Press release: 10 July 2023

Human rights issues in seafood value chains pose major legal risk – lawyers raise alarm

ClientEarth experts have warned that key seafood products frequently found on EU supermarket shelves may be linked with major human rights impacts and severe environmental degradation – putting European companies and investors at legal risk.

In a new online platform launched today, ClientEarth experts have examined the adverse environmental and human impacts of commonly sold species like Ecuadorian shrimp, Honduran lobster or Moroccan octopus – from the destruction of mangroves that deprives local communities of a major source of food to the high incidence of disabilities among compressor divers forced to go deeper and deeper to catch lobsters.

The global production of fish and seafood has quadrupled over the past 50 years. While seafood remains a valuable source of income for many, the increased demand and trade is driving overfishing and ecosystems’ destruction across the world – affecting the livelihood and basic rights of local communities.

Addressing value chain risks and upping traceability means companies can minimise legal and reputational risks, as well as starting to manage and mitigate the risk a warming world and biodiversity collapse poses to their business. But it is also a crucial opportunity to maximise profits – and many seafood suppliers are missing it.

ClientEarth lawyer Francesca Peretti said:

“With this platform, we want to give a voice to all the people whose rights and livelihoods are affected by unsustainable fishing or aquaculture practices. Because of the complexity of the seafood value chain, the considerable trade impacts of lobster, shrimps or other kind of seafood we see on supermarket shelves are often unknown – we’re here to shed a light on them.

Fabio Buitrago, Marine Ecology PhD Candidate who contributed to this report said:

“When companies buy a lobster tail, they could be paying for the overexploitation of coastal communities, the overexploitation of the resource (the lobster), and the consequent impact that the exploitation of this resource has on marine and coastal ecosystems. This makes the communities that depend on that resource to survive increasingly vulnerable and increases the number of accidents that occur every year to extract this resource.”

The environmental and human rights impacts in the seafood industry are fast becoming a legal issue for companies in the EU – which imports more than 60% of its consumed seafood.

EU decision-makers are currently adopting a new law – the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive – that would ramp-up the requirements for seafood companies, retailers and investors to take measures to clean up their value chains and portfolios by carrying out due diligence and addressing potential and actual adverse impacts on people and the environment.

Peretti added:

“We trust seafood companies to act responsibly and transparently to ensure the seafood on our plates is not tainted with environmental degradations and human rights abuses. They need to deliver. They are subject to serious legal risk if they don’t.

“The stories we share in this report are yet another example of why this EU law is urgently needed to drive change towards sustainable, responsible and ethical sourcing.

“Value chain due diligence is also a win-win for seafood companies: increasing efforts to mitigate environmental and human rights issues along their value chains is key to avoiding legal risks and making businesses more resilient to climate change and biodiversity loss. It will ultimately maximise traceability, and overall profits.”

Several EU countries including France, Germany and the Netherlands already adopted due diligence laws, and while companies are already subject to international voluntary standards to ensure more responsible supply chains, the EU law would codify it.

A recent report highlighted that increased traceability could maximise profits for the seafood sector by 60%.


Notes to editors:

Our platform “Tracing a line – do businesses know the real cost of seafood?” is available here.

In this platform, we shed light on the stories behind key seafood products found on EU supermarket shelves. We aim to amplify the voices of local communities which are affected by seafood production and trade.

The platform currently focuses on three species frequently seen on EU supermarket shelves, but more stories will be added along the way – as the impact of seafood trade is far from limited to these.

Here are some more details:

 Ecuadorian shrimps:

  • According to data from EUMOFA, 32% of the EU’s imports of frozen Penaeus shrimp in 2021 came from Ecuador, making it the bloc’s largest supplier.
  • More than 70% of the mangrove ecosystem in Ecuador has been destroyed by shrimp ponds since the establishment of shrimp aquaculture farms
  • The destruction of mangroves is affecting coastal and traditional communities who rely on it for their livelihoods while undermining efforts to fight climate change and its impacts.

An activist from the coastal areas of Ecuador who remains anonymous for security reasons said: “The shrimp industry left us without jobs and those mangroves that they destroyed were our inheritance for our children to live from this ecosystem. The last remaining mangroves are the ones that provide subsistence to our people from fish and seafood.”

Caribbean lobsters:

  • In 2022, Honduras and Nicaragua exported 228.47 tonnes of lobster to Europe, much of which went to Belgium, France, and Spain.
  • Because of overfishing, Miskito lobster divers now need to remain for days on board local fishing boats and dive deeper and deeper to catch lobsters, too often with substandard diving gear and without social support or workers’ rights.
  • This increases the risks of decompression accidents and death for divers.

Western Saharan Octopus:

  • The EU is a growing importer of what is sold as Moroccan octopus but it is very difficult to trace back the exact origin of the product.
  • Some octopus is caught in Northern Morocco, but a significant number of catches occur in the waters off Dakhla, a major fishing hub in southern Western Sahara.
  • The complex dispute over the sovereignty of Western Sahara, currently under the leadership of the United Nations, and the self-determination rights of the Saharawi people makes the involvement of European seafood companies, especially processing companies, importers, retailers, and their investors, potentially problematic.
  • There are concerns about potential human rights violations directly or indirectly linked to multinational corporations’ activities in Western Sahara, including the exploitation of natural resources without the consent of the Saharawi people, which impairs their right to access and dispose of their natural resources.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.