It’s time to expand transparency at sea and traceability of seafood

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Your seafood dinner should not support the pillaging of the oceans or human rights abuses. These illicit activities at sea can impact the economy, environment and human rights.

All seafood sold in the United States should be safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced and honestly labeled. By building upon the foundation set by the Obama administration, President Biden has the opportunity to close the U.S. market to illegally sourced and mislabeled seafood once and for all.  

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing poses one of the greatest threats to our oceans. IUU fishing costs the global seafood industry as much as $26 billion to $50 billion annually. In the United States, up to 90 percent of the fish consumed is imported, with up to 32 percent of wild-caught seafood imports being products of illegal or unreported fishing. IUU fishing can include fishing without authorization, ignoring catch limits, operating in closed areas, targeting protected wildlife, not reporting catch or fishing for unmanaged species or in unmanaged areas. These illicit activities can destroy important areas that fish need to breed, feed and grow and undermine responsible fisheries management. These actions can also threaten food security and give illegal fishermen an unfair advantage over those that play by the rules. 

IUU fishing is a low-risk, high-reward activity, especially on the high seas where a fragmented legal framework and lack of effective enforcement allow it to thrive. And human rights abuses are alive and well on the high seas too. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, enslaving nearly 22 million people and fisheries are no exception. Some vessel captains exploit vulnerable migrant workers, using violence, threats or debt bondage to keep them trapped at sea in inhumane conditions. Americans may be unwittingly supporting these crimes with their seafood purchases. No matter where in the world these abuses happen, seafood caught or processed as a result of human trafficking and forced labor can still make its way to our shores. 

The U.S. government has taken some steps in the past to address IUU fishing and seafood fraud. In 2016, the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) was established, requiring catch documentation and traceability for some seafood at risk of illegal fishing and seafood fraud. SIMP currently only applies to 13 types of imported seafood and only traces them from the boat to the U.S. border. In 2019, Oceana, where I serve as deputy vice president for U.S. campaigns, released the results of a seafood fraud investigation testing popular seafood not covered by SIMP and found that one in every five fish tested nationwide was mislabeled, demonstrating that seafood fraud was still a problem in the United States. Seafood fraud ultimately hurts honest fishermen and seafood businesses that play by the rules, masks conservation and health risks of certain species and cheats consumers who fall victim to a bait–and–switch. 

A more recent development is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considering a proposed rule that would require traceability for some foods, including most seafood, throughout the full supply chain. This rule is an opportunity to require traceability of seafood in the U.S., but the rule must go further. It should be expanded to include all seafood, align with SIMP, require electronic record keeping and reporting and provide consumers with more information about the seafood they eat, like what fish it is, where it was caught, how it was caught or if it was farmed.

But to effectively fight IUU fishing on a global scale, there must be a commitment to transparency of fishing. IUU fishing thrives under a cloak of secrecy, often far beyond the horizon. Technology can shine a light on what happens beyond our shores. For example, automatic identification system (AIS) devices provide identification and location information of the vessels that broadcast it, but more vessels should be required to use it. The U.S. must embrace transparency at home, then it can demand it elsewhere.     

There is widespread bipartisan support for policies aimed at tackling IUU fishing, expanding transparency and stopping seafood fraud. For example, 89 percent of American voters polled responded that imported seafood should be held to the same standards as U.S. caught seafood. Additionally, 81 percent of voters see eye-to-eye when it comes to policies that block seafood caught using human trafficking and slave labor from being sold in the U.S. The majority of those polled also agreed that seafood should be traceable and all fishing vessels  be publicly trackable.

The time is now for the United States to step up in the fight against IUU fishing and close our markets to illegally sourced seafood. The Biden administration can expand existing import control measures, require transparency of fishing, track seafood from boat to plate and demand that seafood entering the U.S. is not a product of forced labor or other human rights abuses.

Our country can make a difference in the global fight against illegal fishing and seafood fraud, level the playing field for American fishermen and seafood businesses and protect consumers, workers and our oceans. I’m confident that this can be the administration that does it. The federal agencies already have the tools to make it so, they just need leadership and direction to do more. The United States can set the standard for traceability of seafood and transparency at sea, and Americans can be rest assured that the seafood they buy is safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced and honestly labeled. 

Beth Lowell is Oceana’s deputy vice president for U.S. Campaigns. Lowell has dedicated her 20-plus year career to conservation issues and has been working to help protect and restore the oceans since joining Oceana in 2005.

Tags biden administration Fisheries Fishing industry Human rights Human rights abuses illegal finishing IUU Joe Biden Seafood seafood imports seafood traceability

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