U.S. seafood demand drives illegal fishing globally, says Oceana 

Oceana released a new report February 1 showing that the illegal seafood trade, fueled in part by U.S. demand, is hurting local fishing communities around the world. Oceana says this demonstrates the need to expand traceability and transparency requirements for all seafood imports. 

The United States is the world’s largest seafood importing country, yet around 60% of imported seafood products are not covered by the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), which requires catch documentation and traceability requirements for some imports. Currently, the program only applies to 13 species and species groups at risk of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud.

The United States imported an estimated US$2.4 billion worth of seafood derived from IUU fishing in 2019 alone. The United States’ high demand for seafood combined with SIMP’s limitations allow seafood sourced from illegal activity to flood the U.S. market, driving economic and ecological loss around the world. 

In the report, Oceana highlighted four examples of seafood entering the U.S. that are not covered by SIMP and are potentially sourced from the illegal seafood trade, which threatens fishing communities and jeopardizes ocean health. Oceana is calling on President Biden to expand SIMP to include all imported seafood and implement traceability from net to plate.

“When Americans order calamari at a restaurant, they do not want a side of criminal activity to come with it,” said Beth Lowell, Oceana’s acting vice president for the United States. 

“The reality is that imported seafood on Americans’ plates can originate from illegal fishing, crime, environmental destruction, and human rights abuses. Seafood that is fraudulently labeled or sourced from illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing has no place in the United States. 

“President Biden should ensure all seafood sold in the United States is safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled by expanding traceability of seafood and transparency at sea. By collecting the information about the origins of seafood we import, the government can more effectively screen imports and keep illicit products out of the U.S. market — and support legal fishers worldwide.”

SIMP was created in 2016 to address IUU fishing and seafood fraud among seafood imports, but the program only requires catch documentation and traceability for 13 types of imported seafood, or about 40% of U.S. seafood imports. 

Additionally, the program only requires traceability from the boat or farm to the U.S. border — not all the way to the consumers’ plate. In 2019, Oceana released the results of a seafood fraud investigation, testing popular seafood not covered by SIMP, and found that 1 in every 5 fish tested nationwide was mislabeled, demonstrating that seafood fraud is still pervasive in the United States. 

Seafood fraud and IUU fishing ultimately hurt honest fishers and seafood businesses that play by the rules, mask conservation and health risks of certain species, and cheat consumers who fall victim to a bait-and-switch.

Oceana’s report highlights examples of species slipping through the cracks of SIMP from regions where IUU fishing is pushing fisheries and communities toward collapse. These examples include:

  • In Belize, the Caribbean spiny lobster fishery is threatened by illegal fishing due to a lack of enforcement. In 2019, the United States imported over half a million pounds, about 53% of Belize’s total lobster exports.
  • In Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, some fishers are pillaging Maya octopus and ignoring laws meant to protect the fishery. The United States is the third-largest consumer of Maya and common octopus from Mexico, importing almost 2,000 metric tons of octopus valued at over $13 million in 2019 alone.
  • Blue swimming crab from the Philippines is entering the United States disguised as more expensive domestic varieties, and that demand is driving overfishing, which is devastating local economies. Swimming crabs comprised over one-quarter of the total IUU wild-caught products imported into the United States in 2019.
  • Many Peruvian squid fishers are fishing without permits and offloading their catch to third-party exporters. Squid was Peru’s top exported seafood in 2018, with 30% of it going to the European Union and the United States.

“President Biden has the opportunity to lead in the global fight against IUU fishing, while protecting our oceans and the coastal fishing communities that depend on them,” Lowell said. 

“The Our Ocean conference in April provides a platform for the U.S. to commit to stronger actions to fight IUU fishing, including expanding the Seafood Import Monitoring Program to all seafood, increasing the transparency of commercial fishing vessels, and taking stronger actions against countries who fail to address IUU fishing and forced labor in their fleets.”

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