Petty Officer 1st Class Ralph Pastore, a Coast Guard Cutter Washington (WPB 1331) boarding officer, maintains communications with the cutter during an Operation Kurukuru fishing vessel inspection off Palau, Oct. 7, 2019. Operation Kurukuru is a Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) operation designed to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing activities through international cooperation. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew West)

GAO Finds Communication Gaps in Effort to Catch Seafood Industry Forced Labor

The Government Accountability Office said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection “may be missing opportunities to obtain key information” to catch forced labor in the seafood supply chain because of a lack of resources and inadequate communication with stakeholders who could help fill the gaps.

The United States imported about $40 billion worth of seafood in 2018, relying mostly on foreign fishing to meet domestic consumer demand. Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930 forbids importation of any products produced or manufactured using foreign labor. In 2017, the United Nations reported that 12 percent of the 24.9 million people in forced labor worldwide work in agriculture or fishing industries.

Forced labor can occur at various points in the supply chain before ending up at a retailer, in a restaurant or in pet food, from harvesting the fish at sea to processing and transporting the catch. Forced labor is difficult to detect at some points in the supply chain due to limited visibility or transparency. “Forced labor may occur if workers are held on fishing vessels for long durations without adequate breaks or the ability to return to land,” said GAO. “It may also occur in later stages of seafood processing, such as during filleting and canning the fish for export and sale to consumer.”

“…Companies may combine catches from several smaller boats onto a bigger vessel before transporting it to shore for processing. Moreover, some seafood supply chains have an additional layer of complexity because low-value fish may not be directly exported but, rather, used as feed for farm-raised seafood that could eventually be imported into the United States.”

GAO’s review included assessing how CBP enforces the Tariff Act on seafood imports and what sources of information the agency uses to assist in that enforcement.

In March 2018, CBP formally established its Forced Labor Division in the Office of Trade, but told GAO that they “do not have the resources to gather firsthand information on labor practices.” The agency thus relies on “a variety of sources” including nongovernmental organizations to glean information. Other agencies also help, such as NOAA, the State Department and the U.S. Coast Guard, which conducts inspections to catch illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) and in the course of enforcement may come across info that could lead to identifying potential forced labor situations at sea.

CBP told GAO at the time of review that it has “a small number of open and active cases” related to potential forced labor practices in seafood, along with cases that were suspended “partly because they lacked personnel to obtain additional information to further investigate the cases,” and the necessary info “may take significant time to obtain.”

From the founding of the Forced Labor Division to this March, CBP had issued one withhold release order related to seafood for Vanuatu fishing vessel Tunago No. 61, but that order has since been revoked. CBP officials “said they had not issued any civil penalties for forced labor violations involving seafood imports.”

“CBP officials said that firsthand information collected in-country, including victim accounts, can be beneficial for initiating or investigating forced labor cases,” the report said. “However, CBP officials said they also face challenges using information provided by stakeholders because information is often insufficient to initiate or investigate a forced labor case. For example, CBP officials said that information they receive from NGOs might not provide sufficient detail on the supply chain that includes the alleged forced labor, including the manufacturer or vessel committing forced labor, or the connection to a U.S. importer. Additionally, these officials told us that information from stakeholders may conflate poor working conditions with forced labor.”

GAO found that CBP “has not clearly communicated its information needs externally,” including details on what constitutes a credible allegation. Representatives from one NGO “said it is not worth dedicating the time and resources to develop an allegation without a clear sense of the types of information CBP is looking for to investigate its forced labor cases,” GAO continued. “Many of these stakeholders indicated that they are collecting firsthand information about potential forced labor in seafood supply chains in countries where labor violations are prevalent, which is information CBP officials told us could benefit forced labor investigations.”

GAO recommended that the acting commissioner of CBP “better communicate to stakeholders the types of information stakeholders could collect and submit to CBP to help the agency initiate and investigate forced labor cases related to seafood and, as appropriate, other goods.”

The Department of Homeland Security concurred with GAO’s recommendation and said procedures to improve communication and collaboration with partner government agencies and NGOs would be developed by the end of July.

DHS said it was “pleased to note” that GAO recognized “the complexity of the forced labor program.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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