Uncle Sam – keeping a seafood traceability list, and checking it twice

Uncle Sam, however, seems to be much more of a pushover than old Saint Nick ever was.  Getting on the naughty list for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing requires monumental stupidity, and really all you have to do is say please to get back on the nice list.  I don’t know about you, but at my house Santa’s naughty list is long and it’s a semi-permanent designation.

NOAA released its naughty list last week.  Ten countries who have engaged in illegal fishing practices, shark finning, or the bycatch of protected resources.   OK, let’s dish.  This is the fun part.  They are: Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, Panama, the Republic of Korea, Spain, Tanzania, and Venezuela.  These “naughty nations” violated rules ranging from banned drift-nets, to quota violations, to discarding plastic trash at sea.

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There are some promising stories stuck in this report.  Columbia, in an attempt to regain a positive citation (and continue to be able to export fish to the US) revoked several commercial fishing licenses and kept those boats at dock.  They get a big wah-wah for landing on the list again this year for separate violations.  There are also some predictably overwhelming pieces.  Ecuador, for example, boasts a laundry list of vessels and illegal activities with very little in the way of planned corrections.  In a case like this, the US Government will work with Ecuador to correct the problems, or they will have to export their catches elsewhere.

In some ways this fight seems hopeless.  The Earth’s ocean is a huge place, and the violations listed in these reports are likely the tip of the ice-continent of illegal fishing.  But, if these reports can increase the compliance of other countries with fishing laws even a little bit, there will be benefits to our domestic fishermen and to everyone who buys seafood in the US.   As the second largest importer of seafood on Earth, leveraging that power for sustainable fisheries and a healthy ocean seems like the least we can be doing.  The next step is a full traceability program so that we will know what our seafood is and where it came from.  Until then, let’s choose domestic seafood when we can.  If you’ve been buying all of your fish from Ghana, this is a good opportunity to reform your ways.  You never know, Santa may be checking his list against Uncle Sam’s, and you’ll end up with a stocking full of Tanzanian mussels.

The Thin Blue Line: border crossing and illegal fish

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Original image credit: United States Coast Guard

What: Blacktip, bonnethead, and bull sharks

Where: Four miles south of the Texas coast

How: Last month, a US Coast Guard ship from South Padre Island came across an illegal, five-mile long gillnet full of dead sharks 17 miles north of the US-Mexico border. Among the casualties were 225 blacktip, 109 bonnethead, and 11 bull sharks.  No arrests were made since the boat that set the net was not found.

The Story: “Gill nets indiscriminately kill any fish or marine mammal it snares across miles of ocean, often leaving much of the catch spoiled by the time it is hauled in,” said Coast Guard Commander Daniel Deptula. Because of their destructive impact on fish, turtles and marine mammals, gillnets have been banned in Texas state waters since 1981; however, the Coast Guard recovered 49 miles of them in 2012 and the numbers are on the rise. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reports that incidents of pirate fishing with gillnets off the coast have doubled since 2011. “The seizures are far past any other year in my 16-year career,” said Sgt. James Dunks said.

The Coast Guard reports that the illegal nets come from Mexican fisherman crossing into the US’s Exclusive Economic Zone to fish because the Mexican fish stocks are so depleted. “Well you get too many people fishing for the same thing, they’re not catching as much, so they’re going to search new territory to try to find more fish,” Dunks said. The growing fear is that pirate fishing by gillnets will cause our Gulf of Mexico fish stocks to resemble those of our neighbor to the south. The Coast Guard believes that the sharks were destined to be finned, a practice where only the fins are cut off the fish to be sold while the rest of the carcass is tossed back into the sea.

What We Can Do: A reliable system of seafood traceability would help consumers to avoid pirate fish and put pressure on fishermen and fishing companies worldwide to supply legal, sustainable seafood for US tables. Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing (IUU) doesn’t just happen in remote corners of the Pacific; it happens here at home and affects YOUR fish. For now, support local fishermen that are involved in positive fishing practices by doing your homework and asking questions about your favorite seafood.

UPDATE: In a separate incident, a Mexican fishing boat captain has just plead guilty to charges of failing to “heave to” after ramming a US Coast Guard ship that caught the boat fishing illegally in Texas waters; the captain performed the maneuvers in an effort to flee and escape prosecution.

Recreational anglers should care about pirate fishing too

Sure, pirate fishing (illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing) hits US commercial fishermen right in the wallet, where it hurts. But it hits recreational fishermen right where it hurts too: fishing opportunities.

Here’s how.

Let’s take the Billfish Conservation Act as an example. Recreational and commercial fishermen in the US have taken responsibility for the health of billfish populations and created sustainable domestic fisheries. But billfish don’t stay in US waters, and pirate fishing around the world affects the populations here at home. The US is the number one importer of billfish from around the world, helping to create a huge market for these pirated fish. The Billfish Conservation Act — which, since our last post on the topic, cleared the Senate with strong bipartisan support — will do much to counter that when President Obama signs it into law.  But our efforts shouldn’t stop there. When vulnerable populations of recreationally important billfish, tuna, and reef and wreck species are exploited abroad and imported into the U.S. under false pretenses, it denies choice to consumers and opportunities to anglers.

By fighting against pirate fishing and for seafood traceability – knowing what our seafood is, where it comes from, and how it was caught — we can create sustainable and robust fisheries in the US and around the world.  As the second biggest seafood consuming country, we have tremendous power to do good with our purchases.  If pirate fishing and tracking seafood seem worlds away from your last weekend fishing trip, look closer. We all benefit from legislation that ends pirate fishing and seafood fraud.

Will you be eating pirate booty when you enjoy your next seafood meal?

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of the seafood we eat in the United States is imported. The chances that your most recent seafood meal came from a domestic fisherman have for years been vanishingly small; but they shrank even further in 2011 according to new numbers released by NOAA this week.

As Matt pointed out in an earlier post, serving up a high percentage of imported seafood to American consumers isn’t inherently problematic: we have a global seafood marketplace, and American fishermen often have a chance to export their product to foreign nations as well as to compete in the domestic market.

But here’s the problem: the global seafood marketplace has a long way to go before it’s filling those of us who care about healthy oceans and productive fisheries with much confidence. Exhibit A for the squeamishness: by some estimates more than 20% of fish caught globally are the product of illegal, unregulated and unreported catch (what we fish nerds refer to as IUU but what is increasingly referred to as pirate fishing).

This is part of an increasing divergence between the health of domestic fish populations on the one hand and global fisheries on the other — a divergence that is not sufficiently understood by the public and the popular media. In the United States, our fisheries are rebounding. Yes, there are still very significant challenges, as the recent fisheries disaster declarations made depressingly clear. But the report card released by NOAA this week is just the latest evidence that in many fisheries stocks are rebuilding, catch is up, and ex-vessel prices are putting more money in the pockets of fishermen — and by extension the coastal communities where they work. This isn’t a uniform trend, but it’s happening in many fisheries and it’s a huge success story.

Global fisheries, by contrast, remain in crisis. Too much fishing on the high seas occurs without the kind of enforceable regulatory safeguards that are essential. And too many vessels are fishing in foreign-country EEZs where basic safeguards are not in place. That is the context in which pirate fishing is occurring — with devastating impact in waters around the globe. By some estimates, as much as 22% of world fisheries production comes from these illegal sources, inflicting global losses of as much as $24 billion annually. And here’s the kicker: when seafood is imported into the United States, we have almost no way of knowing what it is, where it comes from, and whether it’s legally caught.

When you take a long, hard look at this set of facts, it’s impossible to feel entirely comfortable with that 91 percent figure. We as a nation are doing increasingly well managing our fisheries, and American consumers and retailers are making more and more sustainable choices. But we need to do better when it comes to policing seafood imports. In short, we need to work urgently to stand up a seafood traceability system in the United States so we know where our next seafood meal is coming from.

And until we do, even the most sustainability-conscious consumer often won’t know for sure that they’re not sitting down to a tasty dish of pirate booty with a side of organic greens.

Original photo credit NOAA