When you walk into your local supermarket, you assume that the fish you’re purchasing was caught legally. After all, there’s no way to tell the difference between legally- and illegally-caught fish. But the reality is that the United States imports nearly $2 billion in IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) seafood per year.
IUU imports indirectly encourage destructive fishing practices and overfishing and make it more difficult for U.S. fisherman to make a living. These imports undercut prices for seafood caught in the U.S. and compete with law-abiding fishermen that adhere to the strict requirements put forth by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act.
The Obama administration has taken an important step in putting an end to illegal fishing by signing the PSMA (Port State Measures Agreement). The PSMA pledges the U.S.’s commitment to working with other countries to prevent illegally-caught fish from entering local markets. The measure helps reach this goal by reducing the number of ports where illegal seafood products can be unloaded. The PSMA, simply put, makes it more difficult for illegal fishermen to do business.
In addition, the PSMA allows personnel in the U.S. to use tools to stop ships hauling illegal fish from selling their products. Once the treaty has been signed by 25 countries, the agreement will go into effect for all who signed.
Under the agreement, several large markets would be closed to IUU fishermen, which would significantly reduce the incentive to fish illegally. The treaty also bolsters and streamlines enforcement of numerous international fishing agreements.
A new Task Force has been established to combat IUU fishing, which is co-chaired by the Secretaries of State and Commerce. The Task Force will provide the president with guidance on how to draft regulations for implementing the agreement.
Thailand, one of the leading exporters of seafood to the United States and several other countries, may feel the effects of PSMA. The country has been warned on several occasions of their illegal fishing practices. The EU has noted that further action may be taken by the European Commission, which may include a ban on seafood imports from Thailand.
Activists say Thailand, the third largest exporter of seafood in the world, gained its status largely through overfishing and its reliance on trafficked workers from neighboring countries.
It can be difficult to really assess the impact of IUU fishing without looking at the bigger picture. A 2013 report from Managing Our Nation’s Fisheries Conference outline some of the issues that IUU fishing has led to.
IUU fishing has led to three to four times more sharks being killed than officially reported. Hong Kong has a thriving shark fin trade that brings in $292-$476 million in sales.
Russian sockeye salmon that is caught illegally is believed to be 60-90% above reported levels, which represents an economic loss of $40-$74 million.
Estimates show that half of the cod in the U.K. and the swordfish in Greece were caught illegally.
Levels of illegally-caught Chilean sea bass are believed to be 5-10 times higher than reported.
It’s estimated that illegal catches of bigeye tuna, skipjack and yellowfin amount to $548 million per year.