Obama Administration Makes Seafood Supply More Traceable

Fishing boat in the Port of Samut Sakhon, Thailand
Credit: Image credit: NOAA

Move Will Help Curb Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated Fishing

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, recognized as a threat to our oceans and a scourge on legitimate fishermen worldwide, may have finally met its match in the United States. This week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) finalized its Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which will make the seafood supply chain more traceable by setting baseline permitting, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements for importers of certain seafood into the U.S. If you are looking for a reason to celebrate, here is why the rule is a win-win for our oceans and for current and future generations of fishermen.

Combatting IUU is an issue everyone can get behind. Not only does it compromise the global seafood economy (costing as much as $23 billion dollars annually); it also hurts our law-abiding fishermen at home. A recent study by WWF estimates that unfair competition resulting from IUU imports could be costing U.S. commercial fishermen $1 billion in revenue each year. IUU fishing also puts the health of our oceans at risk. In addition to causing unchecked depletion of the world’s fish stocks—nearly a third of which are already overfished—IUU is also closely linked to broader environmental and human rights problems. For instance, unpermitted vessels are less likely to observe applicable rules and conventions designed to protect the marine environment, and operators of these vessels have received global attention for using indentured or slave labor.

The U.S. is in a unique position to take action to tackle this global challenge. An estimated 20 to 32 percent of wild-caught seafood entering our ports comes from illegal or unreported catch, and high consumer demand for imported seafood has made the U.S. a global driver of continued IUU fishing. As a top importer (we import over 90% of all seafood consumed in the U.S.), we have strong incentive—and the leverage needed—to deter these practices on a global scale by preventing the product from entering into U.S. commerce.

This why NRDC joined a number of other NGOs last week in a letter urging the Obama Administration to finalize the Seafood Import Monitoring Program. This crucial line of defense is two years in the making, having originated with recommendations by President Obama’s IUU Task Force in 2014. As published today pursuant to NMFS’s authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the program requires importers of record to report specific data regarding harvest and landing of certain fish and fish products to a centralized database, known as the International Trade Data System (ITDS), beginning in 2018. It also aims to address seafood fraud by having importers retain additional chain-of-custody documentation, which can be subject to auditing and verification.  Initially, these safeguards will apply to 11 priority species and species groups (including Atlantic and Pacific cod, sea cucumber, sharks, and four species of tuna) that were identified as being most at risk of IUU fishing or seafood fraud. By shining a light on illicit activities along the seafood supply chain and encouraging interagency coordination for effective enforcement, the program will play an integral role in the government’s growing effort to prevent IUU fishing and seafood fraud. 

Fish at open-air market
Credit: Photo credit: NOAA

Of course, our work is not finished. In a key change from the proposed rule, NMFS elected to delay the applicability of the program to two key priority species groups—shrimp and abalone—until further notice. This change stems from international trade law-related concerns over aquacultured shrimp and abalone in the U.S., which are governed at the state level without requiring recordkeeping or reporting equivalent to what’s required by the new import rule. However, the agency made clear in the final rule that this will be a temporary delay until NMFS and its agency partners adopt new measures that will fill the domestic data gaps for these species. Including imported shrimp in the traceability program must remain a top priority, as shrimp accounts for 29% of U.S. imports by value and is known to be at high risk for both IUU and human rights violations. 

As we discussed in our comments on the proposed rule, it is critical that NMFS follow its stated plan to expand the Seafood Import Monitoring Program to cover all imported species. By leaving out other species susceptible to IUU fishing or seafood fraud, including squid, sea urchin, and many others, and by exempting highly processed products, the program is only a preliminary approach to traceability. Consider, by contrast, the EU’s catch certification scheme, under which certificates are required for all imported marine fish and fishery products, and authorities collect and verify all information at the point of entry into commerce. And by collecting supply chain data only up to port entry, the rule does not do enough to tackle seafood fraud and species substitutions, which remain prevalent in the U.S. and exacerbate the IUU problem by creating a profitable market for illegal product.

Importantly, NMFS describes this rule as just the first phase of a broader traceability program. The process of monitoring and evaluating the implementation of the rule will be overseen by the National Ocean Council Committee on IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud (NOC Committee), which will also be tasked with providing recommendations for expansion of the rule. We support the work of the NOC Committee, and we will advocate to ensure it has the resources it needs to develop a comprehensive traceability program. 

We commend NMFS and the Obama Administration for taking this vital step toward combatting IUU fishing and seafood fraud. The rule is part of a much broader legacy of ocean protection for which we are immensely grateful.  We look forward to working with the NOC Committee and its federal agency members in the next Administration. While it is important to remember that there is no silver bullet for this global challenge, the incoming Administration can make significant progress by building on the traceability rule. We are hopeful that the next Administration will recognize the dual economic and environmental benefit of policies to combat IUU, and will carry on the tradition of strong bipartisan support for these policies in the name of healthier oceans and a fair shot for honest fishermen.