Social & Environmental Justice in Seafood

Environmental issues are inherently social justice issues because humans rely on natural resources for food, income, recreation, culture, and life. In this post, we examine social justice in seafood from a range of perspectives.

This is not a detailed post going in-depth into every social or environmental justice issue in fisheries, but more of a comprehensive overview from a Western perspective meant to increase awareness and inspire compassion and action.

Why should we care about injustice in seafood?

The answer here is straightforward:

Injustice is not moral, thus it is not sustainable.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice

What is a justice issue?

A justice issue deals with power being abused in an already imbalanced relationship. There are intrinsic imbalances in power throughout society: corporations hold power over workers by owning capital, governments hold authority over constituents with laws and policing, and groups with higher social status hold power over marginalized ones through social norms and expectations. Some aspects of power imbalance are natural, e.g., a functional society needs a governing body to hold authority, but most power imbalances are products of history like imperialism, colonialism, and wealth accumulation.  

People or entities that hold capital, authority, or status over others sometimes abuse their power, creating inequities. Justice combats inequity by rebalancing power and agency to those who are marginalized to improve fairness.

Natural resources (like fisheries) are inextricably linked to society thus much of the injustice in fisheries is indicative of deeper social issues. In this section, we examine how those issues manifest themselves in the seafood industry and fisheries as a whole.

Fisheries are like most other conservation and environmental issues—solutions only work when they consider the people and stakeholders most affected. Solutions need to be informed by multiple perspectives that balance history, power, class, capital, and cultural dynamics to lead to socially and environmentally just outcomes.

Putting in the work to make change

Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote rings true—the world has generally become a better and more civilized place to live. But this happens because of people putting in the work to make it better and more civilized.  

The arc bends toward justice, but it only bends toward justice because people pull it towards justice. It doesn’t happen on its own.

Each section in this post will close with ways people can work towards justice in fisheries and seafood. 

Geopolitical issues

Social and environmental justice issues stem from power imbalance. On the largest scale, this means powerful countries vs low-capacity countries. In fisheries, this presents itself in two major ways: transnational stealing and climate change.

Wealthy countries stealing fish from poor

Transnational stealing is when fishing boats from wealthy countries fish in another country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without permission and/or compensation.

Countries with little to no capacity for fisheries management or enforcement can do little to stop a foreign vessel from entering its waters to fish. There is little incentive for the home country of the vessel to stop the illegal fishing as they benefit from the stolen fish and profit. Diplomacy often fails for similar power issues—the victimized country has little leverage to ask the wealthy country to corral its illegal fishing operations.

However, new tools have emerged that may start to empower poorer states. A promising new tool/database tracks fishing boat movement using the boats’ automatic identification system (AIS). The goal is to pressure governments to crack down on their boats that go to other countries to fish illegally. Below is a figure produced for Cabral et al. 2018 that maps every boat originating in one country but fishing in another’s EEZ. It is important to note that this is every transnational boat, both legal and illegal; though the figure clearly illustrates which countries have low fishing capacity that leads to foreign vessels fishing their waters (West Africa & Pacific Islands).

Some developing countries are taking dramatic management measures to curb illegal fishing. Five years ago, Indonesia was losing billions of dollars of fish per year to transnational thieves. But, since 2014, large investments into management and enforcement (capacity building!) have greatly increased the number ships caught fishing illegally. Indonesia also started a brutal new approach to enforcement and has been blowing up the illegal boats. This new approach has been effective at curbing illegal fishing, but the ruthless nationalism is damaging Indonesia’s diplomatic reputation. This is a fascinating case study with many sides, arguments, and questions. Should Indonesia sacrifice diplomacy to improve its fisheries? Are there other, less severe ways to curb illegal fishing? Perhaps diplomacy could pressure foreign countries to police their boats instead? What are the human costs of destroying boats? What are the human costs of illegal fishing? This will certainly be an interesting situation to keep an eye on.

Putting in the work to make change

  • Transparency in the seafood industry to identify illegally caught fish
  • Consumer education about seafood
  • Public pressure on politicians to improve policies
  • Increased research using publicly available data to identify incidences of transnational crime

Carbon Emissions

Not only is climate change the environmental issue of our time, it is the preeminent social justice issue as well. The countries that have emitted the least amount of greenhouse gases (contributing the least amount to climate change) will be the hardest hit by climate change as they have not had the benefits of industry and development that could mitigate impacts. Disease will spread farther and faster, freshwater will become more scarce, droughts will worsen, storms will be more intense, food supplies will change, livable areas will become unlivable.

Especially at risk are small island communities whose homes may soon be, literally, underwater. Many coastal fishing villages are threatened by rising sea levels, increased storm surges, and fish migration. Other inequities in fisheries, especially in regards to marginalized groups (discussed later in this post), are exacerbated by climate change.  

Meanwhile, the countries most responsible for climate change are not doing enough to keep rising temperatures to 2° C above historical norms—an agreed upon target by countries in the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement. Many island nations and other developing countries fought for an even lower, 1.5° C, as the acceptable amount of risk, but they were overruled by more powerful countries. We are currently at about 1° C above historical norms and rising quickly.

Rectifying the injustice of global carbon emissions is one of the most difficult geopolitical problems in human history. The Paris Agreement was at least a step in that direction, but more action is needed, especially in the United States—the largest cumulative emitter in history.

Putting in the work to make change

  • On an individual level, the best thing you can do to reduce emissions is watch your diet. Ironically, eating more seafood in place of other animal protein reduces dietary climate impact.
  • However, expecting individuals to stop climate change is a red herring; large-scale mitigation will come from policy and institutional change that you have some input on with your vote. Register to vote here.
  • Climate change will create refugees fleeing their soon-to-be unlivable homes. Accepting and supporting climate refugees should be mandatory for the countries most responsible for creating the crisis.


Worker Abuse & Slavery

Labor practices in every industry should be equitable, safe, and fair; but global capitalism stresses self-interest, which often leads to corporations, institutions, and/or individual businesspeople choosing profits at the expense of workers and laborers. Power and fairness for workers come from protections like mandated health insurance, safe working conditions, a minimum wage, or organizing in unions and collective bargaining. However, in industries that are difficult to regulate & enforce, such as the seafood industry, businesses can get away with worker abuses. Though abuse happens all over the world, it is magnified in developing countries where governments have little capacity for enforcement, regulators are more easily bought off with bribes, and poor, working-class people are more desperate for income to support their families.

In some places, particularly Southeast Asia, industry greed has produced modern-day slavery. Workers are trapped on fishing vessels, live in horrific conditions, and are underpaid, if at all. The Associated Press won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for its reporting and investigation into worker abuse and slavery in the fishing industry: you can explore their reporting here, but be warned that some stories are devastating and difficult to read.

These most extreme examples happen in countries with little capacity for oversight, but even in some developed countries, worker abuse in the seafood industry is a problem. In Ireland migrant fishers from Asian and African countries are not getting paid fairly, or in worse cases, being trafficked by their employers. In Louisiana and Massachusetts, seafood processors have been caught abusing undocumented workers by forcing poor working conditions under threat of deportation.

It should be noted that worker abuse is hardly just a seafood issue; food production, manufacturing, and other kinds of industries (particularly the clothing industry that gave rise to the term ‘sweat shop’) that are reliant on unskilled labor are always trying to maximize profit—sometimes at the expense of people.

The vast majority of seafood companies practice fair and ethical labor practices, but slavery, abuse, and unsafe working conditions are still the darkest stain on the seafood industry. Pushing for better labor laws and building capacity for enforcement are important steps for activists and managers to take to ensure better working conditions for fishers around the world. In many industrialized countries, where regulatory capacity is high, fishing has become safer. For example, thanks to different management approaches, fisher deaths have steadily fallen over the past two decades in the U.S:

Figure from Center for Disease Control

Challenges remain in the developing world, but new tools, like Global Fishing Watch, can help authorities identify illegal boats to target for inspection. Traceability through the seafood supply chain has become a major point of emphasis in the industry, and several companies have signed on to a social responsibility standard first proposed by a group of fishery and social scientists.

Putting in the work to make change


The seafood industry has also been changed by globalization. Many developed countries send their catch to Asian countries for processing to take advantage of cheaper labor costs. Cheap labor from Asia allows Hawaiian fishing boats to exploit a loophole in U.S. labor laws and pay migrant workers below the federal minimum wage (but still higher than average wages of their home countries).

Many seafood processors in the United States rely on migrant workers from outside the country to process catch (a similar labor situation to migrant farmers coming over to harvest). However, a recent wave of xenophobia has made it much harder for migrant workers to get visas, raising costs for seafood processors that get passed down to consumers. It’s not just seafood that relies on migrant workers; Anti-foreigner sentiment in the U.S. has affected manual labor and migrant farming jobs across the country. After recent crackdowns and human-rights abuse by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), many workers (legal or illegal) are afraid to come and work, raising fears over what will happen to the price of food in the U.S.

Putting in the work to make change

  • Support unions. Unions give power to workers.
  • Collective bargaining is also a great tool to fight inequity.
  • Compassion and empathy for seafood workers (and labor in general)


Fishermen and women fish for their livelihoods. This means that not only does fishing provide income, it is a major part of identity and community for those working in the industry. Managers, scientists, and activists need to be mindful of the role that fishing plays in the lives of people they interact with. Attacks or criticism of fishing can feel personal and especially hurtful to individuals or communities, sowing resentment and distrust.

Restricting fishing, even for sustainability reasons, can strain a family dependent on the income and irreparably damage a community. Fishery closures hurt people and, ironically, reinforce the need for strong management that ensures consistent and sustainable access over time. The decisions that lead to eventual fishery sustainability need to consider the livelihoods of the people that depend on it. This is a common reason why, legally, overfished stocks are still allowed to be fished: reducing the amount of fish caught may rebuild the population slower than closing the fishery completely, but livelihoods are protected if changes are gradual. This is important to keep in mind when questioning why a fisher may fish unsustainably—it’s probably not because of greed or ignorance or some other trait that places blame on the individual—its to feed their families and connect to their community and culture.

Putting in the work to make change

  • Listen to and include fishers in both science and policy-making.
  • Follow a Code of Conduct in both fishery management and conservation that accounts for social impacts of decision-making.
  • Engage with stakeholders.

Marginalized Groups

Natural resources (like fisheries) are inextricably linked to society, thus much of the injustice in fisheries is indicative of deeper social issues.

In this section we examine how existing social issues that afflict marginalized groups of people manifest themselves in seafood.


Food and income are basic human needs—it’s important to recognize fisheries’ role in those needs. Fisheries are interesting to think about and fun to study—you wouldn’t be reading this if you thought otherwise—but don’t forget that fisheries provide people’s next meal. The United Nations estimates that seafood supports the livelihoods of 10-12% of the world. Fishing is not a lucrative job for most workers; according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for full-time fishers in the U.S. is $28,310 per year. It is also one of the most dangerous jobs. An interesting and honest interview with a commercial fisherman in Alaska can be found here.

Advocacy, research, and regulation in fisheries affects the livelihoods of working-class people. Engaging and incorporating seafood workers into science and policy can go a long way to improving equity—fish equal income for lots of people!

Fish are also food. They make up 17% of the world’s meat consumption, but play an outsized nutritional role for many, particularly coastal people; 3.1 billion people rely on fish for 20% of their daily protein intake, with some coastal communities reliant on fish for upwards of 70%.

Fisheries play an especially important role in developing countries. Fish provide food security and play a role in poverty alleviation and development. Poverty and the idea of a developed/developing dichotomy is an injustice that can be traced back to the Western world. Nearly every developing country is “developing” because historic (and/or present) imperialism by the West sent the country backwards. In fisheries, these issues manifest themselves in transnational stealing and climate change, as discussed above.

In developed countries, seafood is typically more expensive than other kinds of protein. Lower income people deserve affordable, nutritious food; increasing access should be prioritized. One solution in coastal areas is to encourage recreational fisheries so people can harvest their own seafood. In some places, fishing off certain piers or on certain days of the year is free without a license.

Fish as income and livelihood generally take precedence over biological sustainability for those involved in fishing. For example, fisheries with high amounts of social satisfaction and wellbeing have weak correlation to biological sustainability. However, once social sustainability is in place, working towards biological sustainability becomes much easier. That’s probably because caring about sustainability is a privilege: most people in the world have more pressing issues to think about (e.g. their next meal, health, or paycheck) than if the fish they are eating is sustainable. Placing the burden of shopping sustainably on consumers or blaming individual fishers is misguided, classist, and furthers the power imbalance between individuals and institutions in seafood. Once social sustainability is in place, working towards ecological sustainability becomes much easier.

Putting in the work to make change

  • Listen to fishers, in both science and policy-making.
  • Work towards triple bottom line outcomes in fishery management.
  • Build management capacity
  • Be mindful of class in conservation advocacy.

Indigenous rights

Indigenous peoples have been sustainably co-existing with their surrounding environment since time immemorial. As first users and managers of land and ocean resources, Indigenous peoples sometimes have legal rights to protect their traditional fishing practices and culture. In some places, Indigenous peoples maintain legal recognition of their status as co-managers of natural resources. Unfortunately, many Indigenous peoples and communities still do not have that respect or right to manage their resources.

Indigenous fishing rights suffer for the same reason other indigenous rights are suppressed: colonization. When European (and other) colonizers spread across the globe, they usurped authority over indigenous lands through genocide, war, and forced treaties; those who remained were often forced to live in a specific area (i.e. reservations) without the right or access to all of their traditional areas or exercise their culture and sovereignty. Colonial authority still rules in most settled areas and Indigenous peoples continue to be oppressed around the world. Oppression manifests itself in many different ways, from lower access to healthcare, income, and education, to cultural suppression and social repudiation.

In the next few paragraphs, we examine different forms of Indigenous oppression in seafood and fisheries contexts, then discuss ways to rectify the problems.

Food Sovereignty & Livelihood

Fish are still an important part of food sovereignty for many Indigenous peoples, and many are also involved in commercial fishing as a livelihood. Coastal indigenous peoples have a disproportionate dependence on fish as nutrition: they eat 4 times as much seafood than the global average. Indigenous peoples have lower access to grocery stores and traditional agriculture (often because land was taken from them), so fish can play an important part in nutrition and health. For indigenous communities, fish mean more than food.

By Yoshitaka Ota

In many parts of the world, commercial fishing is an important source of income for Indigenous peoples. For example, coastal Tribes along the west coast of North America generate millions of dollars from tribal salmon fisheries. In New Zealand/Aotearoa, Māori commercial fishing is worth $1.4 billion dollars. However, the policies in place that defend indigenous fishing rights vary dramatically by area, mainly due to power imbalances.

Fishery management and decision-making authority

In North America, different states guarantee different protections to tribes sharing the same ocean. For example, the Yukon Territory in Canada and Washington State both guarantee fishing rights and co-manage fisheries with indigenous managers, while British Columbia and most other U.S. states do not. An interesting comparison between neighboring Washington State and British Columbia is in their approaches to managing farmed salmon. In August 2017 a large farmed salmon escapement in Washington sparked a discussion on the politics of growing Atlantic salmon in areas that native Pacific salmon inhabit. Though many scientists argued that Atlantic salmon escapements are low risk to native salmon, many Tribes pushed for stronger regulation to eliminate risk entirely. Despite the scientific evidence and economic losses from losing industry, Washington State is going to start phasing out Atlantic salmon net pens, mostly to protect indigenous rights to salmon. First Nations in Canada have been calling for the same regulations, but the B.C. government has not made plans to change anything.

In New Zealand/Aotearoa, all fisheries are managed under a catch share system, which allocates a certain quota of fish to fishers around the country. When the system was established in the 1980s, Māori were largely left out of the decision-making process and few rights were granted. Due to the violation of their treaty rights, legal proceedings started on behalf of Māori and concluded in 1992 with Māori being awarded 10% of original quota, 20% of new quota (fishery potential), and $150 million dollars to purchase additional quota and half of the largest seafood company in the country. Currently, Māori own roughly 40% of fishing quota, and New Zealand is recognized as having some of the most sustainable fishery management in the world. However, after much lobbying effort from several environmental organizations, New Zealand has proposed a large marine protected area (MPA) that would infringe on Māori rights. MPA’s are often billed as conservation solutions, but infringing on rights is oppressive and not sustainable! Māori deserve to have governance over their traditional resources.

Institutional barriers

However, governance is usually given to those with formal training in fishery science or natural resource management (in the traditional Western sense, e.g. secondary education). Access to education and opportunity is lower for indigenous people in many parts of the world making it harder to get involved in the decision-making process. Further, non-indigenous decision-makers (the vast majority of fishery managers & scientists) are often blissfully unaware or sometimes explicitly dismissive of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) from Indigenous peoples. TEK represents the wisdom of centuries of sustainable use by indigenous people; it’s disrespectful to dismiss it because it hasn’t been formalized in a traditional Western way. Synthesizing formalized fishery science and management with TEK is an important step in acknowledging Indigenous peoples’ role in natural resource use.

Representation in fishery science and decision-making is key to rebalancing power in indigenous fishery management. 

Putting in the work to make change

  • Listen to, meaningfully engage, and include Indigenous peoples within decision-making processes.
  • Decolonize science; decolonize fisheries.
  • Support Indigenous peoples institutionally. Admitting more Indigenous peoples to college and graduate programs in fishery science & management is good, but make sure they have access to mentors and resources so they can thrive.
  • Incorporate TEK into fishery management and policy in an appropriate and ethical manner.


WorldFish Center has done a remarkable job studying and working towards gender equality. According to them, gender equality matters because:

Women as workers in seafood

Women are present in every aspect of the seafood supply chain: 14% of workers directly involved in fisheries and aquaculture are female, but women make up half of all secondary seafood jobs like processing, marketing, and distribution.

From WorldFish:

And yet, [women] face substantive challenges to engaging in and benefiting equitably from these sectors. At play are a combination of factors, including limited access to and control over assets and resources, constraining gender norms, time and labor burdens of unpaid work, and barriers to sustaining entrepreneurship. The result is women having fewer opportunities and receiving smaller returns from fisheries and aquaculture than men—including lower income—and being left in positions of poverty.

Women are often unrecognized or not paid for their contributions to fisheries. In the developing world, for example, women repair fishing nets, collect inshore fish for bait, or cook food for fishermen with little acknowledgment. Getting more involved as a fisherwoman is difficult, too. In addition to exclusionary social norms, women have lower access to capital and resources, e.g. to own a fishing boat or start a new aquaculture farm. Yet, some studies show that when women are more directly involved in fisheries and aquaculture production, productivity and profitability increases.

Here are some badass women fishers doing a job men can’t do:

Women in fishing communities often have other, unequal social responsibilities. They are typically the primary caretaker for children, families, and households; when income is threatened in a fishing community, e.g. a fishery closure, women are disproportionately affected. The need to support a family can lead to exploitative sex work for women: trading sex for fish is not uncommon in impoverished communities.

Throughout this social & environmental justice post, we’ve stressed how inequity in fisheries is often a microcosm of inequity in society. Women in fisheries are no different—women working in secondary and tertiary seafood jobs face the same biases as women in the rest of the workforce, e.g:

  • Different standards of appearance & communication
    • Women are held to different and higher standards than men when it comes to physical appearance.
    • A woman’s voice in the workplace is often seen as less important and/or intelligent than a man’s. Women are frequently interrupted by men.
  • Harassment
    • Men can be creeps.
  • Maternity discrimination threatening job security and mobility
    • The process of growing and then birthing a human is physically exhausting and demanding. Women who do that work should not be punished by their employer for it. Mandated parental leave would help.

Women in fishery science & decision-making

Take a look at the faculty page at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Science at the University of Washington, one of the best fishery science institutions in the world—just 7 of 34 full-time faculty members are female (this is an improvement from a few years ago).

Women in science face barriers to entry like antiquated social expectations, lack of mentorship, and unfavorable power dynamics. In their careers, women also face more barriers than men like bias, maternity discrimination, and slower career promotion.

The most cited papers in fishery science history illustrate the lack of gender diversity quite well:

From Branch & Linnell 2016

The gender disparity in fishery science and academic institutions seeps down into management as well: e.g. only 2 of 14 voting members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council (FMC) are women. Only 1 of 18 on the New England FMC are female and all non-voting members are male:


Women need better social and institutional support in fisheries so that science and management are more equitable. Equity amongst the members of decision-making institutions benefits all of society.

Progress is being made, however. Currently, 60% of graduate students in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Science at the University of Washington are female. This improvement should be celebrated cautiously—early-career academics still need appropriate institutional support to succeed. Supporting early-career female academics will help women continually close the gender gap in positions of power in fisheries management and decision-making.

Consuming fish

Women that are pregnant or trying to become pregnant need to monitor the kinds of fish they eat due to higher mercury concentrations in some species of fish. A mislabeled fish could unexpectedly raise mercury levels in the body and create problems for an unborn baby. Though uncommon, if a fish has a drastically different nutritional profile than its label would indicate, some people, particularly women, could be at risk as mercury in fish can cause birth defects. Pregnant women are advised to avoid certain species of high-mercury fish during pregnancy. If a high-mercury fish was passed off as a low-mercury fish, a mother and unborn child could be at risk. Here is a handy chart.

FDA guidelines for pregnant women and young children eating seafood

Putting in the work to make change

  • Listen to women.
  • Support female workers—collective bargaining is one of the best ways to reduce the pay gap.
  • Encourage women to go into fishery science and STEM fields, then…
  • Support women in fishery science and management. Ensure that early-career female academics feel welcome and empowered to contribute.

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This post is part of Sustainable Seafood 101

Continue reading below:  

Seafood in a Global Context

Commercial Fishing

People & Fish