Monday, March 23, 2015

SENA15: Combating IUU Fishing & Seafood Fraud

It was the biggest news of the Seafood Expo North America (SENA), the only aspect that the two, major local newspapers, the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, chose to cover about SENA. The special announcement dealt with two global problems that plague the seafood industry, and offered recommendations for a potential solution. Many have been referring to it as a historic event. It is a cause for optimism, though we must also remember that it is mainly potential at this time, and we shall see whether it succeeds or not.

At SENA, I attended a conference session, IUU Fishing Panel Discussion, at which Bruce Andrews, Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce, delivered an announcement from the Presidential Task Force on IUU and Seafood Fraud, stating that the task force had just issued 15 recommendations for a strategic action to combat these problems. After the announcement, there was a panel discussion on the announcement, including Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, NOAA Administrator and Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere; Sally Yozell, senior advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and Environment, Department of State; William Jones, acting deputy director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s Office of Food Safety; John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute; Michele Kuruc, VP-Ocean Policy, World Wildlife Fund; and Mike Kraft, VP-corporate social responsibility and fisheries management at Bumble Bee Foods

Let's begin with some definitions and a bit on the scope of the problems.

Illegal, Unreported, & Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, also sometimes known as "pirate fishing," includes a number of activities such as breaking fishery rules, failing to properly report catches, or otherwise trying to circumvent measures intended to preserve species and environments. These pirate vessels also sometimes engage in other illegal activities, including drug, arms and human trafficking. As a very conservative estimate, a study concluded that IUU fishing causes global losses of at least $23 Billion. Another study concluded that 20% to 32% of wild-caught seafood that is imported into the U.S. derives from IUU fishing. This is a significant problem that needs to be addressed.

Seafood Fraud is another significant problem of concern. It includes any illegal activity that misrepresents fish that is sold, such as mislabeling, selling a cheaper fish species but claiming it actually is a more expensive fish species. In a study conducted by Oceana, they examined 1200 seafood samples, across 21 U.S. states, and concluded that 1/3 of the samples had been mislabeled. These practices are harmful to the economy, to those fishermen following the law, and also pose a potential health risk to consumers.
Now, let me present two examples of IUU fishing, one with a negative result and another with a much more positive result. These examples can serve as a framework for better understanding the rest of the discussion on these matters.

The Times recently reported about a super-trawler that was apprehended engaged in IUU fishing. The trawler illegally harvested 632,000 kilos of mackerel and the owner plead guilty to the charges. The court fined him, and the total of the fine and costs was £102,000. That would seem to be a win, however, the owner was permitted to sell the illegal fish, receiving £437,000. After paying the court, he netted £335,000, so crime did pay in his case. That case sends the wrong message to pirate fishermen, that the penalty for IUU fishing is minor and well worth the risk. It is a failure on many levels.  

On a more positive note, last year, I wrote an article about the Patagonian Toothfish, also known as Chilean Sea Bass, which had been a major target of IUU fishermen, leading the fish to the brink of extinction. To save the species and combat IUU fishing, a collaboration formed of members of the fishing industry, conservation groups, scientists, governments, and the international Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Together, they were able to nearly wipe out IUU fishing of the toothfish, rebuild stocks and now there is a sustainable toothfish fishery, A resounding success, indicative that IUU fishing can be successfully defeated,though it requires collaboration, time and great effort.

Onto the announcement and the discussion that followed.

In June 2014, the Presidential Task Force on IUU and Seafood Fraud was formed, gathering together numerous government agencies, including Department of Agriculture; Department of Commerce; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Department of Defense; The Navy; Department of Health and Human Services; Food and Drug Administration; Department of Homeland Security; U.S. Customs and Border Protection; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; U.S. Coast Guard; Department of the Interior; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Department of Justice; Department of State; Bureau of Oceans and International; Environmental and Scientific Affairs; Executive Office of the President Council on Environmental Quality; National Security Council; Office of Management and Budget; Office of Science and Technology Policy; Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; Federal Trade Commission; and the U.S. Agency for International Development. This task force was co-chaired by Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA Administrator, and Catherine Novelli, State Department Under Secretary.

This Task Force just released a 44-page document presenting their 15 recommendations, a strategic action plan to combat IUU and seafood fraud. Deputy Secretary Bruce Andrew stated that there was not a simple solution to these issues, and that it would require a long term collaboration with a significant investment and a passage of time. This is exactly the lesson of the salvation of the Toothfish. Can we succeed in a similar manner to those who saved the Toothfish?

Bruce noted that the task force wants to "create a risk-based chain of custody." The plan begins with enforcement, and includes much information gathering. There will also be extensive federal collaboration with the individual states as well as foreign countries. The public will be kept continually updated on their progress, and a public web portal will be created to share such information. They will also host an annual forum to acquire input on these matters.

A committee will be formed to take over from the Task Force and they start by addressing the seafood species which are most at risk, and hopefully after a year or so, they will expand to coverage of other species. This risk-based strategy has an aggressive time frame so its expansion will not drag out. Why use a risk-based approach? It is because certain species and border entry points have a greater exposure to IUU and seafood fraud. One of the keys to defeating these matters will be traceability. If you can track seafood from its point of harvest all the way through the chain of custody, you can eliminate most of the problems. Information gathering, such as on traceability, will be vital to the task force's plans and NOAA will be at the forefront of obtaining such information.

By June 2015, the task force will identify additional data that is needed to implement the plan, and there will also be a public comment period, to further hone the strategic plan. From April to October 2015, the task force will determine parameters to identify the most at risk species. There will need to be information sharing with a number of different federal agencies. The goal is full implementation by September 2016. In the end, we need to get the right data, exchange it well, and then use existing tools to enforce the law.

The task force's recommendations are a blueprint for inter-agency cooperation, and it will be difficult to bring together so many different agencies to work towards a common goal. That will be a serious potential obstacle going forward with implementation of the plan, which could delay matters and even prevent proper enforcement. However, we would not even be at this point  without significant cooperation from all of the various agencies. That gives us optimism for the future of the task force's plans.

There are already plenty of existing laws which can be used against IUU and seafood fraud, but the task force's recommendations call for greater enforcement. In fact, five of the recommendations deal with enforcement issues. Some of law enforcement authorities will need to be strengthened. For example, President Obama previously reduced the number of agents, by half, who investigate seafood fraud but now he is seeking $3 Million to increase the number of these same agents. Most of the new recommendations can be enacted without new legislation; and some can be done through Executive Authority though certain aspects will require Congressional action.

Trade agreements with foreign countries will target marine issues, and the U.S. will tie in these issues into all new trade treaties. The State Department has a dominant role in diplomacy and IUU, and Secretary of State John Kerry has long been a supporter of ocean issues. Not all countries have sufficient resources and infrastructure to combat IUU and they will need additional support. The European Union has a program, which started in 2010, that is similar to the Task Force, and it is based on a system like soccer, the use of red and yellow cards. It has allegedly driven some change but my previous example of the trawler allowed to sell its illegal fish shows there are problems with the EU system.

There was multiple references to the role of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in helping to fight IUU fishing. One provision would prohibit some fishing subsidies, those which have led to over-fishing and been an incentive for IUU fishing. The task force's plan calls for these subsidies to be ended by 2020. Other environmental provisions could help as well. However, the TPP and its negotiations have been plagued with controversy and there has been much opposition to it. The TPP has been cloaked in secrecy, even from much of Congress, which has bothered both Democrats and Republicans. There are also allegations that TPP is more about protectionism than free trade, that it will provide little direct economic benefit to the U.S., and more. All of this controversy could potentially prevent the completion of this agreement, or at least drastically alter its contents.

Another important treaty that was mentioned multiple times was the Port State Measures Agreement, which would set standards to prevent IUU seafood from entering ports. Though it has bipartisan support in the U.S., fourteen more countries still need to ratify the agreement before it will become enacted. It would provide significant leverage if it gets passed, but much more work is necessary before it will be effective.

The response from NGOs to the task force recommendations has been very positive. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has issued its full support for the recommendations. Michele Kuruc, the VP of Ocean Policy at the WWF, stated that it was historic and unprecedented, the first time a President has ever said he would shut down the borders to IUU seafood. She was also very enthusiastic that traceability would be such an important aim of the task force. I also want to note that the WWF has an interesting infographic, How Illegal Fish Arrives on Your Dinner Plate, illustrating the path of IUU seafood to your table.

Beth Lowell, the Senior Campaign Director for Oceana, gave support to the task force recommendations, stating, “Today’s announcement is proof that the Obama administration is committed to stopping seafood fraud and ending global illegal fishing. Oceana applauds these efforts to break the unintended link between U.S. dollars and pirate fishing. Traceability will forever change the way we think about our seafood. Additionally, while these initial efforts only start with risk-based species to the first U.S. sale, they create a pathway to full chain traceability for all seafood." The Monterey Bay Aquarium also voiced their support for the task force, noting their willingness to work with them in any manner needed to further their goals.

John Connolly, President of the National Fisheries Institute and who is from Gloucester, was essentially the only voice of any dissent on the panel, and his skepticism about a few aspects of the task force's recommendations was welcome. We can never stop thinking critically about such major endeavors, as such questioning can lead to improvements. Connolly stated that he agreed with 11 of the 15 recommendations, disagreeing mainly on implementation and cost. He also mentioned another serious issue,short weighting, which hadn't really been addressed by the task force. Estimates state short weighting, deceiving buyers and others about the actual weight of a seafood shipment, costs the seafood industry about $150 Million.

Connolly mentioned that the task force has failure to identify the extent of IUU on the U.S. market. He also countered the task force's claim that the Lacey Act was too light on enforcement. He feels that it is far from inadequate and its criminal sanctions can be quite severe. In addition, he has concerns about the potential use of RICO to fight seafood fraud, stating it is an over reaching of the law which could potentially be used against relatively innocent chefs who use a different fish name on their menus. RICO is an organized crime issue, not something for individual chefs to fall into.

The FDA has already conducted analysis on high risk seafood, at the wholesale level, as well as targeting those fish which as most mislabeled. Snapper and grouper were the two most mislabeled fish, and most other species were low on that problem. The point is that much of the investigation has already been done, and doesn't need repeating. Connolly also encouraged the task force to use the FDA's list of acceptable species names, the market name, for their seafood fraud measures. Lastly, he mentioned that NOAA already has a responsibility to report on nations with increased IUU fishing, and that there is a low bar for a nation to end up on that list.

I believe that the task force's recommendations and strategic plan are worthy matters intended to combat significant problems of the seafood industry. Action is certainly warranted and we can hope that they garner great success. However, it is a  matter that requires constant vigilance and scrutiny. The implementation of these recommendations faces a number of obstacles, from financial to the difficult of various agencies working well together. Those obstacles can be overcome but we need to keep an eye to ensure that occurs. A healthy does of critical thinking and skepticism can go a long way to assisting the task force succeed in defeating IUU fishing and seafood fraud. Let the positive example of the Patagonian Toothfish pave the way.  

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