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This week the Presidential Task Force on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud released its action plan to help ensure fair seafood markets around the world. The plan follows close on the heels of the report NOAA issued last month identifying the challenges and objectives in combating IUU.

So why is IUU such a big deal? Consider these numbers: between 11 and 26 million tons, worth between $10 and $23 billion. That’s the annual amount of illegally harvested seafood, according to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates. When you consider global seafood production (including wild harvest and aquaculture) hit 158 million tons in 2012, IUU would represent up to 15% of the total (if you were to calculate IUU as part of overall production).

Here are a couple of the downstream impacts of IUU and seafood fraud, according to the task force:

  • Those not playing by the rules harvest indiscriminately without regard for the health of the resource;
  • They flood the market with cheaper priced product, putting legitimate operators at a disadvantage, to the tune of billions of dollars in lost income/revenue.
  • IUU fishing vessels become conduits for drug and human trafficking because they move under the radar.
  • Seafood fraud ¾ mislabeling or mishandling of product ¾ is also a growing problem that costs consumers and affects the entire supply chain. A 2013 Oceana study claimed that between 26% and 87% of the 1,215 seafood samples taken between 2010 and 2012 at 647 retail outlets (grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues) in 21 states was mislabeled.

The challenge with IUU is that it’s hard to track and quantify. There are proposals to increase visibility, including discussions of onboard cameras and monitoring devices as well as the use of satellites … each with its own cost, implementation and usage estimates.

The U.S. commercial fishery generally sets a global example for management and compliance. As such, the task force plan’s main objectives seek to minimize IUU and seafood fraud at international, national, regional and local levels beginning with stronger international agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Agreement on Port State Measures. According to the plan, the TPP (representing 25% of global catch) would be the first international trade agreement that eliminates subsidies linked to overfishing. The Port State Measures agreement would set minimum standards to prevent IUU internationally. The plan also establishes a traceability program designed to improve information sharing between enforcement and regulatory agencies to keep black market/mislabled fish off U.S. markets.

When I wrote about the task force’s 15 recommendations last month, I said the U.S. Congress must now pass the legislation to implement the country’s ratification of the Port State Measures agreement. U.S. authorizing legislation would create the money, resources and authority to effectively reduce illegal seafood from entering our supply chain.

Not only will this congressional action lend credence to the U.S. voice in calling for international cooperation in fighting IUU and seafood fraud, but it will also help compel 14 other nations to fully ratify the treaty so that it carries the weight of enforceable international law. Those countries signing on to the treaty will be able to blacklist IUU vessels, deny them services at port and confiscate vessels and/or cargo.

Without congressional action on this item, other nations, not to mention fishing operations intent on feeding the black market, may view the U.S. position on IUU simply as lip service.