US Makes Moves to Crack Down on Illegal Seafood

01/09/2018 03:08 pm ET
© Jürgen Freund / WWF

New Year’s Day 2018 was a bad day for seagoing criminals and their terrestrial accomplices, and a good day for increased transparency and accountability in global fishing and seafood supply chains.

On January 1, the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) – an ambitious US program to halt the flow of black market (illegally caught) fish from entering the United States and winding up on the plates of US consumers – went live.

SIMP requires key information accompany fish being imported into the US to get at the central question: was this fish legally caught?

SIMP asks basic questions about seafood entering the US: who caught it (vessel flag and registration info), what is it (specific species), when was it caught (dates of operation), where (jurisdiction of fishing location) and how it was caught (what type of gear or method was used). These information requirements are intended to help stop illegally caught and/or mislabeled seafood from entering the US market.

Why it’s needed:

  • Illegal fishing is estimated to account for up to 31 percent of total global fish catch, worth $36.4 billion annually. These fish are stolen goods.
  • Almost 90 percent of fish sold in the US is imported, which makes it the largest single country market in the world for seafood imports.
  • If global averages hold, up to 30 percent of the wild-caught seafood imported into the US could be black market fish, stolen property worth up to $2 billion a year.
  • Illegal fishing hurts legal fisherman by stealing from their fish stocks and forcing them to sell fish at unfairly low prices to match unfair competition; it contributes to depletion of global fisheries; and it hurts ocean ecosystems.
  • Illegal fishing has also been strongly correlated with other illegal activities like arms and human trafficking that threaten US national security, and associated with forced labor and other human rights abuses.
  • US businesses could unintentionally purchase and sell illegal seafood products. These regulations reduce that risk while helping to assure US consumers that they are not unwittingly contributing to the harms associated with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

The new regulations cover 13 species groups: abalone, Atlantic Cod, blue crab (Atlantic), dolphinfish (mahi mahi), grouper, king crab (red), Pacific cod, red snapper, sea cucumbers, sharks, shrimp, swordfish and tunas (albacore, bigeye, skipjack, yellowfin and bluefin).

Job number one is now to make sure this program is operational in an effective and efficient manner.

  • Above all, this means implementation needs to be funded, with adequate resourcing to build an effective enforcement and verification program to ensure that the information is provided is honest and accurate.
  • Products such as shrimp and abalone should be required to comply with the regulations, like the other products, as soon as possible, particularly given the harmful production practices and unfair economic advantages these illegal and fraudulent imports have over US domestic operators.
  • Additional data should be required to more effectively verify fishing operations were legal – including requiring the use of unique vessel identifiers on all fishing vessels and the continued use of automatic identification systems (AIS) to confirm where fishing activities are claimed to have occurred, ensuring encroachments into protected areas or other jurisdictions have not happened.

Job number two is expanding the program to all seafood imports.

  • The current program covers 13 species groups, accounting for only about 40 percent of seafood imports. Independent WWF research has found that some 86 percent of all imported seafood is at significant risk of illegal fishing.
  • There must be an effort to help communities around the globe to comply with program standards, and for the public and private sectors to cooperate effectively to combat IUU fishing wherever it occurs.
  • We need to develop systems like the Trusted Traveler program that we have in airports to make it easier for responsible actors to keep doing the right thing and make sure all available data is used to find and stop the bad guys.

We all know that one US import control program won’t end illegal fishing around the globe. It will take a wider array of tools and many other countries to effectively shrink the robbery of fish from the oceans. But effective regulations, if enforced, can drive change throughout the system.

As we look to this new year, we should rightly celebrate the progress that the US has made on cracking down on illegal seafood entering the US, and resolve to keep the momentum going so that US consumers can be confident that their seafood dinner is not contributing to grand larceny on the oceans.

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