Dive In with NOAA Fisheries

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NOAA Fisheries conducts world-class science to support sustainable marine life and habitats. We manage millions of square miles of ocean (almost 100,000 miles of coastline), support a $244 billion fishing industry, and protect and rebuild endangered marine species and habitats. It’s a huge job. Our podcast, “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries,” is about the work we do and the people behind it.

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A new initiative brings together public and private partners to address labor abuses in the seafood sector.
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0:00:00.0 John Sheehan: Labor abuse is a pernicious problem in the seafood industry, and devastating for victims and their families.

0:00:06.5 Alexa Cole: People not having access to clean water or good food, having their documentation taken away from them, not being paid for that work, working in just inhumane conditions.

0:00:18.8 JS: And when such abuse happens on vessels at sea, it's easier to hide and cover up, making it all the more dangerous.

0:00:26.1 AC: It's dangerous work. It's hard work. It happens even in well-managed fisheries. These involve long hours. They involve sharp instruments, but now we're talking about things well beyond that, really horrible situations where they're shackled to the deck and they're just being treated like slave labor on board these vessels.

0:00:44.6 JS: Fortunately, it's a problem that is getting attention. This is Dive In With NOAA Fisheries, I'm John Sheehan. And today we'll hear about a new initiative called CALM-CS, as in C-A-L-M-C-S. It's an acronym which stands for...

0:00:58.0 AC: The Collaborative Accelerator for Lawful Maritime Conditions in Seafood.

0:01:03.7 JS: This is my guest, Alexa Cole, the director of NOAA Fisheries Office of International Affairs, Trade and Commerce, and the Chair of CALM-CS.

0:01:11.5 AC: This was an initiative to really bring about public private partnerships and facilitate actions between non-governmental agencies and governmental agencies and industry to try to accelerate action to address labor abuses in the seafood sector.

0:01:28.4 JS: Basically, bringing together anyone with an interest in the safety and equity of its workforce and trying to figure out solutions. I wanted to know about the genesis of CALM-CS and how and why it was created.

0:01:41.3 AC: We created this for a couple of reasons. We created it, first of all, because under the Maritime Safe Act, there was a clear mandate for NOAA and the other 20 agencies involved in the Maritime Safe Act to focus on some public private partnerships. There was also a similar mandate under the President's national security memorandum that came out last year, but even more so, for those of us who have been working on this in the government, I think what we are clear on is that while the government can certainly help on this issue, we can't solve this issue alone. It has to be something that we're doing in partnership with industry, in partnership with NGOs, in partnership with academics. And so after seeing the... There are literally over a dozen inter-agency working groups amongst the federal government who are doing great work. But that there was this sense of, it's such a difficult problem that I think folks sometimes it's hard to know where to start.

0:02:38.7 AC: And so the goal for this was to say, let's create a time bound effort that just, its goal is to just push, to just start some things down the track and having it not be something that was done by the government. So there are no recommendations for government action here, 'cause as you know, government action can be slow. The goal of this was really to facilitate those connections between industry who might say, I'm willing to do a pilot project and someone who has a pilot project for them to do, an NGO who's looking for some vessels to try something or a foundation who's looking to provide some funding to that kind of initiative. The goal is really to get those conversations started, and then within the 15 months, see some of those pilot efforts begin.

0:03:26.1 JS: And so, is this an issue that's largely international? Do you see this mostly in other countries or is this a domestic problem too?

0:03:33.9 AC: So, I don't think US fisheries are the big problem in this, but could there be labor abuses and are there labor abuses in US domestic fisheries? I'm sure there are some, but it is much, much more of international issue. And where it matters for the United States is that we're one of the biggest markets in the world. And so these products that are being caught using forced labor and having other labor abuses involved in them are coming into our country. They're sitting on our dinner tables, they're in the supermarket, they're at the restaurants. That's where it's really a key issue for the United States. It isn't such a big issue with our domestic fisheries ourselves.

0:04:16.4 JS: And can you give us some examples of members of the group and what are the sort of sectors that they represent?

0:04:21.6 AC: Yeah, so we certainly have US government representatives. So we have colleagues from the Department of State, from the Department of Labor, from the US Coast Guard, from eUSAID who are all participating in this effort. And then externally, we have folks from retail organizations, industry. We have some folks from the At-Sea Processors, we have folks from the Southern Shrimp Alliance participating in this. And then we have a lot of NGOs from both the labor side and from the environmental side. And then we have some academics who have been participating. So we've tried to bring together as broad a cross section of people who are interested in this issue, who are working in this issue, who have a commitment to seeing some change in this area.

0:05:07.2 JS: And it struck me, when you were describing sort of the breadth of the problem, that it must be really difficult to sort of impact entities that aren't beholden to the government. So I think one of the positives of this initiative is that it does include so many figures from industry that they can apply economic pressure.

0:05:24.6 AC: That's right. And I think, and that took some convincing of some people to understand that this was voluntary. Nobody is required to participate in CALM-CS. And we've been really gratified to see how many different organizations from both industry and NGOs and government have wanted to participate, but also to have a little understanding that at the end of this, this isn't gonna result in a government regulation or some new requirement from us. And so I think once there was a real understanding of that, it made people feel more comfortable engaging and then wanting to sort of bring some ideas to this sector where they say, this is something I wanna try. Because certainly on the face of it, no company wants to be associated with forced labor in its supply chain. And so there's something for them to benefit for finding new ways to try to eliminate that from their supply chain. But certainly, there's benefits to also burnishing their image. But that's fine. To me, it's fine if outside entities wanna use our effort to help progress their goals. My only goal is trying to get them all talking and to start some things happening.

0:06:35.3 JS: So let's talk about a few of the goals that have been set forth for the group. The first being identifying best practices for industry accountability in reference to good working conditions. So obviously you've gotta have industry buy into that.


0:06:50.5 AC: That's right. And so there are a lot of different efforts that are already existing of ways to identify what are the best practices, what are the things you should make sure of in your supply chain and in your workforce. And our goal is not to endorse any one or the other, but to sort of cull from all of them what we think is really best and make sure that industry has that available to them so that companies or associations that want to set some of these standards know how to do it, know what are the right standards to consider. And you're right, there's a lot of differentiation between them. So it isn't always going to be a one size fits all, which is why this isn't a mandated thing, but it is something to give them the information so that they know how to do it. They know where to find this information and they can start taking it on board as they find appropriate.

0:07:46.0 JS: Yeah. And another goal is exploring novel sources of information to better identify illegal and unsafe labor practices. What would be an example of a novel source of information? How would you differently gather this intelligence?

0:08:02.6 AC: Well, the reality is that there's a lot of different people collecting a lot of different information, and we don't always know about it, right? I know about some of the US government programs that are collecting information on this, but I don't necessarily know that there are researchers in Indonesia, for instance, who are collecting data on labor rights or labor abuses there. Being able to find those pieces of information and find ways to share them or at least make people aware of them is useful because then you're talking about companies who might say, how would I even know? How would I know whether my worker is coming in from a bad recruiter? But some of that information exists because this is such a global issue, but people don't even know where to find it. And that's been one of the benefits of having such a wide group of people in this effort is that I know some things, but other people know things I've never heard about. Especially because from the NOAA side, we're fish people. We're not necessarily labor people. We've gotten involved in this because these are labor issues in fisheries and we think that there's ways that we can help with that fisheries expertise. But I'm learning all sorts of things from our labor experts that I never knew about. And that's all what this is about.

0:09:20.5 JS: You also cite leveraging technology as one of the goals. I imagine there are, especially with advances in networking and new mobile ways of communicating, that's opening a lot of doors in terms of sharing information.

0:09:37.4 AC: That's right. Some of the initiatives that people are talking about is something as simple, seemingly simple, I guess I should say, is WiFi on vessels so that workers can connect back to home, connect back to advocates. That wasn't possible years ago, but that is now possible, ways for workers to be able to be paid through electronic systems that protects their wages. There's so much that can be done with technology and I think we're just scratching the surface. And there are people much smarter than I am on technology who are thinking about new things every day. And a lot of that innovation isn't happening either in the government or necessarily in the industry. So again, trying to make those connections so that they can find out about these initiatives and these technologies and possibilities for trying them onboard their boats.

0:10:26.1 JS: You also call out supporting collaboration in reference to sort of worker justice and remediation for abuse. I mean, that's sort of looking past the abuse itself towards workers getting justice.

0:10:42.2 AC: The workers' voice part of this is, it's at the heart of everything that we're doing under CALM-CS. And that's a perfect example of an area that was not as familiar to NOAA, but that our labor colleagues have really helped educate us on and educate others on. And there's this great phrase that people have been using these days that I don't actually know the genesis of it, but I like it, which is, nothing about us without us. And that's exactly that. It's really easy for government officials and NGOs and industry to talk about workers' issues, but if the workers aren't actually a part of the conversation, then we're missing a critical element. And also trying to find ways to... For grievance mechanisms, where can they go when something bad has happened? We hope to prevent bad things from happening, but bad things happen. What are those mechanisms? What's the phone number that I call when something has happened to me? Because without that part of it, until you have a perfect system, you know that you're gonna need to have that room for grievances, that room for how do we get justice for those workers that are currently suffering?

0:11:50.0 JS: And because this isn't an advisory committee, it's not a regulatory body, what will the initiative be producing? Well, is it going to create anything?

0:12:02.2 AC: So it's a fair question. It isn't, and it is very important to say it is not regulatory and not governmental. I say that almost every meeting. What I think we're really creating is energy and partnerships and initiatives that we hope will have longevity beyond 15 months. These are not problems that are gonna get solved in 15 months. What I'm hoping is the outcome of this initiative is that we have moved the discussion forward, that we've actually taken some tangible action. And I'm hoping that what we're also doing is building trust in a community that wasn't that engaged as much with each other as I think they needed to be. And at the end of the 15 months, what we really don't wanna do is create a report of recommendations. There are a lot of reports of recommendations. What we'd like to do is write a report of actions, things that have happened, things that have begun that will then sort of take on a life of their own.

0:13:00.9 JS: And finally, can I ask, what kind of feedback have you been getting from some participants?

0:13:06.8 AC: We've been getting good feedback from folks, I think, and this is exciting in fact, is that some of the feedback is we wanna do more. We wanna do more. And getting the groups to come up with their action items, being able to get them started, that takes a little bit of time for those folks to talk and the ideas to gel. And it's particularly been industry who's been excited to get going. I'm really pleased about that. And we're trying to... We're really in that phase of implementation now. A lot of the working groups, some of the first things they needed to do was information collection and knowing what's out there and knowing what are those best practices or knowing what information sources are there so that you know what new you can add to the conversation. So we've really been doing that right now and are moving into that implementation phase. And folks see that it's been a lot of work, but they're really anxious to get into the action items and start seeing some results and seeing ways that they might make improvements and changes to the way they've been operating over these years.


0:14:10.5 JS: Well, Alexa Cole, thanks so much for talking with me.

0:14:12.0 AC: Well, thank you so much for making the time. We appreciate it.

0:14:15.6 JS: Alexa Cole is the Director of NOAA Fisheries Office of International Affairs, Trade and Commerce and the Chair of CALM-CS. You can find more about CALM-CS at our website, including how to get involved.

0:14:27.8 AC: If there are people who hear this, who haven't participated and want to, they still can. We want anyone and everyone who's interested in trying to find solutions to labor abuses in the seafood sector to join us and share their knowledge and experience with us.

0:14:43.1 JS: That's at fisheries.noaa.gov where you can also find the latest developments and news about programs such as CALM-CS or sign up for newsletters or listen to past episodes of the podcast. I'm John Sheehan and this has been Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.


Past Episodes

How the restoration of the Klamath watershed, the largest dam removal project in the world, will reopen access to habitat for the threatened and endangered native fish of the area.
NOAA Fisheries has successfully managed Atlantic highly migratory sharks for 30 years. Learn about some of the challenges of assessing shark stocks and combatting misinformation about sharks.
How two U.S. agencies collaborate together and with other countries that host leatherback nesting beaches.
Learn how sport fishers are improving West Coast fisheries.
NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit celebrates 50 years of the Endangered Species Act and discusses why it is such a foundational law.

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Last updated by Office of Communications on 07/20/2023