The United States is a dumping ground for illegal seafood. Some lawmakers want to clean up the market


In the end, the eels were worth around $160 million. For four years, they passed through US seaports in 138 shipping containers which eight people were later charged with illegally importing.

In March, a grand jury indicted the CEO of American Eel Depot, a New Jersey company, along with three staff members and four affiliates in association with the alleged crimes. US lawyers have accused the eels – packaged and labeled as unagi – of being illegally harvested as juveniles in Europe and Asia and then shipped around the world to conceal their origins. They were raised to adulthood on a Chinese fish farm and shipped to the United States as supposedly legal fare.

These 138 shipping containers represent only a tiny fraction of the illegal seafood sold each year in the United States. According to a report by the United States International Trade Commission, illegal seafood accounted for $2.4 billion in sales in 2019, or nearly 11% of the $22 billion in seafood imports. sea ​​that year. If the allegations against American Eel Depot turn out to be true, catching them is a coup for federal investigators, a rare victory in an often elusive fight to slow the speed of illegal, unreported and unregulated seafood (IUU ) passing through US ports in huge volumes. . It’s been a problem for years, but legislation now in Congress aims to advance efforts to reduce it.

“IUU fishing really undermines all the progress the United States and other countries around the world have made in trying to more sustainably manage their fisheries to ensure we have fish forever,” said Beth Lowell, who oversees campaigns to deter illegal fishing to the environment. Nonprofit Oceana. “It is of course important because of food security, coastal economies and the people who depend on these fisheries for jobs but also for food.”

Lowell describes IUU fishing this way: fishing without a license, ignoring catch limits, fishing in restricted areas where marine wildlife is harmed or habitat destroyed, or fishing where there are no regulations or reporting.

“Illegal fishing really undermines all the progress the United States and other countries around the world have made in trying to manage their fisheries more sustainably to ensure we have fish forever.”

The United States already limits these abuses in its national fisheries. Ecologically, they are among the most regulated in the world, and national labor laws prevent the forced labor issues often linked to seafood elsewhere. But fishermen working in the United States routinely compete with ill-gotten — and often cheaper — imports. In 2016, the country began implementing the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) to help change that. SIMP creates a paper trail for certain seafood imports and tracks those fish from the docks, through distributors, and then to buyers. This documentation helps law enforcement and deters the type of scheme prosecutors say they engineered by American Eel Depot.

However, the SIMP only targets 13 groups of species. They are the most frequently imported and illegally or mislabeled seafood in America, including tuna, shrimp and Atlantic cod, yet they only account for 45% of the country’s seafood imports.

New legislation introduced last year by U.S. Representatives Jared Huffman (D-California) and Garret Graves (R-Louisiana) could extend the rules to all imported seafood, requiring importers to keep records on where where the fish were harvested and landed, and the chain of custody before they arrive at ports. The expansion would capture hundreds more species. The legislation also proposes to expand data requirements, establish seafood labeling and strengthen enforcement.

After initially stalling, the proposal became separate iterations of new bills in the House and Senate. The most viable now is the America COMPETES Act, which primarily concerns manufacturing and has the best chance of becoming law, although the House and Senate have passed versions of the bills. Efforts to reconcile the two are now underway, but efforts to combat IUU fishing generally enjoy strong bipartisan support in America – five of the last six presidential administrations have supported efforts to prevent IUU seafood from d enter the country. This latest effort has so far been hailed as a success by environmental and labor advocates. It also enjoys the support of national fishermen and other players in the seafood industry.

An uneven playing field

Nathan Rickard is one such supporter. Rickard is a trade remedy attorney for the Southern Shrimp Alliance. Right now it’s a lot of work. Eighty-five percent of seafood in America is imported, ripe for illegal fishing that ends up in grocery stores, restaurants and convenience foods. Rickard says shrimp make up 27% of those imports, making it difficult for domestic shrimpers to make an honest living as they compete with cheaper, illegally obtained products. Every day for 19 years, Rickard has helped them turn back this illegal tide. And that’s the effort it takes: every day for 19 years.

When something shows up at the border, he says, the ability to trace it back to the pond or boat it came from “is going to be incredibly helpful in putting a measure of accountability in this industry,” a- he declared.

The expansion of the SIMP could facilitate, for example, the monitoring of imports from countries such as China, India, Thailand and Vietnam, which pay duties on certain shrimp products to ensure that they don’t bend the rules. These duties help maintain a level playing field with countries like China, which have provided subsidies to shrimp producers, allowing them to land cheap shrimp in the US market, driving down prices for domestic shrimpers.

A shrimp boat at sunrise in the Gulf of Mexico

These domestic shrimpers fish in small boats between the southeast tip of Texas and the outer shores of North Carolina. Their catches are capped to ensure the health of the species. They are also required to use technology that prevents turtles from becoming ensnared in their gear and to abide by a host of other rules set forth by the National Marine Fishery Service. The landings of these fishermen are closely monitored to ensure compliance, and the national fishery is also overseen by marine biologists who often board vessels, collecting data on fishing practices and the health of various species.

But these shrimpers must compete with shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico, which do not have comparable catch limits, have different labor requirements and are not required to protect their equipment from turtles. And some of the farmed shrimp they compete with overseas may not only harm mangroves and other sensitive ecosystems, but they may also be tank-farmed in countries that don’t regulate antibiotics or lint. use of chemicals. Chinese aquaculture, for example, can often be identified simply by testing it for antibiotic residues, Rickard said.


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