US Releases Plan to Tackle Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing

19 March 2015

A coalition of 14 US government agencies last Sunday released an action plan outlining domestic and international measures Washington will take over the next two years to tackle black market fishing activities.

Actions identified by the report include, among others, tackling illegal activity at landing point in ports, as well as including relevant provisions in international trade agreements and improving traceability across the supply chain. 

Sunday’s 44-page report focuses on the implementation of a list of 15 recommendations put forward by the coalition, known as the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud, last December.

US President Barack Obama set up the Task Force ­– which includes the US Navy and various government departments tasked with overseeing federal work on fish and wildlife, homeland security, and international trade ­­– ­last June with a mandate to identify concrete policy options. (See BioRes, 19 June 2014)

Domestic markets, global challenge

IUU fishing and activities worldwide have increasingly been recognised by the international community as a major threat to already-fragile wild fish stocks, and can cause significant economic losses for legal operators, raise potential safety threats and environmental hazards, and fuel organised crime.

“Our nation’s fisheries remain threatened by illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud, which negatively affects our markets,” Bruce Andrews, US Deputy Secretary of Commerce, told journalists on Sunday.

“The Task Force’s new strategic plan will aggressively implement recommendations to guarantee that US fishing fleets remain competitive in the global economy,” he continued.

Estimates suggest that around 11-26 million tonnes of fish are illegally caught across the world’s oceans each year, at a cost of between US$10-23 billion. Fish are among the world’s most traded food commodities. This high demand creates incentives for illegal activity, with IUU fish products frequently making their way into the global seafood market.

Given that the US imports more than 90 percent of its seafood, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), experts suggest that trade and market-based policy tools can be usefully deployed to tackle illegal activity and prevent black market fish from entering world markets.

“Illegal fishing and seafood fraud affect the American public and people around the world. The plan we are releasing today puts us on course to tackle these complex global challenges,” said Cathy Novelli, US State Department Under-Secretary, in a press release on Sunday. “It also gives new urgency to our work towards the strongest possible international tools,” she added.

Port state measures

Sunday’s document outlines steps for US federal agencies to work with the country’s Congress to pass implementing legislation for an international deal dubbed the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA).

Members of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) approved an Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate IUU Fishing in November 2009. The PSMA outlines steps for countries to take in their ports to ensure that foreign vessels do not land or provide transit routes for IUU fish. The agreement includes requirements for port entry and vessel inspections.

In order to enter into force, the PSMA requires 25 signatories to ratify the deal, with only 11 having done so to date. The US Senate ratified the agreement last year; however, approval of implementing legislation by both chambers of Congress is still required.

According to the Task Force’s action plan, NOAA and the State Department will provide briefings for members of Congress in the coming months. The US will also identify at least 14 countries supportive of the PSMA and work with these to help ensure ratification by the end of this year. This could include efforts to support, and provide technical assistance to, developing countries seeking to ratify and implement the agreement.

Free trade agreements

Steps related to international free trade agreements are also listed in Sunday’s document. One recommendation stipulates that US trade negotiators should include enforceable environmental measures such as those relevant to tackling IUU fishing in a regional trade agreement with 11 other Asia-Pacific nations known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The White House has said that these trade talks should be concluded this year.

“The Trans-Pacific Partnership is on track to include pioneering commitments to prohibit some of the most harmful fisheries subsidies, as well as combat IUU fishing,” said Michael Froman, US Trade Representative, in a press release this week. 

Eight of the world’s top 20 global seafood producers are participants in the TPP and the 12 countries together account for 25 percent of global catch and fish exports.

The report also indicates that US trade negotiators should continue to develop proposals with the EU on enforceable environmental provisions, including addressing IUU fishing as part of efforts to hammer out a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the two economic giants. The US and the EU are among the largest importers of fish products.

Fisheries subsidies

The Task Force’s document also includes a separate section relating specifically to eliminating harmful fisheries subsidies that contribute to excess fishing capacity, overfishing, and IUU fishing by the end of the decade.

Implementing steps in this section also reiterate the importance of ensuring that the final TPP and TTIP agreements include commitments on fisheries subsidies as well as enhancing transparency and reporting requirements for such subsidies.

Over the next two years, US trade negotiators should also continue to pursue commitments on disciplining harmful fisheries subsidies at the WTO as well as on greater transparency in fisheries subsidy notifications, according to the document.

A mandate to discipline fisheries subsidies is part of the negotiations on rules under the WTO’s 2001 Doha Development Agenda. In 2005 trade ministers further stipulated that the Doha Round talks should seek to include a prohibition on certain subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing.

WTO members are now in the process of drafting a work programme aimed at concluding the Doha Round. However, it remains unclear as to whether and in what form talks on disciplining fisheries subsidies will be included in this effort, according to trade sources.

Customs, capacity building, traceability

Sunday’s document also includes several other trade-related tools to tackle IUU fishing. They include leveraging existing and future Customs Mutual Assistance Agreements (CMAAs) to share information and support investigations on seafood fraud.

One section also outlines steps for US agencies to work with donors, multilateral institutions, and foreign governments to help build capacities for sustainable fisheries management in developing country fish exporters.

Some poor countries have raised concerns around the challenges of meeting sustainability standards and difficulties tackling IUU fishing. These include, for example, a lack of proper coast guards and of fishing vessel monitoring systems.

The Task Force will also develop, within the next six months, a list of the types of information and operational standards needed for an effective seafood traceability programme focusing on fish species at particular risk from IUU fishing. The Task Force will then establish by mid-2016 the first phase of a risk-based traceability programme to track seafood from the point of harvest up to entry into the US market.

The document specifies that the programme will be developed in accordance with WTO rules. The programme will initially only be applied to a list of products of particular concern. By December 2016, however, the Task Force will identify the next steps for expanding the programme to all seafood entering US commerce.

While the Task Force’s document was welcomed by a number of stakeholders and conservation groups, some also expressed concern around the feasibility of implementing several of the proposed actions. Industry voices are among those who have acknowledged that IUU fishing requires action.

“There is a need for this and we need to bring attention to the problem,” Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for seafood industry producers the National Fisheries Institute, told The New York Times on Monday.

ICTSD reporting; “Action plan to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud,” FIS, 16 March 2015; “U.S. Announces Plan to Combat Illegal Fishing,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 16 March 2015.

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