Two New Efforts to Expose Fish Fraud and Illegal Fishing

by Peter Hanlon

Published: 2/08/17, Last updated: 5/24/19

With growing consumption and dwindling stocks, fishery management is taking on an ever-growing importance. The United States has perhaps the strongest fishery regulations in the world; however, America imports about 90 percent of its seafood, so a lot of the fish we prepare in the kitchen or order at a restaurant comes from nations where standards can be shaky at best.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, two federal rules were released to help raise the standards for fish imported to the US: one to protect marine mammals and the other to cut back on illegal fishing and fraud. Both face questions about how effective they will be and, of course, if the new administration chooses to enforce them.

Protecting Marine Mammals

Bycatch is a problem that plagues fisheries around the world. Depending on how and where fish are caught, marine mammals like dolphins, whales and sea lions are often killed incidentally. In fact, bycatch affects at least two-thirds of the world’s marine mammal species. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), enacted back in 1972, made it illegal to catch certain sea mammals in US waters, with some limited exceptions for bycatch. The new rule that just went onto effect on January 1, 2017 finally implements a section of the MMPA covering imported fish. The rule requires that fisheries exporting seafood to America are held to the same standards as US fisheries when it comes to protecting marine mammals. The goal is to both protect marine mammals worldwide and level the playing field for US fishermen who must restrict their catches and pay for monitoring.

Nations who export fish to the US now have five years to prove that their fisheries meet MMPA standards. It remains to be seen how strict the US will be in accepting that a foreign fishery’s standards are “comparable in effectiveness” to the MMPA. If the bar is set too low, the rule will be meaningless, but if the bar is set too high foreign fisheries might shift their focus to other big markets and not bother improving their marine mammal protections. How China (the largest seafood exporter to the US) and smaller cash-strapped nations (who may struggle to prove they meet MMPA standards) react will determine whether the new rule can be effective at saving marine mammals around the world.

Targeting Illegal Fishing and Fraud

Many people think there’s shrimp, salmon, tuna and … well, everything else is just fish. When it comes to sustainability, however, the differences between fish species are critical. To combat rampant seafood fraud — Oceana suggests a one in five chance that the fish you eat is mislabeled — and the global threat posed by illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, NOAA Fisheries established a Seafood Import Monitoring Program through a recently finalized rule. The new rule requires that 15 specific species of imported fish, both wild-caught and farmed, are traced from harvest to entry into the US market to stop illegal and fraudulently labelled fish from reaching American dinner tables.

Although scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2018, the US National Fisheries Institute and several major companies are suing to block it. The main issue is the cost of implementing the rule — which the complaint estimates at between $520 million to over $1 billion — because of the requirements to collect detailed data about the what, when and where the fish is caught; all the way from the fishermen to the broker to the processor. Supporters counter by saying the rule provides much-needed traceability within the seafood supply chain and in fact helps the domestic fishing industry compete with foreign fisheries by holding them to the same standards for sustainability as US fishermen.

In case you’re wondering, no you won’t be able to access the information collected by the Seafood Import Monitoring Program; instead, it will be used confidentially by fishery regulators. But if you want to do your own sleuthing for illegal fishing, visit Global Fishing Watch to see in near real time where fishing vessels are operating throughout the world.

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