Roughly two in five humans depend on fish as a primary source of animal protein, and many more incorporate it regularly into their diets. In order to meet the rising nutritional demands of a growing world population and strengthen local economies, commercial fishing must be supported by science-based conservation principles that benefit both fish and fishermen, and maximize the benefits of economic activity over the long term.
The challenge of maintaining healthy populations of fish in the global economy is compounded by those who do not compete on a level playing field. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is the term used for a broad swath of the biggest obstacles to sustainable interaction between humans and the ecological systems of which fish are a part.
Fish fraud, the mislabeling of seafood products, undermines responsible fishing practices and conservation efforts by making illegal fishing profitable and undercutting prices for law-abiding fishermen. Several reports estimate that about a third of all seafood in the U.S. is mislabeled, and fraud detection and prevention systems in place today lack the financial and regulatory capacity to police against short-weighting, mislabeling, or the sale of seafood that has been transshipped from one country to another to circumvent duties and tariffs. With widespread mislabeling of fish species, legitimate businesses are losing hard-earned profits and consumers are prevented from making eco-friendly choices. Concealing illegally caught fish through at-sea transfers, falsified documentation, and underreporting makes responsible fisheries management harder for governments around the world. Increasingly, members of the seafood industry are calling for systems that can provide both government and consumers the information they need to ensure that seafood sold in the United States is safe, legal, and honestly labeled.
Flags of Convenience
Flags of Convenience (FOC) represent another means by which fishermen skirt conservation measures and responsible fishing management rules, and are a major obstacle in combating IUU fishing. Under international law, the country whose flag a vessel flies is responsible for oversight of its activities. However, certain countries allow any vessel to fly their flag for a few hundred dollars without any intent to exert responsible natural resource management. FOC countries are typically ones without the means to patrol their own waters or are not members of regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), and to which fishing regulations do not extend. Thus, pirate fishers use FOCs to conceal their operations and circumvent international rules and responsibilities designed to conserve and manage ocean resources. Further exacerbating the issue, registering for a FOC is quick, easy, and inexpensive, and can be done over the internet, which allows IUU crews to re-flag and change names several times in a season to duck authorities, a practice known as "flag hopping.”
Estimates of worldwide bycatch range from 8-20% of total catch, and some reports of worldwide bycatch discards are over 27 million pounds. This overexploitation of ecosystems has serious impact on the integrity, diversity, and productivity of marine life, and could lead to the extinction of valuable species and the permanent loss of livelihoods for millions of fishers.
The U.S. system is not currently organized to verify seafood’s safety and origin through inspection as it moves through processing, packing, and distribution. In order to prevent fraud, consumers need to know where seafood comes from and be able to trace it all the way back to the sea. The huge tracking and enforcement gaps in U.S. seafood regulation provide ample opportunity for increased risks to public health and fish fraud, and encourages illegally caught fish to be sold in the marketplace.
Enforcement issues for responsible and legal fishing practices stem from the lack of policing bodies that work in concert to oversee critical fishing zones and trade that crosses international borders. The increasing complexity and globalization of seafood markets have exacerbated the difficulties with ensuring that catch limits are followed, seafood products are labeled properly, and preventing unethical commercial fishermen from skirting regional fishing laws on the open sea. Fisheries management around the world depends on a steady stream of information on the hundreds of species being caught, as well as the financial and regulatory capacity to enforce the law. Many states have little regulatory or financial capacity to monitor vessels. In the U.S., no single federal agency is in charge of combating seafood fraud. Instead, a number of different agencies work disjointedly to implement a patchwork of overlapping and outdated laws.