Report sparks US probe into NZ fish imports

22:55, Feb 20 2012

Two top US retailers have launched investigations into the New Zealand fish imports after publication of an extensive investigation into slave or indentured labour conditions aboard foreign charter fishing vessels (FCVs) operating in New Zealand's exclusive economic zone.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported this morning that Safeway, America's second largest grocery store chain, and Wal-Mart Stores were investigating New Zealand fish.

The report by Ben Skinner, a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, focused on the Korean ship Melilla 203 which was arrested in Christchurch in December. Its sister ship Melilla 201 was arrested last Friday.

"In a six-month investigation spanning three continents, Bloomberg Businessweek found cases of debt bondage on the Melilla 203 and at least nine other ships that have operated in New Zealand's waters," Skinner reports.

He said the catches from Melilla were bought and processed by Christchurch's United Fisheries, New Zealand's eighth-largest seafood company, which had sold the same species in the same period to distributors operating in the United States.

"Those distributors have sold those species to major US companies. Those companies - which include some of the country's biggest retailers and restaurants - have sold the seafood to American consumers."

Fairfax Media has run its own investigations on the fishing industry for the last year. Fish exports to the US are worth $178 million a year.

Last month California enacted its Supply Chain Transparency Act requiring retail sellers and manufacturers doing business to publicly disclose their efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their direct supply chain.

The New Zealand government created a joint ministerial investigation committee last year to investigate labour and human rights abuses aboard FCVs. The three-person inquiry, which is due to report this week, was also charged with reporting on whether New Zealand was suffering reputational damage from the use of low cost Asian labour aboard mainly Korean boats fishing Maori Treaty of Waitangi quota.

When alerted over New Zealand FCVs by Businessweek, spokespeople for the US retailers pledged swift investigations.

"As with all of our suppliers, we have a process underway to obtain documentation that (High Liner is) complying with the laws regarding human trafficking and slavery, and that (they are) reviewing their supply chain to insure compliance," said Brian Dowling, Safeway's vice president of public affairs.

Henry Demone, CEO of High Liner, which sold fish on to Safeway, said that he "abhorred" slavery and labour abuse, and that his company "tries very hard to do the right thing".

"In the case you're talking about, we bought from a company whose labour practices in the (processing) plant were fine. We audited that. We didn't audit the fishing vessels. But we relied upon a well-known New Zealand-based company and their assurance of 100 per cent observer coverage."

United Fisheries CEO Andre Kotzikas told the magazine he had heard of no complaints from crew on board the ships, and he had personally boarded the vessels to ensure that the conditions "are of very high standard".

"I don't think that claims of slavery or mistreatment can be attached to foreign charter vessels that are operating here in New Zealand," he said.

"Not for responsible operators."

Kotzikas said that while the national labour laws are "a thousand pages of, you know, beautiful stuff," he believed that they did not necessarily apply beyond New Zealand's 12-mile territorial radius.

Businessweek tracked and interviewed nine major seafood companies across the US who did business with United.

They also looked at Auckland-based Sanford, noting they supplied the US supermarket chain Whole Foods Market. Sanford's ships carry observers.

Whole Foods spokesperson Ashley Hawkins said they complied with the new California law.

"According to the US Department of Labor, New Zealand is not considered high risk," Hawkins said.

The article reports on the abuse of Indonesian fishermen and says the global fishing industry profits from the forced labour of hundreds.

"Beyond the reach of international regulators, human-rights violations are committed on a daily basis on the high seas, in the name of satisfying the world's appetite for seafood. This is the story of how that ill-gotten catch may wind up on your plate."

Skinner said with the Melilla ships, New Zealand authorities had repeatedly fined them for breaking fishing regulations.

"But crimes against humanity took a back seat to those against the environment," he wrote.

The report said New Zealand authorities had "plenty of prior evidence of deplorable working conditions on foreign vessels like the Melilla".

It pointed to the 2010 sinking of a Korean-flagged trawler Oyang 70, off the Otago coast. An inquest is to be held in Wellington in April into the deaths of six men in that sinking.