US cracks down on a global crime: Illegal fishing
There’s a good chance that the tuna sushi you ordered last week wasn’t actually tuna – or that it was caught under illegal circumstances. To help bring down those chances, last week, the Obama administration passed a final rule to combat illegal fishing and seafood fraud.
 
Under the rule issued on Dec. 8 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), importers will be required to track and report key data on a preliminary list of seafood imports at risk of illegal fishing and fraud. This means that at-risk imported seafood will be tracked from its point of origin to the U.S. border.
 
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The rule is intended to help even the playing field for domestic seafood companies, since illegal fishing and seafood fraud have hurt U.S. fishermen who adhere to more stringent rules than in some other countries. However, illegal fishing and seafood fraud affect far more than just American fishermen’s bottom lines. In fact, they are symptoms of a rampant problem that spans the globe: illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU).
 
IUU undermines efforts to conserve and sustainably manage fish stocks and represents a threat to fisheries worldwide. It is estimated that global costs related to IUU reach up to $23 billion annually and up to 20 percent of seafood is illegally caught. In addition, IUU comprises a host of interconnected problems, including piracy, organized crime, drug trafficking, slave labor, exploitation of migrant workers, and mislabeling of catches.
 
Because the vast majority of IUU takes place on the high seas, beyond the reaches of traditional national authorities such as Coast Guard patrols, the problem is particularly nefarious and difficult to resolve.
 
Over the past few months alone, non-governmental, national, and international authorities have introduced a host of measures, in addition to NOAA’s, to combat IUU. These include the FAO Agreement on Port State Measures, adopted in June as the first-ever binding international treaty that focuses specifically on illicit fishing. Other initiatives include research into face recognition software to combat seafood fraud, Palau’s use of electronic monitoring equipment to reduce illegal fishing, and the State Department’s Safe Ocean Network, which shares data, technology, and information to reduce IUU.
 
IUU is clearly a problem that requires multilateral, public-private cooperation and action. However, although IUU concerns everyone in the world who consumes seafood, the crux of the issue emanates from Asian and African waters.
 
Asia is a major hub of the global illegal fishing and seafood fraud market, where illegal fishermen and pirates often operate with impunity.
 
Although IUU fishing is hard to quantify, according to one study, the western central Pacific and eastern Indian Oceans, including southeast Asia, are among the hardest-hit regions in the world, with illegal catches representing more than one-third of reported catches.
 
Thailand, for instance, is now one of the world’s top seafood exporters, but this is due in part to its heavy reliance on illegal overfishing that has been linked with environmental damage and human rights abuses. In April 2015, the EU gave Thailand six months to crack down on illegal fishing or face a trade ban on its fish exports.
 
A large proportion of the Thai fishing fleet is unregistered and therefore outside government control. Unlawfully caught seafood makes up a huge proportion of Thai exports. Even worse, illegal fishing trawlers have been accused of using Thais as slave laborers on fishing expeditions.
 
In addition to Thailand’s abysmal record of preventing IUU and human rights abuses, Chinese vessels have also been significant perpetrators of destructive and unlawful fishing techniques. And they have not only operated with impunity in Asia, but far beyond.
 
For instance, much of West Africa relies on fishing for income and food. However, Chinese fishing boats, using unlawful and destructive methods like “drift nets,” have severely reduced the number and size of fish caught. West African fishermen, who mainly use traditional methods such as canoes and hand-casting nets, cannot keep up with their Chinese competitors.
 
The problem is particularly severe in Guinea, where the government has failed to adequately police its waters because it lacks the funds to operate surveillance equipment. The issue worsened during the Ebola outbreak, when Chinese trawlers took advantage of the government’s distraction to engage in even more rampant overfishing. As a result of the high levels of illegal fishing and the government’s inability to deal with it, Guinea is the only country in Africa that has been banned from exporting fish to the EU.
 
The problem of IUU is arguably even worse in East Africa, which has to deal with the double blows of illegal fishing and high rates of piracy. For example, it is estimated that unlawful fishing has caused Mozambique alone to lose $57 million each year. This is due in part to insufficient maritime surveillance along the 2,800-kilometer coastline.
 
Mozambique has taken a number of initiatives to combat IUU, but they are too little too late, particularly for a poor country that is in the throes of an economic crisis. In one recent step to fight IUU, Mozambique’s Ministry of the Sea, Inland Waters and Fisheries helped start community fisheries councils, in which local fisherman look out for and report illegal fishing. The effectiveness of the policy remains to be seen. Earlier, in 2013, Mozambique bought, among other assets, a fleet of patrol vessels to tackle IUU, but has been criticized for having failed to deploy them.
 
Although everyone who works as a fisherman or consumes seafood is affected by IUU, it is sadly often poorer countries like Mozambique, Guinea, and Thailand that must lead the fight against illegal fishing – even though they often lack the adequate resourcing to do so. This is why more measures like NOAA’s are needed. With wealthier countries like the U.S. importing the majority of their seafood, they must step up to ensure that the environment, human rights, and the law are respected in their supply chains.
 
Zhang is a New York-based sustainability adviser.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.