By Ret Talbot
Those of you who followed my coverage of the 2015 Seafood Expo North America (SENA15) know I chose to focus on aquaculture this year. Those who are regular readers of the Good Catch Blog know my usual beat is wild fisheries, and while I plan to talk about fish farming more this year, I will still primarily focus on wild-harvest.
As such, I was keen to hear the U.S. government’s announcement at SENA15 regarding an action plan, formulated by the Presidential Task Force, to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud.
The plan, which will be implemented by the departments of Commerce and State, lays out a broadly coordinated plan that has been called “historic” and “unprecedented.” While there has been a great deal of improvement in domestic fisheries from bait to plate, upward of 93 percent of seafood consumed by Americans is imported, and there remain significant concerns about many of the fisheries from which those imported fishes originate. As such, the U.S. government has strong incentive to make sure the majority of seafood Americans purchase is not undermining our own efforts at home when it comes to environmental and socio-economic sustainability.
“The Obama administration is committed to working to ensure that America’s fishing industry remains the heart and soul of coastal communities across the country,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews said during the announcement at SENA15. “The steps the United States has taken to be a leader in environmental stewardship are paying off. However, our nation’s fisheries remain threatened by illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud, which negatively affects our markets. The Task Force’s new strategic plan will aggressively implement recommendations to guarantee that U.S. fishing fleets remain competitive in the global economy.”
Addressing IUU fisheries on a global level is not without its challenges, and although the action plan is the result of a multi-stakeholder effort, a few of the specifics announced at SENA15 have received mixed reviews from the fishing industry. In particular, some in the industry worry that the way the government plans to address enforcement challenges could unintentionally harm the U.S. seafood industry.
Seafood is the most traded food commodity in the world, and fraud can result in economic losses in the billions of dollars. When seafood products are mislabeled in an effort to mislead consumers regarding species, origin or quality, it undermines the economic viability of trade. There are also health concerns associated with mislabeled products. It is estimated that at least 25 percent of seafood sold in the U.S. is mislabeled, and some estimates put that number closer to 35 percent.
While there are already laws in place to address many activities resulting from IUU fishing and seafood fraud, many of these laws are, according to government officials, difficult to enforce. In addition, the government has argued, “Several critical [domestic] statutes lack robust civil judicial and criminal enforcement authority, adequate administrative penalties, or appropriate forfeiture authority to address IUU and fraudulently marketed seafood products.”
As one government official commented off the record regarding the action plan and enforcement, “We’re going to give the law some sharper teeth.”
“All I’ve got to say,” said Robert Becerra, during a SENA15 panel presentation, “is that when these regulations from the Presidential Task Force come into effect, hold onto your wallet, hold onto your shirt, hold onto your shoes and hold onto your pants because there’s going to be all sorts of new compliance requirements that are going to come on board that, at least for smaller companies especially, are going to be very, very difficult.” Becerra is a Florida Bar Board Certified Specialist in international law, specializing in civil and white-collar criminal litigation in matters involving international trade.
The five recommendations in the action plan that deal with enforcement are:
"Agencies need to leverage existing authorities through stronger coordination and, where necessary, seek additional enforcement tools to address growing concerns over IUU fishing and seafood fraud, in particular the illegal entry of seafood products into U.S. commerce."
Coordinating across agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Agriculture will allow for more effective inspection, verification and enforcement activities throughout the supply chain. The plan states that “the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) prohibits the import of fish taken in violation of foreign law but effective enforcement of this prohibition requires the cooperation and coordination with border control agencies such as ICE HSI and CBP.”
The National Fisheries Institute objects to the government’s premise that it doesn’t already have the enforcement authority it needs to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud.
“[Government agencies] should be coordinating already,” said Gavin Gibbons, an institute spokesman. “In fact, we hope these agencies have been coordinating all along. I am certain quite a few taxpayers would question why federal agencies need a task force to mandate such harmonization.”
“It’s high profile,” Becerra said. “It’s a Presidential Task Force, and their going to put a lot of money and a lot of effort into it, and the government in my experience doesn’t put a lot of effort and money into things and then not bring cases at all against people — they just don’t do that. It’s the nature of the beast so to speak.”
Becerra pointed to the Lacey Act as an example. He believes many of the cases resulting from the government plan will be prosecuted under the Lacey Act -- and said that is serious business as-is. “The Lacey Act is going to be one of the things they’re going to use to go after people,” Becerra said at SENA15. “It’s a criminal statute — it’s very easy to violate it if you don’t have your ducks in order.”
“Under the Lacey Act,” Becerra continued, “it basically makes it a crime to import fish or traffic in fish that’s been caught illegally under U.S. or foreign law … They're going to have this requirement that you have to trace the fish and to show that it was legally caught in the waters from which it came from.” He went on to say that the levels of traceability for fish caught outside of U.S. waters would be, in his opinion, “pretty onerous and pretty difficult for companies to do, correctly at least.”
Becerra and others disagree with the plan, which suggests the Lacey Act has a very low civil penalty maximum. “Most people think of the Lacey Act as an absolutely nuclear approach to enforcement,” said John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute. “I don’t think you’d have many of the business people agreeing with the comment that the Lacey Act is somehow inadequate because it has low civil enforcement. People go to jail — huge criminal enforcement in that area.”
Connelly made NFI’s position clear on this point during the panel discussion following the government’s announcement at SENA15. He warned against “enforcement overreach” and expressed concern about how laws not intended to address IUU fishing and seafood fraud would be used.
For example, he pointed to RICO and recalled a high-profile story about seafood fraud that ran in the Boston Globe in 2011. “A famous chef [in Boston] mislabeled some sablefish and called it butterfish,” Connelly said. “He said ‘because it rolled off his tongue more easily’—that was his exact quote. That doesn’t make him Don Corleone. That doesn’t make him John Gotti. So, we’re concerned about the concept of overreach in enforcement in using these laws that were unintended for these kinds of things.”
The fishing industry would like to see the program remain targeted on those species and fisheries that pose the greatest risk, and they worry about the government’s stated plans to expand the program to all seafood entering U.S. commerce by December 2016.
“Why are we talking about expanding to all fish when a risk-based system clearly makes the most sense?” asked Gibbons. “If tilapia is not being mislabeled and is not even a wild-caught species, then why are we working to expand the effort to tilapia? This would ultimately cost and negatively impact species that are not suspected of fraud or IUU.”
As the action plan moves forward, the government will solicit additional input from all stakeholders prior to final rule-making on various aspects. For more information, or to learn how and when to submit a comment, check out the National Marine Fisheries Service International Affairs webpage.
Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard
Ret Talbot is an award-winning freelance science writer and photojournalist with nearly 20 years of experience covering stories from some of the more remote corners of the globe. From the icy summits of the Andes to the reefs of Papua New Guinea, his assignments have taken him off the beaten track and put his readers face-to-face with stories of adventure, new ideas and innovative approaches to commonplace issues. His current work focuses on the intersection of fisheries, science and sustainability.