Illegal, unreported and unregulated fisheries cost profits and lives

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When we think about the journey that seafood takes to get from the oceans to our dinner plate, images of hard-working fishers, early rising fishmongers and talented chefs spring to our imagination. And in some situations, that’s indeed the case.  

But in far too many cases the seafood that reaches our dinner plates is the product of illicit and unscrupulous activity — one in which the pursuit of profits trumps all and illegality is at the core of the business model, often at the expense of countless people exploited on fishing vessels around the world. And though it may seem strange for a conservationist to opine on an issue like human trafficking, the truth is that illegal fishing has long fed a vicious cycle of human rights abuses and environmental devastation.  

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing spans a wide array of illicit activities, from unauthorized transshipments to fishing without licenses, catching more than what is allowed, fishing in protected areas and using prohibited fishing gear. Altogether, it accounts for 20 to 50 percent of all seafood harvested from our oceans, valued at $36 billion annually. That’s a significant loss to law-abiding fishers — particularly American fishers, who compete with imports accounting for 90 percent of U.S. seafood consumption.  

IUU fishing also hamstrings good faith efforts to conserve ocean ecosystems and sustainably manage fisheries. Declining fisheries around the world compel fishing vessels to spend more time far out at sea, putting a squeeze on profit margins. In response, some operators turn to trafficking networks for cheap forced labor, knowing full-well that the same lack of monitoring, control and surveillance that enables illegal fishing practices will also allow vessel operators and supply chain actors to exploit vulnerable workers with impunity.   

Once these operators have a reliable source of labor they can work to the bone at minimal cost, they can engage in more intensive fishing operations further away from shore, placing an ever-growing burden on already depleted fish stocks and stressed ecosystems. Fewer fish in the sea drives more financially pinched fishers into illicit activity, human rights abuses become more frequent, and around and around we go.  

All nations and peoples must unite in opposition to IUU fishing and human and labor rights abuses. And the U.S., as a global leader on human rights and conservation, should lead the way.  

First, the U.S. government should take full advantage of existing authorities to impose diplomatic pressure on nations responsible for IUU fishing and human and labor rights abuses. If pursued properly, such a step would be an incredibly powerful complement to the EU carding system that has successfully deterred IUU fishing and protected honest operators since going into effect in 2010. By implementing existing authorities efficiently, the U.S. can work with governments to curb IUU fishing and human and labor rights violations and impose penalties and sanctions on governments that are uncooperative. These actions will benefit fisheries sustainability, basic human and labor dignity and American competitiveness. 

Second, the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), which currently covers only 13 species groups, should be expanded to cover all fish and fish products. Stronger and more cost effective SIMP enforcement and implementation is also critical. The government can achieve this by, among other things, employing the full power of data-driven and machine learning solutions, and ensuring the program has real teeth.  

Third, the government should complement SIMP by establishing mechanisms to deter human and labor rights abuses at the supply chain level. This is another area where the U.S. already has the right laws on the books; now they need to be implemented. The U.S. government should require companies to develop due diligence plans and risk assessments to ensure that the products in their supply chains do not come from forced labor. Likewise, the development of traceability requirements and submission of labor-relevant data elements will help shine much needed light on a notoriously opaque industry, better target limited government resources and provide clear and consistent expectations for industry. 

Illegal fishing, and all the horrific abuses that accompany it, represent an unacceptable threat to people and nature. The U.S. has the opportunity to build upon recent efforts to crackdown on human trafficking and push for stronger accountability in the global seafood supply chain, and in doing so, be an example to the world.  

Roberta Elias is the director of policy at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Follow the organization on Twitter @World_Wildlife.

Tags cheap labor economy EU carding Fisheries Fishing Fishing industry forced labor Human rights Labor rights Seafood Seafood deficit

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