WASHINGTON — A presidential task force on Tuesday proposed a series of steps aimed at curbing “pirate fishing” and the sale of falsely labeled seafood, according to administration officials.
The recommendations include establishing the first national “traceability program” to track seafood from point of harvest to entry into U.S. markets. The group also directed the secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security to include illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing — known as “black market” or “pirate” fishing — as part of the routine threat analysis their agencies perform on the world’s oceans. The secretary of state is directed to make reducing pirate fishing “a diplomatic priority.”
Scientists, law enforcement officials and environmentalists have identified illegal fishing as a major problem that contributes to depletion of the oceans and funds criminal operations worldwide.
U.S. fishermen landed 9.9 billion pounds of fish and shellfish worth $5.5 billion in 2013, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Global losses from black-market fishing range from $10 billion to $23 billion annually, according to federal officials.
“Seafood is one the most traded commodities in the world,” said Catherine Novelli, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, in a statement. “Consumers should be able to know where their seafood comes from and have the confidence that it was legally and sustainably harvested,” she said.
NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said in a statement that while the United States had “made strides” in combating illegal fishing and seafood fraud, the task force’s proposals “serve as an important tool as we strive to level the playing field for legitimate fishermen.”
The recommendations, which will be submitted to the Federal Register this week, will be subject to public comment for 30 days.
Other proposals include directing the U.S. Trade Representative, as well as State and Commerce department officials, to pursue international commitments to eliminate government subsidies for fishing that may contribute to overfishing and illegal fishing.
Karen Sack, senior director for international oceans at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said in an interview Monday that her group welcomed “the attention the administration is placing on the issue of illegal fishing, globally, and we look forward to the adoption of strong measures to stop free riders from stealing the ocean’s fish.”
Eric Schwaab, who served as NOAA’s assistant administrator for fisheries during President Barack Obama’s first term and now works as the chief conservation officer at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, said cracking down on falsely labeled seafood was especially important because nearly 90 percent of American seafood is imported.
“We’re doing such a good job of managing our fisheries” now, Schwaab said, that if the United States does not ensure the safety and sustainability of seafood imports, “the steps that we’re taking are going to be undermined.”
Even as ocean advocates praised the recommendations, some argued that the administration could go further. Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana, wrote in an email that because fraud can occur at any point in the seafood supply chain, the federal government will need to take more aggressive action.
“Selling farmed shrimp as wild caught or tilapia as red snapper not only cheats consumers, but also hurts honest fishermen and seafood businesses that play by the rules,” Lowell wrote. “We need mandatory and comprehensive full-chain traceability — from boat to plate — to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled.”