Federal government to increase regulation of imported seafood

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing – or IUU Fishing – harms fishers who play by the rules. This was the message a federal agency hoped to deliver to seafood importers who skirt rules when catching fish in international waters and send to the U.S. market.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced in a conference call on Feb. 4 it is seeking to enact new regulations for imported seafood. Federal officials will spend the next few months seeking input on a “seafood traceability program,” which, if made official, would require 2,000 fish importers and 600 international fish brokers to establish a formal record of its complete catch once arriving in the United States.

Importers and brokers must report its complete catches more than a dozen specific fish species, including abalone, Pacific cod, sharks, shrimp, swordfish and tuna (albacore, bigeye, skipjack and yellowfin).

Other fish species on the NOAA watch list included Atlantic cod, blue crab, dolphinfish (mahi mahi), grouper, red snapper and sea cucumber.

The scope of the proposed seafood traceability program is to track fish from harvest to the point of entry into United States.

The fishing monitoring program, according to NOAA, proposes data reporting and record-keeping procedures “to ensure traceability of seafood products from harvest to the point of entry into U.S. commerce.”

NOAA targeted the fish species for regulation based upon six principles: enforcement capability; catch documentation scheme; complexity of supply chain; known species substitution; history of mislabeling; and, history of fisheries violation. 

“It is the goal of the U.S. government ‘to eventually expand the program to all seafood at first point of sale or import,’” a Federal Register notice about NOAA’s proposed seafood traceability program stated, citing President Barack Obama’s task force to combat IUU Fishing. “The process for expansion will account for, among other factors, consideration of authorities needed for more robust implementation, stakeholder input and the cost-effectiveness of program expansion.”

NOAA Fisheries maintains IUU Fishing is a major threat to aquatic ecosystems and sustainability of the country’s multimillion fishing industry.

“IUU Fishing and seafood fraud threaten valuable resources critical to global food security and place law-abiding fishers and seafood producers at a disadvantage,” NOAA officials said in a statement about the proposed seafood traceability program.

Fishers from the U.S. are subject to conservation and management measures when fishing on the open ocean. IUU Fishing occurs whenever such conservation and management measures, established by international agreements, are not followed. Failure to follow quotas or honor by-catch limits, for example, constitutes IUU Fishing. “Seafood traceability is an important tool to combat these illegal activities and reduce their harmful impacts on resources and markets.”

The U.S. imports about 90 percent of its seafood. NOAA hopes its seafood traceability program will prevent fishers from engaging in IUU Fishing.

NOAA’s seafood traceability program does not apply to domestic landings of wild-caught seafood, nor does it include any schemes for consumer-facing labeling.

“It is a business-to-government program limited to the collection, review and verification of data considered essential for tracing fish and fish products from harvest to point of entry into U.S. commerce,” NOAA officials stated. “[It] is designed to build upon existing resources and processes, aiming to maximize effectiveness and efficiency, while minimizing impacts on the fishing and seafood trade community.”

Obama announced a task force to combat IUU Fishing in June 2014. Information about the task force can be found at iuufishing.noaa.gov.

The public may review and comment on NOAA’s proposed rule through April 5. NOAA Fisheries and the Department of State will host two webinars in this month and a public meeting in March. Details of the two public webinars have not yet been fully announced but will be held on Feb. 18 and 24; both webinars will be held from noon to 2 p.m. (Pacific time).

A public meeting will be held March 7 in Boston.

The Federal Register notice can be viewed at 1.usa.gov/1RakVwe.

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