This week’s United Nations Ocean Conference, co-organized by Portugal and Kenya, was a critical opportunity for world leaders to ramp up ambition to combat a host of threats to our shared ocean—among them, the impacts of climate change, habitat loss, pollution, and overfishing.
As NRDC joined world leaders, ocean and environmental justice advocates, scientists, and youth leaders in Lisbon, one big outstanding question was how strong a stand the United States would take against illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and closely linked labor abuses in the seafood industry. NRDC and partners, along with members of Congress, have long called for the Biden Administration to boost its efforts in thwarting IUU fishing and leveling the playing field for U.S. fishermen.
The White House answered that call in many respects in Lisbon with a series of important announcements to step up the U.S. government’s commitment to tackle IUU fishing and labor abuses. NRDC celebrates these actions, which recognize these harmful practices as the closely linked problems they are. While much work remains ahead, the U.S. has demonstrated that it will address IUU fishing as a threat not only to our ocean and fisheries, but a top threat to global national security and the health of the billions of people who rely on fisheries.
There were several key outcomes for IUU fishing at the UN Ocean Conference:
(1) President Biden signed a National Security Memorandum that aims to bring the full strength of U.S. government agencies to bear in tackling IUU fishing and associated labor abuses. It directs 11 agencies, including the State Department, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Labor, and Department of Defense, to “work toward ending forced labor and other crimes or abuses in IUU fishing; promote sustainable use of the oceans in partnership with other nations and the private sector; and advance foreign and trade policies that benefit U.S. seafood workers.” The Memorandum includes an impressive list of commitments for these agencies to leverage shared resources and enforcement authorities, including:
- Commits NOAA to improving its seafood traceability and import control program, the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), including expanding requirements to additional species and species groups. Currently, SIMP requirements only extend to 45 percent of U.S. seafood imports, creating a major loophole bad actors can easily exploit.
- Commits U.S. Customs and Border Protection to investigate fishing vessels and operators suspected to be harvesting seafood with forced labor, and to build upon recent success with the use of withhold release orders and enforcement of the Tariff Act of 1930 to prevent the importation of seafood harvested with forced labor into the United States.
- Commits the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Administrator of USAID to increase maritime domain awareness to combat IUU fishing, including increasing the use of vessel tracking systems, aerial surveillance, and emerging technologies such as machine learning.
(2) NOAA announced a proposed rule to strengthen its ability to counter IUU fishing activities and forced labor beyond U.S. waters by improving the High Seas Driftnet Act– a powerful but underutilized tool in the fight against IUU fishing. This important action, which Congress directed in its 2021 appropriations bill, will address the way NOAA defines IUU fishing in the context of the High Seas Driftnet Act, and will allow it to identify and sanction nations for forced labor in the course of fishing activity on fishing vessels in international waters; as well as for illegal fishing in a nation’s own waters.
(3) The United States will join Canada and the United Kingdom in launching an IUU Fishing Action Alliance, which will include joint efforts to improve monitoring and transparency in global fishing fleets and in the seafood market, as well as collaboration on enforcement.
(4) The U.S. Interagency Working Group on IUU Fishing announced it will soon release its Five-Year Strategy for Combatting IUU Fishing. This collective of 21 federal agencies, created by Congress via the Maritime SAFE Act of 2019, is an important forum for the U.S. government to implement a much needed “whole-of-government” approach to tackling IUU fishing and forced labor and to engage with civil society. The Five-Year Strategy will identify priority nations for engagement on IUU, including Ecuador, Panama, Senegal, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Notably, the National Security Memorandum also recognizes the key role and responsibility of the U.S. as a major market for illegal seafood—nearly $2.4 billion worth of seafood imports into the U.S. in 2019 were derived from IUU fishing practices—and calls on U.S. agencies to cooperate with other major seafood market states such as the European Union and Japan to close the global seafood trade of IUU-fished seafood.
Together, these actions can help drive important change on the water and help to prioritize combatting IUU fishing as a top threat to our ocean, human rights, and national security.
More work remains to be done, however, and the announcements fall short in a few key respects. Rather than incrementally incorporate new seafood species and species groups into SIMP, NOAA should act quickly to bring all imported seafood under the program. Further, the United States should require use of Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to dramatically improve transparency of global fishing operations. Finally, we hope to see additional detail and timelines regarding how key U.S. government agencies – Department of State, Customs and Border Protection, USAID, Department of Labor, and NOAA among them– will implement the National Security Memorandum’s call for improved coordination.
As Monica Medina, Assistant Secretary for the State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, noted in Lisbon, “we are in a losing battle…it’s time to take IUU vessels out of the water.” (You can watch additional statements by Assistant Secretary Medina here.)
The UN Ocean Conference announcements are important step in the right direction. We look forward to working with the administration to ensure these changes meet the urgency and complexity of addressing IUU fishing and labor abuses in seafood supply chains.
NRDC and several environmental and human rights organizations issued this joint statement summarizing the UNOC announcements.