The Solution to the Global Overfishing Crisis Is Around the Corner

With a new report showing that most of the world’s fisheries are at risk, the United States is moving to ensure imported seafood has been legally caught.
(Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Nov 2, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

The odds that American consumers will be able to go into a store and buy fish that’s safe and legally caught have begun to improve, perhaps dramatically, over the past week. At the same time, a new report from the World Wildlife Fund illustrates just how bad the situation has become: It estimates that 86 percent of global fisheries are at high or moderate risk from pirate fishing.

The official term is IUU, for “illegal, unreported, and unregulated,” and it means those glistening imported fillets in your local market are highly likely to have been harvested in the wrong place or with the wrong methods. They may not even be the species advertised on the label. Or they could be contaminated with antibiotics and other drugs or toxic chemicals used in some countries in farming or processing fish.

IUU fishing, including in protected marine reserves, is also a major factor in the global “empty seas” crisis. It’s been implicated in human trafficking. It undercuts boats working in highly regulated and largely sustainable American fisheries. With an estimated value of $10 billion to $23 billion every year, IUU fishing implicates every seafood merchant and every consumer in some of the worst criminal wildlife trafficking in the world. This is a lot to swallow for dinner.

The promising news is that the federal government on Friday published its proposed list of IUU-prone fish groups for a pilot program in which producers will be required to provide proper documentation, from harvest or farm to entry into the United States. It’s a long way from bait-to-dinner-plate traceability; consumers will still not be able to go to their local seafood counter and see a label certifying that their purchase is legal, safe, and sustainable. But the plan means customs agents at U.S. ports will have that information for groups of seafood among which IUU fishing and fraud are common: abalone, Atlantic and Pacific cod, blue crab and king crab, mahimahi, grouper, red snapper, sea cucumbers, shark, shrimp, swordfish, and tuna.

Proposed rules under the plan are due in December, to be followed by a 60-day comment period, with the pilot program going into effect next September. The ambition, after a trial period, is to expand traceability requirements to all imported seafood as early as January 2017. The program represents a partial fulfillment of President Obama’s 2014 commitment to close U.S. borders to what he called “black market fishing.”

It’s also an important early step in implementing the U.S. commitment to the Port State Measures, under which coastal nations pledge to keep foreign vessels suspected of illegal fishing out of their ports. That agreement goes into effect when 25 countries have taken the necessary steps to end IUU fishing; 13 countries have done so, and another seven or eight, including the U.S., are working their way through the process.

“I’ve worked in this field almost 30 years,” said Michele Kuruc, vice president for oceans policy at the World Wildlife Fund, “and there has never been an effort like this in the United States. So I am confident we are making real strides.”

At the same time, she pointed to the new WWF analysis showing that only 14 percent of global fisheries are considered at low risk of IUU fishing. Of 567 fish stocks examined in the study, 304 (or 52 percent) were at high risk, with many of them also overexploited or having no data on sustainability. Another 181 were at moderate risk. Fisheries from the eastern Indian Ocean through the southeastern and central Pacific were the worst performers.

“The U.S. imports more than 100 different wild-caught species of fish, and the vast majority are plagued by serious problems of illegality,” said Kuruc. “Such extensive illegality requires a comprehensive solution that protects all species, not just a few. The long-term viability of our planet’s fisheries and ocean ecosystems requires it.”

Even with the proposed new regulations, the U.S. lags far behind the European Union in efforts to stop IUU fishing, added Dan Schaeffer of the Pew Charitable Trust’s “End Illegal Fishing” campaign. The EU in 2014 issued “yellow card” warnings to Korea and the Philippines, and the threat to ban imports from those countries resulted in “massive reforms,” according to Schaeffer. Thailand recently received a yellow card, and Guinea, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka are banned from the European market. Closing the much larger U.S. market could rapidly help end pirate fishing worldwide.

The Obama administration has requested an additional $3 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to verify the documentation on imported seafood. “Anybody can write something on a form,” said Kuruc. “So obviously it requires a system to audit those forms occasionally.”

But “that’s the rub,” said Schaeffer, not just in the U.S. and Europe but across the board. Governments and the major seafood importers are astonishingly unified in their support for ending pirate fishing. The U.S. Senate approved the Port States Measures agreement by unanimous vote, a modern miracle. But paying for it is a different matter. “Support is a mile wide, but the funding behind it is an inch deep,” said Schaeffer. Conservationists are racing to develop a system using satellites and other modern technology to make monitoring of global fisheries more efficient and economical. “We’ll be able to say, ‘That’s the ship I should be looking at, not that one,’ ” said Schaeffer.

For now, and probably for another two or three years, consumers’ simplest option is to stick with seafood harvested by U.S. boats. They brought in 9.5 billion pounds of fish and shellfish last year, worth $5.4 billion, and you can eat it with a clear conscience.