Americans have increasingly become aware that their seafood is imported from countries such as Indonesia, but a new Associated Press report says that not only is it being caught in foreign countries, it also might be caught by slaves.
In the Indonesian island village of Benjina and the surrounding waters, hundreds of Burmese men are trapped in cages as others load cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds supply networks at major supermarkets, restaurants and pet stores in the United States.
The men the Associated Press spoke to on Benjina were mostly from Myanmar, also known as Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world. They were brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to fish. Their catch was shipped back to Thailand, and it then entered the global commerce stream.
Tainted fish can wind up in the supply chains of some of America's major grocery stores, such as Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway; the nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart; and the biggest food distributor, Sysco.
It can find its way into the supply chains of some of the most popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams.
It can turn up as calamari at fine dining restaurants, as imitation crab in a California sushi roll or as packages of frozen snapper relabeled with store brands that land on our dinner tables.
In a year-long investigation, the AP interviewed more than 40 current and former slaves in Benjina. The AP documented the journey of a single large shipment of slave-caught seafood from the Indonesian village, including squid, snapper, grouper and shrimp, and tracked it by satellite to a gritty Thai harbor. Upon its arrival, AP journalists followed trucks that loaded and drove the seafood over four nights to dozens of factories, cold storage plants and the country's biggest fish market.
Their catch mixes in with other fish at numerous sites in Thailand, including processing plants. U.S. Customs records show that several of those Thai factories ship to America. They also ship to Europe and Asia, but the AP traced shipments to the United States, where trade records are public.
The major corporations the AP identified declined interviews, but issued statements that strongly condemned labor abuses; many described their work with human rights groups to hold subcontractors accountable.
National Fisheries Institute spokesman Gavin Gibbons, speaking on behalf of 300 U.S. seafood firms that make up 75 percent of the industry, said his members are troubled by the findings.
"It's not only disturbing, it's disheartening because our companies have zero tolerance for labor abuses," he told the AP. "These type of things flourish in the shadows."
The slaves interviewed by the AP described 20- to 22-hour shifts and unclean drinking water. Almost all said they were kicked, beaten or whipped with toxic stingray tails if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing.
Runaway Hlaing Min said many died at sea.
"If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us. There must be a mountain of bones under the sea," he said. "The bones of the people could be an island, it's that many."