The paper calls on scientific community, along with governments and businesses, to help ensure seafood is sourced without harm to the environment and industry’s workforce.
Over a number of decades, the scientific community has been active in determining key elements for environmental sustainability in fisheries, resulting in the creation of globally recognised standards.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Fisheries Standard is one example. Developed with scientists, the standard reflects current understanding of internationally accepted fisheries science and best practice management.
Despite this, lead author Jack Kittinger, Conservation International's senior director for global fisheries and aquaculture, said that the scientific community has not kept pace with concerns for social issues in the seafood sector.
"The purpose of this initiative is to ensure that governments, businesses, and nonprofits are working together to improve human rights, equality and food and livelihood security.
“This is a holistic and comprehensive approach that establishes a global standard to address these social challenges."
Along with Conservation International, the Universities of Stanford and Washington add their voices, stating the time to address social responsibility was now.
Comparatively little research is available on the social aspects of seafood sustainability.
As a result, the seafood sector has largely been in a reactive stance, responding to visible issues associated with slavery and human rights.
“Although these egregious violations must be eliminated, social responsibility encompasses far more, and a narrow focus overlooks other pervasive issues that have real-world impacts on billions of people,” the paper said.
The issue gained further urgency after investigations by media outlets, including the UK newspaper The Guardian, detailed the plight of fishermen misled into working 22-hour shifts, often without pay and while enduring physical abuse.
Three key values
In response, the paper outlines three core principles that work to establish a global standard for social responsibility in the seafood sector.
These are protecting human rights, dignity and respecting access to resources; ensuring equality and equitable opportunities to benefit; and improving food and livelihood security.
Backed by practical experience from organisations and experts that work in the seafood sector, a strong legal and policy platform also supports the framework.
The framework also takes policy principles from the International Labour Organization's Work in Fishing Convention, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations' Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Small-Scale Fisheries, and the UN's guiding principles on business and human rights.
“This paper stresses that if we are serious about social responsibility in our food systems, we need to go beyond dealing with the 'worst-case' headlines of 'slavery at sea,'" said co-author Edward Allison, a UW professor in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.
"We argue that committing to sustainable seafood sourcing and supply is also about ensuring people who work in the food business whether as harvesters or processors and packers have decent work,” Allison added.
Seafood is the world's most internationally traded food commodity.
By 2030, the oceans will need to supply more than 150 million metric tons of seafood to meet the demands of a growing population.
The paper warned that meeting this demand in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner would require increased investment from public and private sources.
In doing so, the level of resources and expertise committed would be commensurate with the scale of these challenges.
"In some places, commercial fishing boats from other parts of the world are virtually robbing local small-scale fishers of the fish that they rely on to make a living and survive,” said co-author Nathan Bennett, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington.
“Fisheries are not truly sustainable unless local people are able to benefit from the harvesting of resources."
The paper also said across the sector, organisations that work on environmental sustainability issues will need to work more closely with socially focused organisations, as these issues are intrinsically linked and require joint investments.
“The global conversation about social issues presents an opportunity for the seafood sector to take steps to ensure that a healthy ocean will support human well-being, now and into the future.”
Published online ahead of print: DOI: 10.1126/science.aam9969
“Committing to socially responsible seafood”
Authors: John Kittinger et al.