Nunavut shrimp interests say Thailand slave-labour stock 'taints' entire industry

Slave workers in factories are reportedly behind Thailand's shrimp industry, yet many restaurants and grocery stores in Canada carry this shrimp stock instead of the that harvested by Nunavut's Inuit-owned sustainable fisheries.

Seafood harvested under these conditions 'should not be imported into Canada': BFC's Chris Flanagan

Crew inside the processing area of Baffin Fisheries Coalition's MV Sivullik. The BFC's Chris Flanagan says Nunavut shrimp is 'harvested in a sustainable manner' and is 'a premium wild product that tastes a lot better.' (Baffin Fisheries Coalition)

Slave workers in factories are reportedly behind Thailand's shrimp industry, yet many restaurants and grocery stores in Canada carry this shrimp stock instead of the shrimp harvested by Nunavut's Inuit-owned sustainable fisheries.

A feature story this week by The Associated Press paints a disturbing picture of how victims of human trafficking have been used to fuel Thailand's shrimp industry, which provides peeled shrimp to many American and Canadian restaurant and supermarket chains.  

The MV Sivullik off the coast of Baffin Island. The BFC is the largest shrimp harvester in the North. (Baffin Fisheries Coalition)
"It's unfortunate because it taints the entire shrimp industry," said Chris Flanagan of the Baffin Fisheries Coalition (BFC). "Any seafood that is harvested under these kinds of conditions should not be imported into Canada."

With four vessels that fish for shrimp and turbot, the BFC is the largest harvester of shrimp in Canada's North. Half of all BFC employees are Inuit.

"I would just advise anyone who's buying shrimp, especially if it's wholesalers or restaurants, to be sure they know where it's coming from," said Flanagan.

Shoppers should look for labels that identify a product as Canadian and sustainably harvested, he said, noting that unlabelled shrimp may mean it may not have been be harvested in the best manner.

Stakeholders in the Nunavut fishing industry want more research dollars to better understand the fish stock in the territory. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)
Nunavut shrimp, he said, is always a good choice.

"Not only are they harvested in a sustainable manner, but it's a very cold-water product, a premium wild product that tastes a lot better."

The only catch is the lack of infrastructure in the North, and high transportation costs, that make it hard to get Arctic shrimp into the hands of Canadians. 

Most Nunavut shrimp is not for sale in Canada

"Not a lot of shrimp from Nunavut will be going anywhere in Canada," said Jerry Ward, chair of the Nunavut Offshore Allocation Holders Association, which represents Nunavut's offshore fishing industry.

Canada is the largest producer of cold-water shrimp in the world. Nunavut harvests about 10,000 tonnes of shrimp per year, mostly from large offshore factory-freezer vessels.

Crew of the MV Sivullik lounge in the dining area. These shrimp fishers are subject to Canada's labour standards, unlike their counterparts allegedly working as slaves in Thailand. (BFC)
"The vast majority of the product is sold into Asian countries and to some of the shrimp plants in some of the Scandinavian countries, or even Greenland," said Ward.

With no ports in the territory, Arctic shrimp is offloaded in Greenland or Newfoundland, and shipped directly to Europe or Asia. Some crews fly to those ports to get on and off the boats. 

Ward raised the issue at a meeting this Monday with Hunter Tootoo, Nunavut's MP and the minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.

"Nunavut, from the point of view of federal fisheries and the federal government's fishery development, has been very much neglected.

"In the last 12 to 15 years, there's been about $1.5 billion going into aboriginal fisheries in the West Coast, and Atlantic Canada and nothing has gone to Nunavut," said Ward.

New minister 'a voice in Ottawa' for North fisheries

More money is needed to fund research, ideally leading to greater fishing quotas, Ward said. 

"We have a voice in Ottawa right now, familiar with the fisheries in the North," said Ward of Tootoo. 

"We hope that he'll see the need for an aboriginal funding program for Nunavut that will allow us to make investments into buying newer boats, updating our vessels, buying licenses and/or allocation in the South and modernization of our fleet." 

A processing plant near the fishing grounds — in Qikiqtarjuaq or Clyde River — would be a much better opportunity for selling shrimp locally, for growing the industry and for creating more jobs, Ward said. 

"All of a sudden it's not just the jobs on the vessels You have off-boat jobs, you have net making, you have welding facilities," said Ward.

The minister of fisheries, the minister of agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the government of Nunavut's Environment Ministry all declined a request for comment.