Some U.S. lawmakers are calling for more restrictions on seafood imports from China following an investigation exposing grave human rights abuses throughout the country’s fishing industry.
The findings are the culmination of a four-year probe by reporter Ian Urbina’s Outlaw Ocean Project. Urbina and his team found that major American grocery stores, restaurant chains, and food service companies likely received significant volumes of seafood caught by a Chinese fishing vessel called Zhen Fa 7 on which workers were subjected to extremely harsh, sometimes deadly conditions.
The investigation, published in the New Yorker, also concluded that processing plants in China’s Shandong province rely on Uyghurs from labor camps in Xinjiang as well as North Korean laborers. Urbina’s team estimates that those companies have exported “at least forty-seven thousand tons of seafood, including some seventeen per cent of all squid sent to the U.S.” Those shipments went to companies supplying military bases and school cafeterias.
The findings, which were shared in advance with Semafor, have caught the eye of policymakers in Washington. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a bipartisan body composed of members of Congress and executive branch officials that monitors China’s alleged human rights abuses, is planning a hearing with Urbina to discuss his findings on Oct. 24, a person familiar with the planning told Semafor.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the commission, said the findings require a response from Congress.
“All seafood imports processed by Uyghurs and North Koreans must stop immediately — that is the law,” Smith said in a statement to Semafor. “But everyone from big grocery chains to the U.S. government must provide an answer to why their seafood supply-chains support modern slavery.”
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, signed into law in 2021, prohibits American imports of goods made with forced labor in China, with a focus on Xinjiang. A different law passed in 2017 blocks goods produced with North Korean forced labor.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., who chairs the House select committee on China, in a statement to Semafor called on the U.S. government to expand sanctions on Chinese firms involved in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and to “suspend imports of tainted Chinese seafood products.”
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., Gallagher’s Democratic counterpart on the China select committee, said the U.S. needs to better enforce laws around what goods can be imported in the U.S., adding that if China “wants to sell to our markets, they need to play by the rules.”
The new investigation also shows how China’s dominant fishing industry, which is bolstered by state subsidies and accounts for a large slice of the global seafood market, relies on illegal catches. Urbina’s investigation found evidence of some 100 Chinese squid ships fishing illegally, including by poaching catch from other countries’ waters.
“China’s illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing practices destroys the environment, contravenes international law, hurts the livelihoods of U.S. allies, puts our trade routes at risk, and is a thinly veiled cover up for its naval expansionism,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Semafor. “We cannot allow the CCP to control key trade waterways and ruin our maritime resources.”
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act has been cheered by both parties as a major foreign policy achievement. It was passed during the Trump administration, with near unanimous support from both parties.
The implication that these laws are being violated or not working as intended will inspire frustration and outrage. But restricting seafood imports believed to be connected to human rights abuses is easier said than done. The U.S. gets a huge amount of its imports from China, meaning that restricting imports would likely send prices soaring in the U.S. and other countries. And given the complex supply chain, their origins are difficult to track, moving from ships to processing plants to distributors and major chains in the U.S.
The View From China
When reached for comment for this story, a Chinese embassy spokesman accused the U.S. of “pointing fingers at other countries under the pretext of human rights” and insisted that China is “a responsible fishing country.”
“The U.S. violates international trade rules and destabilizes international industrial and supply chains by enforcing import restrictions under the pretext of ‘forced labor,’” Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told Semafor. “China strongly deplores and firmly opposes this, and will take action to safeguard the lawful rights and interests of Chinese companies.”