishing methods, we’re being told that swordfish caught by some methods in some countries are so sustainably fished that they are a “best choice.”

Clear as mud? Yeah.

Fisheries are complex, dynamic, and opaque. Buying seafood could be a straight path: Someone catches a fish which they sell directly to you, right? But more often than not, this is not the paradigm we participate in; the seafood sector is actually a very convoluted and sticky web of secrets. The fish doesn’t come straight to us from the fishermen because seafood is a globally traded commodity where fish from multiple sources are often consolidated, and often the fish are processed down to fillets, so we can’t tell one fish from another, creating greater opportunity for fraud.

The catch is ever the more unstable due to climate change, and profit margins are pinched by increasing fuel costs and a whole bandwagon of middlemen. In longer seafood supply chains, there might be 5–10 companies between the fisher and you as a seafood consumer.

We’ve deceived ourselves into assuming that a company making good choices for the environment will also make good choices for people. Click To Tweet

As the research at Future of Fish described it, “as a supply chain lengthens, the margins get slimmer, and players become motivated to do whatever is necessary to cut costs (including, at times, committing fraud), as their customer (each player down the chain) is always looking to pay the lowest price possible.” To me, that seems like too many businesses taking a cut and way too many opportunities to lose the trail of where the fish actually came from.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that farmed fish are a growing prison industry in the U.S.

In the Netflix documentary 13th, the scenes flip through the variety of services and manufacturing done in prison industries. A lot of the scenes are from Colorado, because Colorado Correctional Industries (CCI) is a well-known example of a privatized prison network where prisoners do everything from dog training to building park benches. At 1:08:40, there’s a scene in which one of their facilities shows a stack of boxes with “Seattle Fish” printed on the side.

Screenshot from the documentary 13th (2016).

This product is farmed rainbow trout for Seattle Fish Co. — a Denver-based sustainable seafood distributor. The company supplies high-end “farm to table” restaurants with fresh and frozen seafood from around the world, and one product — the rainbow trout — comes from in state, farmed at CCI.

I reached out to Seattle Fish Co.’s Amanda Duran to learn about their seafood processing and their relationship with CCI. Duran said, “We’ve toured that facility and we send our buyers to visit there because we feel very strongly about giving them an opportunity to supply the product to the community. We talk to the participants who work for CCI and they have a lot of pride in the products.”

Duran emphasized that Seattle Fish Co. practices transparency in their seafood sourcing and that some seafood buyers choose not to have any rainbow trout when they learn it is sourced using prison labor. From her perspective, “When some customers choose not to buy from them (CCI) it puts the program in jeopardy.”

CCI is big into aquaculture; they grow trout, catfish, and tilapia. You may have heard about CCI when their relationship providing tilapia to Whole Foods was publicized. Whole Foods may have pulled that tilapia from their shelves, but that didn’t change tilapia’s status — farmed tilapia is still considered a sustainable choice. And that’s exactly the status of farmed rainbow trout in the U.S.; it’s also considered a “best choice” by Seafood Watch.

Seafood Watch

I turned to an expert on prison labor to try and parse out some of the tangled threads in Duran’s comments on the prison labor fish program being “jeopardized.” Only if we believe something is “good” do we risk putting it in “jeopardy.” Otherwise we’d want it in jeopardy, wouldn’t we?

Michael Moynihan, also known as Renaissance the Poet, is just the expert I was looking for. He studied the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) as a university student and used his research to lead a call against the University of Washington’s use of prison labor. Renaissance has a better understanding of the PIC than most people who study it because he’s been incarcerated before.

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Renaissance spoke to his experience as an incarcerated juvenile in Washington State. While serving time, he logged trees—and, ironically, fought fires — for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Incarcerated individuals are fighting our wildfires — yes, even today. But we have to understand a little lesser-known U.S. history to see why this scenario is even possible. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution only kind of outlawed slavery in the U.S., because it explicitly allows for involuntary servitude as a punishment for people who have been convicted of a crime.

As the imprisoned population grew, state governments began to outsource the building and maintenance of prison facilities to private corporations while still promising to buy the products they produced, and the Prison Industrial Complex was born, proliferating across the U.S. The prison industries process and manufacture items and services around us on a daily basis: ergonomic office chairs, dorm beds, recycling programs.

Renaissance described our government agencies depending on this labor. “Within the prison systems — federal, state, private, and immigration and customs enforcement — all those combined make everything from paint to military grade equipment to furniture.” All this, and inmates are generally being paid cents per hour.

To complicate things even further, some states pass policies to make the prison industry the preferred bidder on government contracts. Maybe an agency wants new office desks; sometimes they have no choice but to buy the product from a prison corporation. A 2014 investigation by the Seattle Times found that the Washington State Correctional Industries was not delivering what it had promised. WSCI promised to save state agencies money by producing goods for in-house use — like uniforms for WSDOT ferry workers and street signs — and to only use the program as job training for individuals who would be released. The investigation uncovered that WSCI had not saved money but had cost the state $20 million and was using labor from individuals serving life sentences without parole.

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One common argument for prison labor is that the PIC supplies job programs, which in turn, help people secure employment after release. But Renaissance is quick to debunk that idea. If these programs were actually designed to foster independence and financial security in the wake of incarceration, “why aren’t there formerly incarcerated individuals pulled into management? You don’t hear about that happening, because it doesn’t.” (When discussing this, Duran noted that there may be one individual working at Seattle Fish who was a former part of the work program at CCI, but could not provide further details.)

Another commonly held belief is that prisoners choose to participate in these work programs. Renaissance’s research and experience shows that is also rarely the case. “The idea of prisoners choosing to work falls apart because if you choose not to work you risk physical harm,” he explains. “Sometimes people are put in blocks of different prison gangs or racial groups, knowing they will get beaten up. If you choose not to work, you are likely to be thrown into solitary confinement, which is considered torture.”

The idea of prisoners choosing to work falls apart because if you choose not to work you risk physical harm. Click To Tweet

Renaissance noted that formerly incarcerated individuals face a slew of barriers: They don’t qualify for food stamps, and it’s difficult to find a place to live or secure work because discrimination is so rampant. On top of this, millions of people released from prisons are burdened with debt to the system. Research from the Center for Economic and Policy Research looked at the 1 in 17 working-age adults who were previously incarcerated, and found that a felony conviction, prison, or jail term can have a substantial negative impact on future job prospects, costing the U.S. economy $57 to $65 billion dollars of annual GDP. Some states allow employers to use criminal records when making hiring decisions.

When you realize just how well the PIC has embedded itself into our institutions, the call to “Buy American” means something a little different. Renaissance summarized the challenge of combating the PIC in a globalized economy:

“Economically speaking, most of these products do not have a comparative advantage and can’t compete in the American economy. If these products were produced under American labor standards, they’d be too expensive to make and companies would shift production overseas.”

The practice of processing or growing seafood overseas is exactly what I was used to seeing. Much of the seafood caught in the U.S. is shipped across the Pacific for gutting, de-heading, and filleting — because of the cheaper labor costs in Asia — and then it is shipped right back to us. It’s usually frozen at this point, and then seafood counters and restaurants thaw it out and slice it into portions for us.

flickr / Neville Wootton

Dr. Edward Allison, adjunct professor at the University of Washington, studies sustainable fisheries, with a focus on the labor rights of seafood workers.

Dr. Allison describes a troubling pattern he sees in the industry; to stay competitive, seafood companies are slashing labor costs any way they can. And the lack of transparency in the sector helps them do that. He maintains that despite the proliferation of sustainability certifications and the consumer interest in sustainable seafood, social equity is often overlooked.

He noted that support for seafood worker’s rights has taken root in the European Union, but in the U.S., it is still a small movement led by NGO’s like Fair Trade USA, FishWise, Oxfam America, and Conservation International. In the wake of systemic failure, he’s now personally taking action. The Coalition for Socially Responsible Seafood — an informal partnership of environmental and social non-profits, academics, and industry consultants — aims to hasten this movement and focus attention on human rights.

Dr. Allison described why current sustainability efforts focus so narrowly on the environment — because they weren’t created to protect labor rights. “The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification was developed by fish biologists focused on conservation, and that’s a limitation of the framework,” he said.

Current sustainability efforts weren’t created to protect labor rights. Click To Tweet

In an email, MSC’s Oluyemisi Oloruntuyi told me that they are considering whether and how to include human rights in the certification chain, but a final decision has not been made. As the policies currently stand, you have to be prosecuted for using forced labor to be ineligible for certification. If consumers speak up now, then perhaps MSC’s standards will change.

Renaissance, Dr. Allison, and I all shared the same thought — if there is nothing to hide, then why is the prison industry so well hidden?

This is a globalized labor market, and prison labor is the only way we have stayed competitive. Our legislators have systematically created this monster —the 13th amendment legalized slave labor in penitentiaries, and we have written state legislation to force government agencies to source military equipment, office desks, uniforms, cafeteria food, and everything in between from the people we hold captive. U.S. production is subsidized by modern slave labor, which in addition to being a human rights travesty, also undermines the American businesses that are trying to pay fair wages.

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Many have pointed to the numbers that show the U.S. locks up more of our citizens than any other country, and perhaps more than any other civilization, ever. But wait — it’s not just our citizens, we’re locking up citizens in other countries, too. Half of people held in immigration and detention centers are held by privatized prisons that may have a work program. And CCI is exporting their practices beyond our borders. Their 2015 Annual Report shows they have trained 1,250 foreign officials to put their ideas to practice in 28 other countries.

When there are profits being made through legalized slave labor, it’s not hard to see that there is a monetary incentive for these corporations to support harsher convictions, longer sentences, more privatization, and ever more people being locked up.

Half of people held in immigration and detention centers are held by privatized prisons that may have a work program. Click To Tweet

Two thirds of seafood sold in the U.S. is bought in a restaurant, cafeteria, or other food establishment. The industry counts on our willingness to pay a high price for sustainable fish when we’re out to eat, a 14% premium to be precise. And millennials are the focus of sustainable seafood marketing; they spend 44% of their food budget eating out. Peers, we are the solution.

This is a “sustainable” business model wholly dependent on the imprisonment and enslavement of people — it’s time we exposed it for exactly what it is.