Earlier this month, Oceana and WWF convened a virtual roundtable of experts to discuss one of the greatest threats facing our oceans: illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
The expert panel included:
- Dr. Daniel Pauly, Oceana board member, and founder and director of the Sea Around Us initiative at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Oceans and Fisheries;
- Ray Mabus, former Secretary of the Navy;
- Ame Sagiv, director of forced labor and human trafficking for Humanity United; and
- Nathan Rickard, trade counsel for the Southern Shrimp Alliance.
The roundtable was moderated by Martha Mendoza, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the Associated Press. Martha Mendoza’s reports have prompted congressional hearings and new legislation, Pentagon investigations and White House responses. She was part of a team whose investigations into slavery in the Thai seafood business led to the freedom of more than 2,000 men.
Mendoza led the panelists in a discussion that painted a vivid and disturbing picture of IUU fishing, illuminating the ways IUU fishing threatens human rights, national security, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability; and highlighted the need to address these threats by expanding traceability and transparency in the seafood supply chain.
A Deep Look into IUU Fishing
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing includes ignoring catch limits, targeting protected wildlife, and fishing in prohibited areas or for unmanaged species in unmanaged places. Given the vastness of our oceans and limited enforcement, IUU fishing can be a low-risk, high-reward crime, thriving within a seafood supply chain rife with blind spots. With just the flick of a switch, vessels can “go dark,” turning off their automated identification system (AIS) tracking device and disappearing from view.
Disabling AIS can be an indicator of IUU fishing, and as Ray Mabus noted, it comes with a number of other dangers as well: “When [IUU boats] ‘go dark,’ they become a maritime danger to anyone in the area, and that includes our Navy — first because of the risk of collisions at sea, but also because you can’t tell what they’re up to. It could be IUU, but it could also be piracy, or human trafficking, or weapons smuggling, or almost anything.”
The lack of transparency and traceability in the global seafood supply chain allows bad actors to exploit workers, plunder fisheries, decimate marine ecosystems, and trick unwitting consumers into purchasing seafood connected to human rights abuses at sea and environmental destruction. At the same time, IUU fishing undermines fishing vessels and seafood businesses that follow the law.
Human Rights and Security Threats
Demand for seafood rises as populations grow, and overfishing strains an ever-dwindling supply. Yet cheap seafood is still readily available, when prices should be going up. During the panel, Ame Sagiv described how human rights violations contribute to this inconsistency in market forces.
“SLAVERY HAS BECOME A SUBSIDY FOR BUSINESSES AND FOR US AS CONSUMERS.”
-Ame Sagiv, Humanity United
“This problem originates, in many ways, at the top of the chain, in the businesses that we frequent regularly right here in the U.S. … Their purchasing practices and price negotiations have created a race to the bottom … a Hunger-Games-like scramble for resources,” Sagiv said.
The panel explained why forced labor may be partly responsible for our low seafood costs. Criminals running IUU fishing ships deceive workers they view as “disposable,” trapping them at sea for months or even years at a time. On land, laborers can be exploited and face horrible working conditions while processing seafood, like the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of hand-peeled shrimp that enter the U.S. every year.
China’s massive fleets of distant-water ships are particularly notorious for IUU fishing activity and labor exploitation, according to the panel. Sagiv described crews recruited from countries across Southeast Asia that get “lured onto these boats with promises of good pay” and, in some cases, are later “murdered and dumped off the side of those ships” before ever returning to land.
Mabus noted that Chinese ships are pillaging waters “literally everywhere,” using distant-water fleets to expand their global influence and intimidate their rivals. IUU fishing is thus a serious concern for national security and international stability.
“AMERICA MUST BE A LEADER GLOBALLY TO COMBAT THIS — FOR OUR NATIONAL SECURITY BUT ALSO FOR THE SECURITY AROUND THE WORLD THAT IMPACTS US.”
-Ray Mabus, U.S. Navy
IUU fishing depletes marine resources and destroys habitats all around the world, threatening ocean health and fish populations that people depend on for food security.
“THESE BOATS DON’T KNOW BORDERS. A FLEET CAN GO FROM FISHING OFF ONE CONTINENT TO FISHING OFF ANOTHER — FROM ONE OCEAN TO ANOTHER — WITHIN WEEKS. WHEREVER PROFITS ARE AVAILABLE.”
-Dr. Daniel Pauly, UBC
In addition to overfishing and pollution, IUU activity can also involve destructive fishing practices. Dr. Pauly described bottom trawling as vessels pulling “nets the size of a house” through entire ecosystems, removing all marine life and clear-cutting a swath of habitat in their wake — “equivalent to bulldozing a forest to catch rabbits.”
IUU ships may fish within other nations’ waters, ignoring regulations, laws and other management measures, jeopardizing coastal economies and food security.
Expanding Transparency and Traceability in the U.S.
“THE ISSUE FOR THE DOMESTIC FISHING INDUSTRY IS THAT THEY ARE OPERATING UNDER U.S. REGULATORY STRUCTURES … BUT ARE ASKED TO COMPETE IN A MARKET WHERE NONE OF THOSE REGULATORY STANDARDS ARE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT.”
-Nathan Rickard, Southern Shrimp Alliance
To help prevent IUU seafood from entering the U.S., the panelists suggested strengthening regulatory programs that enhance traceability and transparency, expanding the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), and enforcing AIS requirements.
“There’s a whole lot more that we can do,” Mabus noted. “Upping our requirements, making the provider show that [their seafood] is legally caught, showing that they didn’t turn off their AIS … in legal terms, a chain of custody.”
The SIMP requires catch documentation and traceability for some imported seafood at risk of illegal fishing and seafood fraud. It’s a promising start for traceability efforts, but as of now its scope is limited.
“The Seafood Import Monitoring Program currently only covers 13 species,” said Sagiv, emphasizing that this was not enough, “It needs to be expanded, and there needs to be additional resourcing that goes to NOAA along with that expansion.”
Panelists also suggested better staffing and support for the agencies responsible for regulatory enforcement, like Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Coast Guard. There is no one solution for IUU fishing, but as this panel of experts illustrated, there are many actions we can take today to help end this harmful practice. For the sake of human rights, national security, sustainability, and economic fairness, we must expand transparency and traceability in the seafood supply chain and treat the threat of IUU fishing with the seriousness it deserves.