By Lorrie Baumann
A presidential task force has released a plan to curb illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud. IUU fishing circumvents the rules to save the costs of complying with sustainable fishing practices, sometimes by taking chances with food safety or using slave labor on fishing boats. Seafood fraud involves mislabeling or other forms of deceptive marketing that take place after the fish is off the boat, such as techniques that make tuna steaks look more red or that add weight to the product. Seafood fraud overlaps with IUU fishing when illegally caught fish are then sold as a legal catch.
The action plan released on March 15 details proposals by the Presidential Task Force on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud, which is co-chaired by the U.S. Departments of Commerce and State. The proposals correspond to recommendations that the task force made late last year, with action expected on them during the remainder of this year and next year.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. fishermen landed 9.9 billion pounds of fish and shellfish worth $5.5 billion in 2013. Those U.S. fishermen, as well as others engaged in legal fishing, feel the effects of IUU fishing and seafood fraud in their pocketbooks when their products are undercut in the market by cheaper illegally caught or mislabeled seafood.
“The U.S. is a global leader on building sustainable fisheries and the seafood industry is an incredibly important part of our economy,” said Kathryn Sullivan, PhD, NOAA Administrator. “IUU fishing and seafood fraud undermine economic and environmental sustainability of fisheries and fish stocks in the U.S. and around the world. These actions aim to level the playing field for legitimate fishermen, increase consumer confidence in the sustainability of seafood sold in the U.S., and ensure the vitality of marine fish stocks.”
Because American fishing boats are regulated and heavily monitored, seafood fraud is not a big problem in American fisheries, although there are problems with species substitutions at the retail level in grocery stores and restaurants. Substitutions can also occur when U.S. product is processed abroad, according to the task force’s report. All seafood imported into the U.S. is subject to inspection by the federal Food and Drug Administration and must be documented to ensure that it meets the same standards as domestic seafood products – it has to be clean, safe to eat and properly labeled.
The plan offered by the presidential task force identifies actions that will strengthen enforcement, create and expand partnerships with state and local governments, industry, and non-governmental organizations, and create a risk-based traceability program to track seafood from harvest to entry into the American market. The plan also highlights ways in which the United States will work with other countries to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud, including efforts to secure enforceable environmental provisions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade agreement among countries that together account for approximately one-quarter of global marine catch and global seafood exports.
“U.S. federal fisheries are managed under a landmark piece of legislation called the Magnuson-Stevens Act that has cut overfished fisheries stocks in half from 1999 to 2012. Seafood Harvesters of America are extremely proud of the fact that 91 percent of U.S. fisheries stocks are not experiencing overfishing. Because our domestic fisheries are doing so well – and Americans should be so proud of the way we manage our fishery resources – we encourage all Americans to consume more domestic seafood because, almost by default, it’s sustainable, based on the Magnuson-Stevens Act and how it’s worked to rebuild our fisheries stocks,” says Brett Veerhusen, Executive Director of Seafood Harvesters of America, the national organization of commercial fishermen based in Washington, D.C. “Because our U.S. fisheries are managed at such a high level, it’s important for American fishermen to be playing on a level playing field with imported products. When you import seafood, you import the ethics and ethos of that country of origin’s fishery management practices. Meaning, as a world leader in sustainable fishery management, American consumers demand that our imported seafood is of the same ethics and ethos that American fishermen nobly harvest.”
On the international front, the task force would like to see the U.S. conclude Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations during 2015 that include commitments to combat IUU fishing and first-ever provisions to eliminate harmful fisheries subsidies. The report calls on Congress to enact legislation implementing a Port State Measures Agreement and for at least 14 other countries to join the agreement. The task force also calls on regional fisheries management organizations and others to advance best practices to regulate international fisheries.
Enforcement measures should include a strategy to optimize the collection, sharing, and analysis of information and resources to prevent IUU or fraudulently labeled seafood from entering U.S. commerce by September 2015, including tightening existing laws that currently exempt fisheries violations and increasing civil and administrative penalties for illegal fishing, according to the task force’s recommendations. The task force also calls for greater attention to combating seafood fraud and the sale of IUU seafood products by federal and state fisheries agencies and for better identification of seafood species that are likely to be involved in seafood fraud and development of better ways to trace seafood and to convey information from the traceability system to American consumers. The first phase of this traceability program to track seafood from point of harvest into the American market is due to go into effect within 18 months.
By December 2016, the task force will identify the next steps in expanding the program to all seafood entering U.S. commerce, after taking into consideration the experience from this first year. This action plan reflects the Obama Administration’s commitment to supporting sustainable fisheries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional agreement that includes four of the top 15 global producers of marine fisheries products by volume. The agreement is expected to be the first-ever trade agreement to eliminate some of the most harmful fisheries subsidies, including those that contribute to overfishing. The U.S. is seeking similar commitments in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) negotiations with the European Union (EU).