To the surprise of its creators, the results of an international study in Marine Policy found that 20 to 32 percent of wild-caught seafood that is imported by the U.S. comes from pirate fishing, which is also known as illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing (IUU). (One of the study’s co-authors, a professor at the fisheries center of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said that the study’s authors did not think it would be that high.) The U.S. imports the vast majority of its seafood, 90 percent. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Fisheries (NOAA), half of that 90 percent is wild-caught. A study of illegal fish in the U.S. is important because the U.S. is tied with Japan for the world’s largest seafood importer. In monetary terms, Americans spent $85.9 billion on seafood in 2011.
What, exactly, do the terms illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing mean? Illegal fishing means fishing in waters that are under another government’s jurisdiction without first getting that government’s permission. However, a lack of funds has prevented some countries from setting up control structures for fisheries. This situation allows pirate vessels to fish in those areas with impunity. Unreported fishing refers to fishing activities that are either misreported or not reported at all to the relevant national authority. Lastly, according to the World Ocean Review, there are areas of ocean where “there are no applicable measures to regulate the catch,” and this is known as unregulated fishing. When, however, a fishing vessel operates in international waters that have been assigned an Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO), it should not violate the regulations established by that RFMO. But under the law of nations that pertains to international waters, unregulated fishing is not illegal. Fishermen, therefore, do not hesitate to operate in protected areas that have been established by the RFMO in order to prevent over-exploitation and to support the recovery of fish stocks. Fishermen also suffer no legal consequences when their catches are above what RFMO member states have agreed should be the maximum. The loopholes and quasi-legality of certain aspects of IUU fishing contribute to the fact that, in the U.S., one-third of wild-caught imported seafood is illegal.
But if all the above-mentioned loopholes were not enough, there are several additional ways to get around the rules. One is through processing plants. One of the study’s co-authors, Tony J. Pitcher, says that processing plants in China are the largest source of illegal imports. The lack of documentation allows for fish that are not caught legally to be camouflaged by mixing them in with legally-caught fish. Tony Long, director of the U.K.-based Pew Charitable Trust’s Ending Illegal Fishing Project explains another trick fishing vessels use: They leave port showing one flag and name on their boat and fish illegally, and then they swap out their flag and name and unload their illegal catch in another port. Long says that 85 percent of the world’s stocks are “already fished to their biological limit or beyond.” Illegal fishing, which is estimated by scientists as comprising 13 to 31 percent of all the world’s seafood catches, adds major stress on existing fish stocks.
Long says that the vastness of the ocean makes it very hard for countries to control what happens out there. The other end of it, however, is no less muddled. The Marine Policy study notes that U.S. consumers, retailers, distributors, and even importers are unaware of the severity of the situation because of the notorious opacity of seafood supply chains. A few U.S. companies are doing what they can to combat illegal fishing. Whole Foods Market, for example, uses a special software program that tracks every step of the seafood supply chain. On April 3 of this year, the U.S. Senate was the 11th country to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement, which will allow port officials to refuse vessels suspected of illegal fishing from receiving port access and services. However, another 14 countries need to ratify that agreement as well before it can go into effect. The Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act should be passed by the U.S. government, suggests another of the study’s authors, Ganapathiraju Pramod. In the meantime, the best thing consumers and companies can do, says Long, is “ask the right questions.” It levels the playing field for honest seafood businesses and fishermen and ensures that seafood continues to exist.
By Donna Westlund