Health Hazards & Slavery at Sea
Globally, up to 15% of commercial fishermen are modern-day slaves.
Since the beginning of civilization, humans have flocked to the sea for nourishment, livelihood, trade, and adventure. Today, over 1 billion people in developing countries eat fish as their primary source of protein, while an estimated 350 million people worldwide rely on fishing, aquaculture, coastal and marine tourism, and marine research for a living. From migratory fish stocks to coral reefs, our blue planet provides a wealth of natural capital on which we all ultimately depend.
Generations of pollution, overfishing, and unsustainable coastal development are threatening the future of ocean ecosystems worldwide. Since mankind developed around the sea, the fate of life on land is irrevocably tied to the fate of life underwater.
One in two people today live within 60 kilometers of the ocean. Consequently, our coasts and ocean generally bear the brunt of industrial waste, sewage, trash, agricultural run-off, and other such pollution. As the gatekeepers of the ocean, beaches are often the first to experience land-based pollution. Extremely absorptive, beach sand has been found to contain 100 times more fecal matter than adjacent, contaminated ocean water. The EPA estimates that up to 3.5 million Americans get sick every year from beaches that have been contaminated with raw sewage from overflowing drainage systems. The hazards associated with our waste are only magnified once in seawater. Slow to biodegrade, toxic chemicals and microplastics from trash contaminate our water sources and food chains, with serious health implications. Microplastics contain known female endocrine disruptors, which can cause numerous reproductive and developmental problems. The pesticides and heavy metals found in seawater have been linked to various types of cancer, organ failures, and neurological diseases. This means that the main source of protein for billions of people is filled with dangerous chemicals. While some risk concerning seafood consumption may be reduced by avoiding certain species, that solution is undermined by the emerging problem of seafood fraud.
The overexploitation of global fish stocks has led to a rise in seafood fraud, where seafood products are mislabeled to increase profits or hide illegality. For instance, dolphins killed in bycatch are regularly packaged as canned tuna. A 2015 investigative report found that 74% of seafood tested at sushi restaurants and 38% at non-sushi restaurants in the U.S. was mislabeled. Seafood fraud not only distorts markets and skews estimates of species abundance, it poses a serious health risk to fish consumers around the world.
The exploitation of fisheries worldwide coupled with increased market demand has also inadvertently opened the gates to a flood of human rights violations. When nearby fisheries are depleted, fishing fleets have to travel farther, which means fuel and ship operation costs are greater and the enforcement of international laws regarding worker protections, child labor laws, and sustainable fishing is near impossible. Up to 15% percent of all commercial fishermen work in deplorable conditions (e.g. 20 hour work days, beatings, near starvation), qualifying them as modern-day slaves. Human trafficking in fisheries is not a new issue; however, the globalization of the seafood industry coupled with ocean degradation has exacerbated it.
When it comes to the health of our blue planet, the security, well-being, and way of life of all humans on Earth is at risk.