US leaders unveil actions to fight illegal fishing

Announcements at the UN Ocean Conference are a step in the right direction towards a whole-of-government approach to tackling IUU fishing and labor abuses

This week United Nations Ocean Conferenceco-hosted by Portugal and Kenya, was a critical opportunity for world leaders to boost their ambition to tackle a host of threats to our shared ocean, including the impacts of climate change, habitat loss , pollution and overfishing.

As the NRDC joined world leaders, ocean and environmental justice advocates, scientists and young leaders in Lisbon, a big unanswered question was what stance the United States would take against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) and closely related labor abuses. in the seafood industry. NRDC and its partners, as well as members of congresshave long called on the Biden administration to redouble its efforts to thwart IUU fishing and level the playing field for American fishermen.

The White House answered that call in many ways in Lisbon with a series of important advertisement strengthen the US government’s commitment to combat IUU fishing and labor abuses. The NRDC celebrates these actions, which recognize these harmful practices as the intertwined problems that they are. While much more needs to be done, the United States has demonstrated that it will treat IUU fishing as a threat not only to our oceans and fisheries, but also as a major threat to global national security and the health of billion people who depend on fishing.

United Nations Ocean Conference

There were several key outcomes for IUU fishing at the UN Ocean Conference:

(1) President Biden signed a National Security Memorandum which aims to mobilize the full force of US government agencies to combat IUU fishing and related labor abuses. It directs 11 agencies, including the Department of State, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Labor and the Department of Defense, to “work to end forced labor and other crimes or abuses in IUU fishing; promoting the sustainable use of the oceans in partnership with other nations and the private sector; and advancing foreign and trade policies that benefit American seafood workers.” The memorandum includes an impressive list of commitments for these agencies to leverage shared resources and enforcement authorities, including:

  • Urges NOAA to improve its seafood import traceability and control program, the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), including expanding requirements to additional species and groups of ‘species. Currently, SIMP requirements only extend to 45% of US seafood imports, creating a major loophole that bad actors can easily exploit.
  • Calls on U.S. Customs and Border Protection to investigate fishing vessels and operators suspected of harvesting seafood with forced labor, and to build on recent success with the use of orders release detention and enforcement of the Tariff Act of 1930 to prevent the importation of seafood harvested with forced labor into the United States.
  • Encourages the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Administrator of USAID to increase maritime domain awareness to combat IUU fishing, including increasing the use of vessel tracking systems, aerial surveillance and emerging technologies such as machine learning.

(2) NOAA has announced a proposed rule strengthen its ability to combat IUU fishing activities and forced labor beyond U.S. waters by improving the law on high seas driftnets, a powerful but underutilized tool in the fight against IUU fishing. This important action, which Congress led in its 2021 Appropriations Bill, will address how NOAA defines IUU fishing in the context of the High Seas Driftnet Act, and enable it to identify and sanctioning nations for forced labor in fishing activities on fishing vessels in international waters; as well as illegal fishing in a country’s own waters.

(3) The United States will join Canada and the United Kingdom in launching an IUU Fishing Action Alliancewhich will include joint efforts to improve oversight and transparency of global fishing fleets and the seafood market, as well as collaboration on enforcement.

(4) The United States Interagency working group on IUU Fishing has announced that it will soon publish its Five-Year Strategy to Combat IUU Fishing. This collective of 21 federal agencies, created by Congress through the Maritime SAFE Act of 2019, is an important forum for the US government to implement a much-needed “whole of government” approach to combating IUU fishing and forced labor and to s engage with civil society. The five-year strategy will identify priority countries for engagement against IUU fishing, including Ecuador, Panama, Senegal, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Notably, the National Security Memorandum also recognizes the key role and responsibility of the United States as a major market for illegal seafood – nearly $2.4 billion of seafood imports into the United States in 2019 came from IUU fishing practices – and calls on US agencies to cooperate with other major seafood market states such as the European Union and Japan to shut down global trade in IUU seafood.

Together, these actions can help bring about significant change on the water and prioritize the fight against IUU fishing as a major threat to our ocean, our human rights and our national security.

However, there is still work to be done and the announcements fall short in a few key respects. Rather than gradually incorporating new seafood species and species groups into the SIMP, NOAA should move quickly to incorporate all imported seafood into the program. Additionally, the United States should mandate the use of Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) to significantly improve the transparency of global fishing operations. Finally, we hope to see additional details and timelines on how key U.S. government agencies — Department of State, Customs and Border Protection, USAID, Department of Labor, and NOAA, among others — will implement the call from the National Security Memorandum for better coordination.

As Monica Medina, Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs noted in Lisbon, “We are in a losing battle…it is time to remove IUU vessels from the water”. (You can watch additional statements from Deputy Secretary Medina here.)

The announcements from the UN Ocean Conference are an important step in the right direction. We look forward to working with the administration to ensure these changes address the urgency and complexity of addressing IUU fishing and labor abuses in seafood supply chains. .

The NRDC and several environmental and human rights organizations released this joint statement summarizing UNOC’s announcements.

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