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Safe and ethical seafood on the menu this Congress

Recovered West Coast fishery reopens in rare conservation win

As a chef who has participated in several international fisheries gatherings, I’ve witnessed firsthand that the U.S. has some of the best-managed and most bountiful fisheries on the planet. Our landmark fisheries conservation law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, is a model in how it has helped us to rebuild and sustainably manage dozens of our national fisheries that just decades ago were on the brink of collapse. Likewise, it has allowed us to maintain control over our maritime boundaries, without which illegal international fleets would still be a major threat to our domestic fisheries resources.

But that doesn’t mean the threat of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing isn’t still present, very dangerous and very real. IUU fishing operations have shifted their tactics. They have gotten stealthier, found back doors to government inspection systems and regulations, and even resorted to human trafficking to assemble crews. 

Illegal and unethical seafood is also closer to home than we may realize, as long and murky global seafood supply chains enable it to end up on our plates and compete with harvesters who play by the rules. In fact, more than 80 percent of the seafood consumed in America is imported, and an estimated one-third of our wild-caught seafood imports is derived from illegal and unreported fishing. As a member of a community of chefs concerned with the sustainability of our fisheries, my ability to reliably provide safe, clean, ethically produced seafood to our customers is at risk.  

The Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act (H.R. 3075), a bipartisan bill recently introduced by Reprs. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Garret Graves (R-La.), answers the urgent call to end illegal fishing. It also tackles head-on one of the most tragic realities of the modern seafood industry: illegal labor practices in foreign fleets and processing houses.

Many of us have heard the horror stories of forced labor and slave-like conditions on boats where non-paid crew members can be starved, worked to death, or even thrown off boats at sea. Then there are the shrimp peeling facilities where people are trapped and forced to work in dismal conditions for 16 hours or more per day. In some operations, even young children are forced to work, compelled to stand on stools just to reach the peeling tables.

How do we reconcile that sort of suffering as we make our way down the buffet line, filling our plate with piles of shrimp, crawfish and other seafood, all from nowhere in particular? H.R. 3075 would respond by expanding the authority of the U.S. government to penalize fishing nations for labor rights abuses and cooperate with them to push for labor reforms. 

Also consider, just how much of that seafood on your plate is actually safe to eat? If we don’t have a way of tracing it back to its source, there is zero accountability or incentive for producers to use safe and ethical methods in its production. In the case of destructive shrimp aquaculture, loads of antibiotics and chemicals — used to keep rampant disease at bay — don’t prevent bacteria and other toxins from making their way all the way to the buffet. Consumers deserve to know that what they’re eating isn’t making them sick, or worse. The traceability tools in H.R. 3075 will help everyone, including chefs like me, to ensure safe sourcing.  

There is an upside to all of this, which is that we have a domestic seafood system which is second to none. Our fisher/producers are highly regulated. They provide work for hundreds of thousands of Americans and support generations of families who have helped anchor our coastal communities and beyond. Why would we want to put U.S. producers at a disadvantage to imported seafood producers, many of whom are gaming the system? H.R. 3075 will level the playing field by shedding a light on illegal fishing activity and modernizing import screening and enforcement.

Everyone deserves to eat good, clean, delicious seafood. Graves and Huffman are taking the lead with H.R. 3075. This World Ocean Week, I hope that other members of Congress, including other members of the Louisiana delegation who support U.S. fishers and producers, will join this effort. The Biden administration also has a key role to play in the coming months to renew U.S. leadership to combat IUU fishing. Let’s give our fishers and producers a shot at feeding Americans first, and I bet we’ll see that they can keep us all very satisfied. 

Chef Dana Honn is a co-owner and chef at Carmo, chef at Café Cour, and an advocate for ocean conservation. He lives and works in New Orleans.

Tags Dana Honn ethical seafood Garret Graves Jared Huffman Ocean Seafood

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