This National Seafood Month, Support Fair Seafood

This National Seafood Month, much work remains to tackle illegal fishing and labor abuses that pervade the global seafood industry.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hovers over a fishing vessel in the Northern Pacific Ocean.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hovers over a fishing vessel in the Northern Pacific Ocean.


U.S. Coast Guard

October is National Seafood Month. Recognizing that fisheries are critically important to community well-being all over the globe, we also must grapple with the global illegal fishing crisis, and the terrible costs it exacts—on both people and the ocean. 

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a top threat to ocean ecosystems and global food security. And recent in-depth investigative reporting resurfaces concerns about the link to human rights abuses at sea and in the seafood processing sector. IUU fishing is estimated to account for one-third of global fishing practices, and it also involves gears and practices that play an outsize role in degrading marine ecosystems and diminishing fish populations. These abuses are not one-off outliers—tragically, they are pervasive throughout the seafood supply chain.

The U.S. government has already committed to stepping up its efforts to combat illegal fishing and labor abuses in the seafood industry, using all available agencies and authorities. Yet, after more than a year since President Biden signed a key National Security Memorandum, implementation of the directives is lackluster, and many gaps remain that allow these harmful practices to go unchecked. 

The United States has tremendous market power to transform international fishing practices by rejecting IUU-fished seafood from its markets. The country imports more seafood than any other single nation in the world, upward of $20 billion per year. In 2019, we imported an estimated $2.4 billion worth of seafood imports derived from IUU fishing practices.

The fact that most imported seafood is untraceable poses one of the chief obstacles to stopping IUU fishing and its frequently embedded human rights abuses. Much work remains to ensure that the United States has a functional and effective seafood traceability program—a crucial tool to help combat IUU fishing. The Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) is implemented by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and currently only applies to 45 percent of seafood imported into the United States, leaving massive loopholes that are easy for bad actors to exploit. 

Last June, the Biden administration called for NMFS to expand and improve SIMP, yet the agency’s current rulemaking is dangerously close to passing up the best opportunity in years to improve the program. The proposed rule would only expand the program’s coverage by an additional 5 to 10 percent and fails to include seafood species for which there are well-established human rights abuses and evidence of IUU fishing. NRDC has urged the agency to issue a supplemental rulemaking that more fully addresses the goals of Biden’s National Security Memorandum and includes a transparent and inclusive scoping process. 

NRDC provided detailed comments on NMFS’s SIMP proposed rule, urging the agency to add additional species to the SIMP’s data reporting program and to publish a replicable methodology for including and excluding species. (Our chief recommendations for strengthening SIMP data collection and enforcement can also be found in our technical issue brief, “Strengthening U.S. Leadership to Deter Illegal Seafood.”)

NRDC is also advocating for NOAA to make better use of other enforcement authorities, such as the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act, and to utilize more sophisticated methods of screening and enforcement. Although NMFS’s most recent /span>2023 Report to Congress: Improving International Fisheries Management under the driftnet act identified seven nations for IUU fishing and contained important recognition of forced labor as part of its identifications, these identifications were far from comprehensive. Further, NMFS has been slow to finalize a rule (proposed in July 2022) that would amend the legal definition of IUU fishing to formally include forced labor—a key mechanism for enforcement against the widespread human rights abuses and exploitation on board fishing vessels.

We will also be keeping a close eye on Congress, as lawmakers are keenly aware of the need to leverage U.S. policy to combat illegal fishing and labor abuses in the seafood sector. Just this week, Representatives Raúl Grijalva and Jared Huffman sent a letter to NMFS, emphasizing the need for increased traceability and transparency along the entire seafood supply chain and requesting additional information about how the agency is using congressional appropriations to expand and strengthen SIMP.

This National Seafood Month, we are joining these lawmakers in calling for stronger action by NMFS, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and other agencies tasked under the Biden administration with meeting the urgency and complexity of addressing IUU fishing and labor abuses in seafood supply chains. Stay tuned for more news in this space.

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