Imported seafood, inhuman abuse

In this Monday, April 20, 2015 photo, former fishing slaves gather at their temporary shelter in Tual, Indonesia. Hundreds of former slaves rescued by Indonesian government from the remote island of Benjina following Associated Press investigation into slavery in seafood industry are now waiting to be repatriated. (AP Photo/Margie Mason)

South Carolina shrimpers repeatedly — and accurately — stress their product’s superior taste over the imported competition. And freshness is always a good reason to buy local seafood of all species.

But there’s a better — and moral — motive for being wary about purchasing seafood from Southeast Asia.

As The Associated Press first reported two months ago in this conclusion of a year-long investigation: “Some of the seafood that winds up in American grocery stores, in restaurants, even in cat food may have been caught by Burmese slaves.”

An update from that investigation of Thai-based seafood operations ran on our front page last Monday after eight migrant fishermen were rescued from virtual bondage off the coast of Indonesia.

From that AP story: “The number of former slaves found has risen steadily in the past month to nearly 600, reflecting how widespread and deep-rooted the problem of forced labor is on the boats that bring them from Thailand. ... Most of the men are from Myanmar, also known as Burma, but some are from Cambodia, Laos and poor parts of Thailand. They were sold, tricked or even kidnapped in Thailand and brought to work in Indonesian waters for little or no pay. They were forced to work up to 24 hours a day with inadequate food and unclean water, and many reported being beaten and denied medical care.”

Another staggering statistic: One-sixth of America’s total seafood imports come from Thailand, where many fishing and shrimping enterprises have long minimized costs with cruel methods tantamount to forced labor, including burdening workers with unsustainable debt.

Meanwhile, concerns about adverse economic impacts and safety problems, including bacterial contamination, have generated conflicting assertions about the pending Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal’s impact on the seafood business.

President Barack Obama, for a change, finds himself allied with Republican congressional leaders who support that agreement against the many Democrats who oppose it.

For instance, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., recently warned that the accord, if implemented, “would cause real threats to our health by making it even easier for unsafe seafood to reach our markets” and make it harder for U.S. Food and Drug Administrator inspectors “to do their jobs.”

However, The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” gave that contention three out of four possible “Pinocchios,” a rating reflecting “significant factual error and/or obvious contradiction.”

From that analysis:

“It is misleading for DeLauro to suggest that the free-trade deal would result in more frozen shrimp imports ‘flooding in from Vietnam and Malaysia’ when trade in frozen shrimp already is duty-free.”

The trade deal also could conceivably make imported seafood safer in the long run by establishing more global-marketplace order.

And two months ago at the Boston Seafood Expo, Kathryn Sullivan, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, unveiled a program to counter widespread mislabeling and black-market fishing.

That should help U.S. consumers consider the source of what goes from the ocean to their plates.

And Americans should also consider this basic principle:

Inhuman abuse makes cheap labor much too high a price to pay for cheap seafood.