Unethical Seafood: How the U.S. Import System Fails Consumers

A new NRDC report explains how one in three seafood meals comes from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing—a dirty global industry that harms ecosystems, hurts fishermen who play by the rules, and relies on trafficked labor.

Crates of freshly caught shrimp sitting in loading crates on a dock


Aman Bhargava

When stories of unethical seafood—like the Subway fake tuna reveal last month—or chilling accounts of human rights abuses on fishing boats hit the news, it’s easy to think of them as the exception. Disturbingly, they are not. U.S. consumers are unwitting, and regular, patrons of the destructive global illegal fishing industry. NRDC’s new report, On the Hook: How the United States Enables Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, details how failures in the U.S. seafood import system allow illegally fished seafood to flow unchecked into the United States.

Using the United States’ largest port complex, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach (LA/LB), as a case study, the report elucidates why roughly one in three U.S. seafood imports are illegally fished. NRDC conducted 50 interviews with 36 federal and state government officials about seafood imports through LA/LB. We found four systemic flaws that prevent the United States from stopping illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) seafood imports, not simply at LA/LB but at other ports around the country. If the Biden administration and Congress make conquering IUU fishing and associated human trafficking a priority by tackling these four problems, the United States can lead the world in eradicating these ills rather than perpetuating them.

Migrant workers on a fishing boat docked in Phuket, Thailand

Credit: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

1. We need to improve our electronic import screening system to detect illegal seafood

Millions of pounds of seafood arrive on ships and planes at the Ports of LA/LB each day (around 1.5 billion pounds per year!)—far too much volume for law enforcement officials to be able to physically examine for legality. A sophisticated electronic import control system that automatically flags suspicious shipments is the only way to feasibly screen so much seafood. Yet, NRDC found that the United States’ electronic computing system fails to make use of the artificial intelligence or predictive learning that would automatically identify likely illegal seafood shipments from among the vast quantity of seafood flowing into the United States. Instead, the agency responsible for enforcing anti-IUU fishing laws, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), relies on just a handful of analysts to conduct searches of seafood import data to find suspicious shipments.

The United States needs to upgrade to an automated and risk-based system to screen seafood imports. The electronic import computing system must be modernized. Further, seafood importers should be required to enter import information at least 72 hours before seafood arrives in the United States. Earlier notice would allow law enforcement officials to analyze import data before shipments arrive in port and then move swiftly into state commerce.

2. We need to build law enforcement capacity, particularly at key ports

The United States’ investigatory and enforcement capacity to stop illegal seafood imports is grossly inadequate. Although there are several federal agencies that shoulder some of the responsibility for screening seafood imports, the fact remains that there are too few NOAA enforcement agents to provide the coverage needed to thoroughly block IUU-fished seafood from the United States. For all of Southern California, which includes the Ports of LA/LB, there is just one NOAA Special Agent and one NOAA Enforcement Officer. They are charged with enforcing over 40 resource protection laws--one NOAA official admitted that’s far more than they can currently enforce effectively. When asked about NOAA’s in-port presence, state law enforcement officials said there is almost none at all, and one said they have “virtually no interaction” with NOAA. CBP has a greater physical presence at the Ports of LA/LB, compared to NOAA law enforcement staff. However, CBP officers lack standardized training in fisheries laws or on IUU fishing and often rely on NOAA to investigate suspicious seafood shipments. Agencies with state enforcement officers add crucially important capacity, but also need additional in-port personnel to be fully effective.

We need to build capacity at federal and state levels, including by equipping federal and state law enforcement officers with the training and resources needed to effectively detect and intercept IUU-fished seafood.

As an initial action, we should target key ports for increased enforcement. Devoting additional government resources to blocking IUU shipments at key ports – like the Ports of LA/LB, New York/New Jersey, and Miami, which alone are responsible for over 65% of all imported seafood – could go a long way in closing off much of U.S. commerce to IUU-fished seafood.

An aerial view of shipping containers in the Port of Long Beach, California



3. We must strengthen partnerships between federal agencies, and federal and state agencies

Seafood typically changes hands seven times from the first point of harvest to a consumer’s plate. As a seafood shipment winds its way to your plate, there are multiple agencies that assume responsibility for the shipment. This shared responsibility means that finding and then stopping an illegal shipment once it enters the United States requires extensive coordination among different agencies. NRDC found that there are pronounced gaps in agency coordination that allow illegal and fraudulent seafood to easily sneak past federal and state law enforcement.  

Like members of any team, the various federal and state agencies each play a critical role in detecting illicit seafood operations. To plug the gaps in federal and state coordination through which illegal seafood flows into the country, NOAA should establish structures for regular communication and intelligence sharing among federal and state agencies.

4. The seafood import monitoring program must be improved and expanded

Illuminating a seafood supply chain by requiring seafood traceability is a fundamental first step to eradicating illegal fishing and managing fisheries sustainably. The United States’ traceability program—the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP)—is a key tool for confirming that seafood was legally caught. The program currently covers thirteen seafood species (and species groups) and collects key information, such as where the fish was harvested, the harvesting vessel, and the gear that was used. Such traceability requirements can reveal, for example, whether fish was caught without proper authorization or in areas closed to fishing, or whether legally and illegally caught fish was commingled during processing or shipment.

The SIMP must be strengthened and expanded. NRDC found that: (1) NOAA is not requiring importers to provide key information about the seafood harvest; (2) federal and state law enforcement officers lack training and guidance on the SIMP; and (3) the data entered into the SIMP is screened manually, rather than by software coded to detect suspicious shipments. Further, the SIMP currently only covers 40 percent of the seafood imported into the United States. While an important start in bringing transparency to opaque seafood supply chains, the SIMP must be expanded and rigorously implemented to effectively detect IUU seafood shipments.

As the world’s largest seafood market, the United States has a key role to play in disincentivizing IUU fishing by rejecting illegally fished seafood imports. There are concrete steps the United States can, and should, take to block IUU imports from its shores. As we’ve written previously, cracking down on IUU fishing is good for fishermen here and abroad. It is also absolutely necessary if we’re to safeguard the world’s fish stocks. With enhanced resources, leadership, and coordination, we can dramatically improve detection and interception of IUU seafood imports, and by so doing, shut down a top destination for illegally fished seafood imports.

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