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Why we can’t let our guard down in the fight to stop illegal fishing

Already hurt by the pandemic, hard-working fishermen shouldn’t be undercut by illicit activity

The United States has an opportunity to be a leader in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated, or IUU, fishing, Lowell writes.
The United States has an opportunity to be a leader in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated, or IUU, fishing, Lowell writes. (Oceana/Eduardo Sorensen)

Seafood should not come at the cost of human rights or healthy oceans.

Yet at sea, rogue fishermen are ignoring laws, avoiding detection on their boats and even abusing people at sea. They’re disregarding the rules and destroying ecosystems. They’re undercutting honest fishermen and hurting our economy. As American fishermen face financial losses and increasing pressure from the current pandemic, the last thing they need is to be undercut by illegal fishers around the world. As the White House highlighted in its recent executive order promoting American seafood competitiveness and economic growth, it is the policy of the federal government to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated, or IUU, fishing.

June 5 is the International Day for the Fight Against IUU Fishing, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2017. It’s an appropriate time to remind ourselves that we cannot let our guard down because every day, illegal fishing runs rampant around the world. It’s off the books, ignores the law and costs the seafood industry as much as $23 billion per year.

Poor oversight, weak international laws and a lack of transparency make commercial fishing a vulnerable sector for illicit activity, including IUU fishing, human trafficking and forced labor. In 2019, Oceana found that certain behaviors can be associated with a higher risk of IUU fishing and human rights abuses. For example, vessels with histories of noncompliance can try to evade public tracking systems, remaining at sea for extended periods of time and avoiding ports known to enforce regulations. Identifying these behaviors is the first step to highlighting vessels that may be at a higher risk of engaging in similar activities. And technologies like the Global Fishing Watch mapping platform, which empowers anyone to investigate global fishing activity in near real time, can help us see what’s happening beyond the horizon. 

Fishermen work hard to put seafood on our plates and shouldn’t be undercut by illegal fishing. The U.S. fishing industry adds more than $200 billion and supports nearly 2 million jobs to the economy every year. And customers deserve seafood that is legally caught, honestly labeled and responsibly sourced. Under the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, the U.S. government currently traces 13 species at risk of illegal fishing and seafood fraud from the fishing boat or farm to the U.S. border. But Oceana believes that all seafood must be tracked from the fishing boat or farm all the way to our dinner plates. Consumers have a right to know more about the seafood they eat, including what specific species it is, where and how it was caught, and whether it was farmed.

Let’s support honest fishermen and seafood customers by strengthening protections and enforcement against illegal fishing. The United States has an opportunity to be a leader in the fight against IUU fishing by expanding the Seafood Import Monitoring Program to include all species, extending traceability requirements from boat to plate, and promoting transparency at sea by requiring vessels to use public tracking devices.

Beth Lowell is the deputy vice president for U.S. campaigns at Oceana, an advocacy group for ocean conservation.

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