Seafood obtained from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing — U.S. International Trade Commission report on estimated imports into the U.S.

For twenty years, Members of the World Trade Organization have been negotiating disciplines on fisheries subsidies to help curb illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU fishing). Achieving an agreement is critical to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14.6. See, e.g., WTO, WTO members hold February cluster of meetings for fisheries subsidies negotiations, 24 February 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/fish_24feb21_e.htm. The WTO Members had hoped to conclude negotiations in 2020 and are working to conclude the negotiations by the 12th Ministerial Conference, now scheduled for the week of November 29, 2021 in Geneva. See WTO, Twelfth Ministerial Conference to take place in Geneva in late 2021, 1 March 2021, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news21_e/minis_01mar21_e.htm.

On December 19, 2019, the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means and the Chairman of the Trade Subcommittee of Ways and Means submitted a letter to the U.S. International Trade Commission requesting an investigation into IUU fishing and its effects on the U.S. industry. The text of the request is copied below.

“We are writing today to request that the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) conduct an investigation of the potential economic effects on U.S. fishermen of competition with illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) seafood imports. IUU seafood includes products obtained in contravention of fisheries management regulations or in violation of labor laws. Trade in IUU seafood products includes not only IUU catch that is sent directly to end markets, but also IUU raw material inputs that are further processed into aquaculture feed or seafood products for human consumption.

“Up to 31 percent of the global catch of fish reportedly comes from IUU fishing, at an estimated value of more than $23 billion per year. IUU fishing contributes to the overexploitation of fish stocks, threatens the livelihoods of coastal communities, jeopardizes food security, and harms marine ecosystems. IUU fishing also creates unfair competition for U.S. fishermen as imports account for 90 percent of U.S. seafood consumption. China plays an enormous role in the global production and trade of seafood and is the largest seafood trade partner of the United States. China also has been ranked as worst among 152 coastal countries based on the prevalence of IUU fishing and the country’s response to it.

“To better understand the size, scope, supply chains, pricing pressures, and potential economic effects of this problem, we request that the US ITC conduct an investigation, and prepare a report, pursuant to section 332(g) of the Tariff Act of 1930. Based on available information, we request that the Commission’s report provide, to the extent practicable:

“• A review of the existing data and literature on the prevalence of IUU products in the U.S. import market, and an overview of international mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement to address IUU fishing;

“• A description of the size and structure of the U.S. commercial fishing industry;

“A description of major global producers of IUU products, including but not limited to China, and country practices related to IUU production and exports.

“• An analysis of the extent to which IUU product is imported into the United States, as well as major U.S. import sources and global supply chains of such products; and

“• A quantitative analysis of the economic impact of IUU imports on U.S. commercial fishermen and U.S. commercial fishing production, trade, and prices.

“We request that the Commission deliver the report by 12 months from the date of this letter. As we intend to make the report available to the public, we request that confidential business information not be included in the report. Your assistance in this matter is greatly appreciated.

“Sincerely,

“Richard E. Neal, Chairman
“Earl Blumenauer, Chairman, Trade Subcommittee”

The U.S. International Trade Commission released its report,which is dated February 2021, last week. See USITC, Seafood Obtained via Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing: U.S. Imports and Economic Impact on U.S. Commercial Fisheries, Inv. 332-575, Publ. 5168 (February 2021). The request letter is included in the report at Annex A.

On March 18, 2021 Chairmen Neal and Blumenauer released a statement including statements from Oceana and from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). See U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means, NEAL, BLUMENAUER STATEMENT ON THE U.S. INTERNATIONAL TRADE COMMISSION’S REPORT “SEAFOOD OBTAINED VIA ILLEGAL, UNREPORTED, AND UNREGULATED FISHING: U.S. IMPORTS AND ECONOMIC IMPACT ON U.S. COMMERCIAL FISHERIES”, March 18, 2021, https://waysandmeans.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/neal-blumenauer-statement-us-international-trade-commission-s-report. The press release is copied below.

WASHINGTON, DC—Today, the U.S. International Trade Commission released their findings pursuant to a Tariff Act of 1930 section 332 investigation requested by Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA) and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) on the economic impact of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) seafood, including the use of forced labor, on the U.S. fishing industry.  The report found that the U.S. imported $2.4 billion worth of illegal seafood in 2019 and that addressing the illegal imports would create U.S. jobs, protect U.S. consumers and benefit U.S. fishers by an estimated $60.8 million.

“’Far too much illegal seafood is making its way onto our dinner plates and more must be done,’ said Chairman Neal. ‘By building on what we fought to include in USMCA, enhancing the tracing of our seafood supply chains, and cracking down on IUU fishing practices, we can better protect our oceans and ultimately give Americans the peace of mind that they are eating safe, legal seafood.’

“’When people go to the grocery store, they want to know that the seafood is safe and legally caught, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled. Unfortunately, too much illegal seafood is currently making its way into the country, undermining our hardworking U.S. fishing industry and putting consumers at risk,’ Blumenauer said. ‘It’s clear that we need stronger enforcement standards to protect individuals, workers, and fishing habitats.’

“Chairman Neal and Trade Subcommittee Chairman Blumenauer are joined by Oceana and WWF in recognizing the study.

“’Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing not only wreaks havoc on fisheries and ocean wildlife, but also undermines domestic fishers and seafood consumers. The United States has advanced programs to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud, but it’s clear that more needs to be done. The U.S. must expand Seafood Import Monitoring Program to all seafood, trace fish from boat to plate and expand transparency of fishing to help stop IUU products from entering the U.S. and competing with legally sourced seafood,’ said Beth Lowell, Deputy Vice President of U.S. Campaigns at Oceana.

Michele Kuruc, Vice President of Ocean Policy at WWF noted that, ‘this report reminds us that the ramifications of illegal fishing go far beyond the health of our oceans. It depletes our oceans, fuels labor and human rights abuses, and leaves our domestic producers at an economic disadvantage. People are harmed, economies are hurt, and our oceans and planet are in peril.   Eradicating illegal fishing requires a whole of government approach, as our current definitions, processes and efforts have far-reaching limitations. The good news is we have the tools, but they need to be strengthened to get the job done.  The U.S. needs to expand the species covered by our current monitoring program. We need to track all imported species, not just a small group, to truly tackle this issue and protect our oceans, foster economic growth and empower people who rely on oceans for food and income.’”

Thus, the U.S., despite having some provisions to address IUU fishing, still accounts via imports for an estimated 10% of global IUU fishing ($2.4 billion of an estimated $23 billion global total).

The USITC Report

The U.S. International Trade Commission report is 468 pages including Annexes. The report is embedded below.

ITC-report-on-illegal-fishing

While many countries have some part of their marine capture or imports from other countries that are IUU, the USITC report focuses on certain countries and identifies the types of practices that are considered to result in marine capture being considered IUU.

“There are many fishing practices that can constitute an IUU violation. Often, a vessel may fish in an area where it is not authorized. Vessels may also fish during seasons in which particular fishing grounds are closed. IUU fishing also includes harvesting in excess of quotas set by fishery management authorities or misreporting the volume of landings to those authorities. Fishing with disallowed gear types or methods, or in violation of environmental restrictions such as those concerning bycatch, also constitute IUU fishing. Labor violations that have been widely documented in segments of the fishing industry include forced labor, human trafficking, child labor, and physical abuse of workers on board fishing vessels.” USITC Publ. 5168 at 11-12.

Below are some tables from the report which show the estimated volume of IUU imports from major sources of seafood imports into the United States and then some detail on the basis of IUU fishing from a subset of those countries. The tables are taken from pages 114, 115, 463, 14 and 15 of the USITC report respectively.

The USITC report covers a lot of ground and reviews existing literature and studies and provides its methodology for both estimating the share of imports that are IUU as well as the modeling used to estimate economic effects on domestic industry. It is clear that many countries contribute to the IUU problem. Some countries including the U.S. and the EU have tools available to deal with IUU imports and that such tools are viewed as helpful but not totally fit for purpose based on limited scope, at least in the United States.

Interest in the issue from the U.S. Congress and a focus of the Biden Administration on addressing both environmental- and labor- related issues implies that the U.S. will likely be looking for ways to beef up enforcement of the import monitoring program on seafood.

While the report doesn’t address fisheries subsidies, the report should nonetheless be helpful to WTO Members engaged in the fisheries subsidies negotiations. The report adds dimension to the importance of WTO Members reaching an ambitious agreement on fisheries subsidies as the challenges of IUU fishing are not only environmental in nature but also go to fairness in competition.

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