Many U.S. efforts to improve seafood traceability fall short of goals, according to new report

By Ian Urbina, Safina Center Fellow

About 400 tons of jack mackerel (Trachurus murphyi) are caught by a Chilean purse seiner. Photo: C. Ortiz Rojas/NOAA

In March 2015, the Obama administration announced plans to change how seafood arrives to U.S. shores. The stated goal of the administration’s plan was to counter illegal fishing and associated crimes such as seafood fraud and forced labor by requiring companies to report where the fish was pulled from the water, what gear was used, and which boats carried it to shore.

For too long, seafood destined for American plates has been tainted by a variety of crimes. Fish of one type was advertised as another. It was also routinely stolen from foreign waters, and caught by trafficked and slave labor. Historically, the U.S. government did little to police these crimes. Authorities from federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is responsible for marine issues, have been reluctant to tackle human rights and labor violations because they fall outside their traditional zone of expertise. What agencies did have clear jurisdiction over these issues like the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security, had little interest or experience in confronting abuses at sea.

The Obama administration sought to end the stove-pipe problem by creating an inter-agency task force against IUU (Illegal, Unreported, Unregulated Fishing). This task force, the administration said, would focus not just on the environmental abuses but also human rights violations. Secretary of State John Kerry on multiple occasions emphasized the connection between illegal fishing and sea slavery. That this task force still exists under the Trump administration, which is not a fan of increased regulations or federal oversight on business, is noteworthy. In recent weeks the task force reminded the seafood industry that new reporting requirements would take effect in January 2018.

Seafood for sale at Pikes Place Fish Market in Seattle, Washington. Photo: Monika Soltysik

Will the new reporting requirements will achieve the task force’s stated goals? Not likely, according to recent research by the Center for American Progress.

One of the task force’s main accomplishments is The Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which includes provisions to trace 13 at-risk species and species groups from the point of harvest to the first point of entry into the U.S. The program enables U.S. authorities to trace the movement of seafood products from catch to port and prevent illegally-caught fish from reaching U.S. consumers. The program only includes 13 species and species groups. By not covering all 1200 species of seafood sold in the US, the risk of IUU and seafood fraud is shifted to species that are not covered by the program.

The Center for American Progress researchers also explain that NOAA has indefinitely delayed adding shrimp and abalone to the at-risk species list because of concerns of anticompetitive practices under the rules of the World Trade Organization. Domestic aquaculture reporting requirements are inconsistent and are currently set by individual states rather than by the federal government. Shrimp constitutes a huge portion of seafood imports, and shrimp aquaculture is plagued with human rights abuses. The traceability data requirements end at the first point of sale into the US leaving the customer in the dark about the origins of the fish. Full-chain seafood traceability of all species sold in the US is necessary to have a truly transparent and accountable supply chain, the researchers say.

Commercial fishing harbor in the rain, Yaquina Bay, Oregon. Photo: phoca2004 (Flickr)

Perhaps the biggest travesty, according to the Center for American Progress report, is that the task force seems to have ignored labor concerns entirely. The import monitoring program should include data on labor conditions aboard boats (e.g. crew manifests, time at sea)—a powerful tool to fight seafood slavery. So far, NOAA, the lead implementing agency, has chosen to focus exclusively on fish populations and not workers. Other agencies with expertise on trafficking issues, such as the Department of State and the Department of Labor, have been absent in framing how the new reporting requirements should address labor abuses. NOAA is also developing a Trusted Trader Program, which would allow for fast-tracking of certified importers; however, it also appears poised to ignore labor conditions, meaning that many certified “trusted traders” could be engaged in or benefitting from mistreatment of laborers.

The Center for American Progress report can be found here.

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