Social Injustice in the Seafood Industry

In the past 50 years, global seafood consumption has more than doubled, and such changes have raised some issues on the sustainability of the fishing industry and related sectors. The major justice issues affecting this industry in today’s world touch on fishers, especially those from developing and underdeveloped countries where fishing regulations are weak or non-existent. In some areas, fishing has been classified as one of the most dangerous occupations because those involved are exposed to many health risks, human rights violations, and economic slavery, among other social ills.

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Globalization is also to be blamed for the problems faced in the fishing industry because, in a bid to remain competitive in a globalized economy, key stakeholders may resort to questionable practices. Fishers, seafood processors, and fish farmers, and the majority of people working in seafood-related industries are suffering from a variety of social justice issues, including poor working conditions, non-guaranteed personal safety, and inequitable distribution of proceeds from the trade. The purpose of this paper is to discuss some of these social injustice issues faced in the fishing industry.

Human Right’s Violation

One of the major human rights problems surrounding the fishing industry is child labor and slavery among workers, especially in developing countries. According to Ratner, Åsgård, and Allison (2014), fishing is one of the highly unregulated sectors in the world, which creates loopholes for people to be exploited at different levels. In developing countries, poverty levels are high, and thus children are forced to work and provide for themselves and their families.

Similarly, adults work for meager or no pay because they have to survive. The problem is compounded by the issue of illegal immigrants who end up working for whatever amount they are offered because they do not have a place to turn to and express their problems. In a study conducted in Thailand, over 20 percent of immigrant workers on Thai fishing vessels claimed that they were working under forced labor (Ratner et al., 2014).

Even in developed countries, such as the UK and Canada, illegal immigrants increasingly work like slaves because they cannot contact the authorities or join workers’ unions due to their citizenship status. Therefore, the lack of stringent policies to regulate how labor is used in the fishing industry contributes to child labor and slavery, which are major social justice issues affecting the sector.

Even for workers who are lucky enough to avoid operating under forced labor, the working conditions are poor and dangerous. The trade masters behind large-scale fishing are after making profits, and thus human welfare is overlooked trying to maximize income and minimize expenditure. Therefore, working conditions are not a priority leading to exposure to avoidable accidents and fatalities. Murray, Fitzpatrick, and O’Connell (1997) argue that fishing in Canada is a dangerous venture with 45.8 deaths per 100,000 fishermen annually. These numbers are staggering, especially given that such deaths can be avoided if proper mechanisms are put in place. In another reported case, 18 Chinese cockle pickers drowned at night after waters started rising quickly for them to escape from the mudflats because their employers did not warn them about the same (Ratner et al., 2014).

In the fish processing companies, the conditions are the same, given that the majority of them are based in developing or underdeveloped countries. Working conditions in these establishments are poor, and people have to work nevertheless due to the high rates of unemployment and biting poverty. Such issues underscore some of the social injustice issues surrounding the global seafood market.

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Violence is also another common characteristic of the fishing industry around the world, and it occurs at different levels. For instance, locally, communities engaged in fishing may collide with each other in the fight to access limited and diminishing resources. In addition, in some coastal areas without proper regulations, large industrial ships can destroy smaller vessels owned by locals, thus causing conflict. In a study conducted in Senegal, over 90 percent of the interviewed individuals claimed that their fishing gears had been destroyed at one point (DuBois & Zografos, 2012). Almost all respondents in the study said that they had witnessed at least one form of conflict involving fishermen at sea, including serious altercations where guns were used (DuBois & Zografos, 2012).

Gender-based violence and discrimination are also common in the industry, with women being the victims in most cases. Mostly, women are barred from engaging in fishing activities due to socio-cultural factors and beliefs, hence discrimination. In other cases, due to high levels of unemployment and poverty, women exchange sex for fish as a way of livelihood (Weeratunge, Snyder, & Choo, 2010). All these factors work together to heighten the social injustice issues associated with fishing, and no wonder it is classified as one of the most dangerous occupations in modern times.

Health Risks

Players involved in the supply chain of fish products are exposed to health hazards at different stages from fishing through processing and transportation. As argued above, fishing conditions are poor, which exposes the involved individuals to all manner of health problems, including asthma, diarrhea, and pneumonia, among other related complications. In fish processing plants, the health-related matters are amplified further due to the nature of the involved activities. According to Lopata and Jeebhay (2013), occupational allergy and asthma are “serious adverse health outcomes affecting seafood-processing workers.

Allergic reactions are directed to two major seafood groups: fish and shellfish, with the latter group comprising crustaceans and mollusks. Several allergenic proteins have been identified in these different groups” (p. 1). As such, the immune system and inflammatory responses to seafood components lead to health complications among the affected persons. The fish processing industry is broad to produce different products to meet the ever-growing demand for the same.

Therefore, the health complications involved are also many from various strategies used in the process. For instance, some forms of aerosols are emitted during the processing of crabs, while studies have shown that fish juice produced in fish filleting contains biogenic compounds that damage the integrity of proteins in human beings (Lopata & Jeebhay, 2013). In general, the majority of by-products and wastes produced during fish processing have adverse effects on human health. Skin allergies and respiratory illnesses are the leading health complications experienced by those working in fish processing plants.

These problems are bound to continue occurring with the increasing demand for fish products in the global market. Additionally, given the nature of the business defined by poor regulatory frameworks, there is little hope that companies will consider ethical practices to address some of these problems. Unfortunately, self-regulation does not work in many cases, especially in a capitalistic environment where decision-making is driven by profiteering motives. For example, ethical sourcing and chain supply would deal with some of these problems, but such practices come at a cost that many companies are not willing to bear.

Social and Environmental Concerns

The fishing industry creates an opportunity for poor people across the world to have economic means that enable them to support their lives. However, based on the arguments raised in this paper, it is clear that the largest part of proceeds from the industry goes to rich individuals and companies, thus leaving very little for the poor fishers. For instance, the globalization of shrimp mariculture and the resulting increased farming of shrimps were expected to help individuals from countries in Asia and Central America. However, Stonich, Bort, and Ovares (1997) note that the social consequences of such a scenario indicate that the poor do not benefit.

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The concerns include “issues of social equity, loss of goods and services from mangrove systems, property and use rights, spiraling land costs, competition for credit, land, and other resources, and the concomitant marginalization of small producers” (p. 166). Therefore, the very people supposed to benefit from such activities do not benefit as expected. In Honduras, shrimp farming changed the way of life for the locals, who deserted their normal livelihoods to embrace fish farming only to realize that the industry does not favor small-scale entities. Unstable economic and political environments also contribute to the problems experienced by farmers in the fish industry.

Environmental degradation is another major issue associated with social injustice in the seafood sector. Stonich et al. (1997) argue that in Honduras, the expansion of shrimp farming led to extensive environmental degradation and social conflict. While locals were promised jobs in the newly established economic sector, the benefits were minimal, with few employees earning meager income from working in the farms and processing plants. In exchange, “natural resources previously available in the areas converted to ponds are forfeited, and still-uncalculated environmental risks are assumed” (Stonich et al., 1997, p. 170). In addition, the international fish business does not improve the well-being of all the involved parties.

A study by Asche, Bellemare, Roheim, Smith, and Tveteras (2015) showed that the amount of seafood exported by third-world countries to the developed world is almost the same as the amount imported by the developing countries from the first world nations. In other words, developing countries export their high-quality seafood (normally as raw materials) and import poor–quality finished seafood products from the developed world.

This scenario could be explained using different theories, but Bennett’s Law describes it better. It states, “As people become wealthier, they substitute away from low-quality foods toward higher-quality foods, and it suggests that the international trade of seafood does not pose a threat to food security” (Asche et al., 2015, p. 151). Ultimately, the better part of the benefits gained from the fishing industry does not go to the people who need them the most – the poor. On the contrary, wealthy countries and rich individuals become the major beneficiaries, hence the many social issues associated with this economic sector.


Social justice issues in the fishing industry have become major talking points in society with claims of unethical practices that take place therein. Violation of human rights through child labor and slavery, poor and dangerous working environments, conflicts and gender-based violence, unequal profit distribution, and environmental degradation are some of the social injustice issues arising in the fishing sector. In most cases, these problems exist due to the lack of strong policies and laws to regulate the industry and prevent unfair trade practices. As such, there is a need for governments and other stakeholders to relook into the issue of seafood social injustices and address the underlying issues.


Asche, F., Bellemare, M. F., Roheim, C., Smith, M. D., & Tveteras, S. (2015). Fair enough? Food security and the international trade of seafood. World Development, 67, 151-160. Web.

DuBois, C., & Zografos, C. (2012). Conflicts at sea between artisanal and industrial fishers: Inter-sectoral interactions and dispute resolution in Senegal. Marine Policy 36(6)1211-1220. Web.

Lopata, A. L., & Jeebhay, M. F. (2013). Airborne seafood allergens as a cause of occupational allergy and asthma. Current Allergy and Asthma Reports, 13(3), 288-297. Web.

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Murray, M., Fitzpatrick, D., & O’Connell, C. (1997). Fishermen’s blues: Factors related to accidents and safety among Newfoundland fishermen. Work & Stress, 11(3), 292-297. Web.

Ratner, B. D., Åsgård, B., & Allison, E. H. (2014). Fishing for justice: Human rights, development, and fisheries sector reform. Global Environmental Change, 27, 120-130. Web.

Stonich, S. C., Bort, J. R., & Ovares, L. L. (1997). Globalization of shrimp mariculture: The impact on social justice and environmental quality in Central America. Society & Natural Resources, 10(2), 161-179. Web.

Weeratunge, N., Snyder, K. A., & Choo, P. S. (2010). Gleaner, fisher, trader, processor: Understanding gendered employment in fisheries and aquaculture. Fish and Fisheries, 11(4) 405-414. Web.

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