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Tracing a line – do businesses know the real cost of seafood?

Companies urgently need to tackle environmental and human rights adverse impacts in seafood value chains

ClientEarth Communications

10 July 2023

The fisheries and aquaculture sectors support the livelihoods of billions of people worldwide, generating jobs and ensuring a vital source of food.  

However, this comes with a cost. Today’s food systems, including the seafood sector, are major drivers of the climate and biodiversity crises. These environmental impacts interfere with the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, to food, and to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment; and they can exacerbate pre-existing inequalities.  

This is fast becoming a legal issue for EU seafood companies and investors. EU legislation increasingly requires seafood companies, retailers, and investors to take measures to clean up their value chains and portfolios. 

The human impact behind the seafood we import in Europe

The overexploitation of fish and seafood stocks through overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) fishing, coupled with the consequences of climate change, is pushing fishing vessels to undertake longer journeys to find economically valuable species. This forces crews to remain on board vessels for longer periods of time, which makes them more vulnerable to different forms of human rights abuses, such as modern slavery, precarious working conditions, human trafficking, and child labour. 

Coastal communities in the Global South, and particularly vulnerable and marginalised groups such as Indigenous Peoples, women and small-scale fishers, have also suffered disproportionately from environmentally unsustainable practices that directly impact their livelihoods and food security – for example, when locally consumed species are overexploited to feed farmed fish in Europe.   

The full enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food and water, depends on the services provided by ecosystems. The provision of ecosystem services depends on the health and sustainability of ecosystems, which in turn depend on biodiversity. The full enjoyment of human rights thus depends on biodiversity, and the degradation and loss of biodiversity undermine the ability of human beings to enjoy their human rights.

Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, A/HRC/34/49

In this Platform, we examine the stories behind seafood species frequently seen on supermarket shelves in Europe and the impact of their trade on the environment and on the lives of coastal communities. Our aim is to amplify the voices of impacted communities, while highlighting the tangible risks to companies and investors operating across these value chains.

As increasingly required by EU legislation, we expect seafood companies and investors to conduct due diligence across their value chains and portfolios, to identify and address environmental and human rights impacts.

Read the stories

What should companies do to ensure that the seafood products they source and import are not linked to these abuses?

The fishing and seafood industry is not doing enough to effectively tackle the interconnected environmental and human rights abuses in its value chains. The 2021 Seafood Stewardship Index revealed that half of the most influential seafood companies have little or no commitment to protect human rights in their value chains, while only eight companies have an explicit policy to address labour and living conditions on board fishing vessels.

When procuring fishery products or financing fishing or aquaculture activities, main actors in the seafood sector, including companies, retailers, and investors, should carry out a thorough investigation – also called due diligence – about the potential and actual adverse impacts on the environment and human rights of local communities across their value chains; and they should bring those adverse impacts to an end before or when they arise.

Conducting effective due diligence is not only beneficial for the environment and local communities but also for companies themselves. They can better anticipate risks and thus become more resilient. This would also contribute to increasing traceability in the overall seafood value chain, which would in turn boost global seafood profits by 60% according to this report. By demanding a more transparent and accurate traceability system, consumers can make better informed choices when purchasing seafood.


of the world's most influential companies in the seafood industry lack a comprehensive commitment to protect human rights in their operations according to the 2021 Seafood Stewardship Index.


Increasing the overall seafood value chain traceability could boost global seafood profits by 60% according to a report by Planet Tracker.


Analysis by the WWF found that only one of the 42 assessed asset managers has yet developed and publicly disclosed seafood-specific environmental and social expectations for its investee companies. Getting Underway, WWF 2023.


A baseline assessment by WWF of 41 banks' seafood related sector policies found that just over half of assessed banks publicly recognise that there are environmental and social risks associated with seafood and only 20% have disclosed seafood sector policies. Above Board, WWF 2023

The business risk of business as usual

Companies that lack actionable environmental and human rights policies are exposed to significant risks that could be material to their business. These include regulatory, reputational, financial and litigation risks. The same goes for businesses that fail to implement environmental and human rights due diligence. Such risks are often concealed by complex and opaque value chains that operate across multiple countries and can also affect financial institutions that provide capital to the companies participating in the seafood industry.

More and more national and European transparency laws and regulations are establishing mandatory disclosure and due diligence obligations for corporations and their subsidiaries. These laws cover the impact of value chains on human rights and the environment.

© Fabio Buitrago

In Europe, many countries (notably France, Germany and Norway) have already adopted corporate due diligence laws. An EU-wide law establishing mandatory due diligence requirements is currently being debated and will apply to the seafood industry.

Companies, including seafood companies, will also soon be required to disclose their activities’ impacts on people and the environment. The same applies to investors, who are already required to disclose the adverse impacts on sustainability matters at entity and financial products levels to ensure the social and environmental sustainability of investments.

Companies failing to carry out environmental and human rights risks assessments face reputational and litigation risks. There is a growing body of precedents where companies have been held liable for environmental damage in other parts of the world, including biodiversity loss, and for human rights violations committed by subsidiaries of European-based companies. Businesses are increasingly called upon to minimise their environmental impacts and to respect human rights where they operate, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Seafood companies, investors, and retailers must start using all available tools to conduct effective due diligence across their value chains.