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Top Story: Pirate Police

Better tracking could curtail illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing

By Christine Blank
April 01, 2009

The topic of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU) has been 
a thorn in the side of the global fishing industry for decades. As fisheries and companies all across the supply chain move toward addressing sustainability, they recognize the importance of saving species that were once - and, in some cases, still are - victims of nefarious dealers. Not too long ago, Chilean sea bass was the top focus of conservation efforts and a crackdown on poaching by U.S. authorities. Most buyers and industry groups are doing everything they can to preserve the species. Lately, the poster child for IUU fishing has been bluefin tuna, which has become the focus of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activist groups worldwide.

IUU fishing is equally important to U.S. processors and importers. No one in the industry wants to support illegal trade, which takes business away from legitimate harvesters and suppliers. The U.S. industry has a vested interest in the viability of overseas fisheries, since more than 85 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is now imported.

To that end, U.S. fisheries officials are working on solutions to end IUU fishing, after a contentious 
report to Congress this year listed six countries that have engaged in the practice. In addition, the 
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is drafting regulations - with the industry's input - that will require certification and traceability to address IUU fishing and bycatch of protected marine resources such as turtles.

Representatives from the six countries - China, France, Italy, Libya, Panama and Tunisia - initially were upset and surprised that they were named in the report.

"There were a range of reactions; none were happy with it," says Rebecca Lent, Ph.D., director of NOAA's Office of International Affairs.

NOAA identified fishing vessels from those six countries that had engaged in IUU fishing in 2007 and 2008. The boats were either using illegal fishing gear, were fishing during closed seasons or did not comply with reporting requirements. NOAA gathered the information and presented it to the countries in advance of the report to Congress. Some countries responded with written information and explained how they were finding solutions to the problems, and some countries did not respond at all, says Lent.

IUU bad for business, future supply

While "no one likes to be the focus of something that would be undesirable," says Mike Della Grotta, an importer and founder of Kendell Seafood in East Greenwich, R.I., the IUU report "puts pressure on them to do things in a bit of a different way.

"NOAA has done a superb job of regulating what is coming in and putting pressure on other areas of the world," adds Della Grotta. "Today, everybody's role is to stop illegal fishing. If you overfish something, you're not going to have a job in three to five years."

Manish Kumar, CEO of the Fishin' Co. in Pittsburgh, which imports seafood from about 10 different countries, agrees with Della Grotta.

"It is even more critical today to know who it is [coming from] and where it is caught, down the chain," says Kumar. Instead of angering officials in China, he adds, NOAA's IUU efforts "should foster better trade relations" between countries.

"[IUU fishing] is theft, and it is the enforcement on both sides that will make this a success," says Kumar.

At the same time, Della Grotta does not believe IUU fishing of Chilean sea bass is that big of a problem anymore.

"For Chilean sea bass, are there rogue boats fishing? Probably not: Everyone is watching boats now," he says. Kendell Seafood imports Chilean sea bass from the South Georgia Islands, certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. "There is a very healthy population of Chilean sea bass now," adds Della Grotta.

The prized Antarctic whitefish, also known as Patagonian toothfish, had become very popular in U.S. restaurants and other locations because of its moist texture and rich flavor. However, the U.S. government found that more than 10,000 metric tons of Chilean sea bass were illegally landed from 2002 to 2003. As a result, NOAA came down hard on seafood dealers and fishermen it found to be trading in illegally harvested seafood, from Chilean sea bass to spiny lobster tails.

In addition to the government crackdown, U.S. importers in recent years have become increasingly committed to conserving overfished species such as Chilean sea bass. Importers say they want the fish to be around for generations to come.

"From a business standpoint, it would be detrimental if a species was overfished," says Della Grotta.

However, NOAA has found that IUU fishing is prevalent and costs the global fishing industry $9 billion annually. Bluefin tuna stocks, in particular, are being harmed by IUU vessels, says NOAA.

"Failure to report catch and effort data to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) hampers the ability of that 
regional fishery management organization to conduct vital stock assessments to manage and rebuild stocks," NOAA officials said in a recent statement.

And, among the IUU problems that Greenpeace USA 
documented over the last two years was illegal use of drift nets to catch bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean.

"There were undersized bluefin tuna. That is part of why it is so illegal: It is indiscriminate fishing," says John Hocevar, director of Oceans Campaign for Greenpeace USA. In Italy, Greenpeace documented unlicensed fishing vessels and three Italian boats using spotter vessels to track tuna, which is illegal.

Some of the worst cases of illegal fishing came from Libya and Tunisia, says Hocevar.

"In Libya, we documented 96 tons of bluefin tuna, three months after the season closed, by unregistered vessels. In Tunisia, six vessels were using illegal drift nets," he adds.

In an effort to cooperate on the IUU issue, NOAA officials met with officials from China, Italy and Libya at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's Committee on Fisheries (COFI) meeting in Rome in early March.

"The meetings were productive and will help open the way for continued consultations between the U.S. government and officials of those nations, to encourage these nations to take corrective actions that will stop IUU fishing by their vessels," says Monica Allen, a spokesperson for NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.

In addition, Italian officials discussed "strengthened fisheries control and enforcement measures that have been put in place" at the meeting, adds Allen.

However, COFI did not make great strides toward ending IUU fishing, says Stetson Tinkham, director of international affairs for the National Fisheries Institute, because representatives from different countries have different views on how the problem should be handled.

Some want the FAO to establish a "port state" agreement.

"There remains a group of countries that wants this agreement (treaty-based), and wants it to contain strong measures to prevent landings of fish by vessels that have engaged in IUU fishing or transported IUU-caught fish. Another group of nations wants the agreement to apply only to fishing vessels, rather than including cargo and support vessels," says Tinkham.

Adding to the confusion, the United States and the European Union have two different approaches to IUU fishing. The U.S. proposal calls for the Secretary of Commerce to list countries whose fishing vessels or nationals engaged in IUU fishing in the previous two years. Seafood products from the identified countries could be prohibited from entering the U.S. market if the countries did not act against companies taking part in IUU fishing.

Meanwhile, the EU wants to deny port access to vessels that engage in IUU fishing and require a catch certificate for boats entering its ports. In addition, the EU proposed at the COFI meeting in March that its member states should inspect 5 percent of all landings and transshipments. The inspections should be 
conducted in a manner that avoids "unnecessary delays in port," according to the proposal.

IUU rulemaking

Meanwhile, NMFS is trying to get the U.S. industry on the same page. The agency is holding a series of public hearings for rulemaking on identifying illegal vessels this spring. Through the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act (MSA), NMFS wants to develop identification and certification procedures to address IUU fishing and bycatch.

"We have to write a rule on the certification service. It is a lot easier to catch a vessel in port than when it is out," says Lent.

NMFS is accepting public comments on IUU regulations until May 14. The first public hearing was held during last month's International Boston Seafood Show. Additional hearings will be held in San Diego on April 13; in Seattle on April 14; and in Miami on May 12.

So far, NMFS has the support of the commercial fishing industry, environmentalists and U.S. seafood suppliers.

"The environmental community and commercial fisheries agree that IUU fishing should be stopped. Seafood trade is a huge import market. We don't want to be part of illegal fishing," says Lent.

The primary problem is illegal and unreported fish being loaded onto the same boats as legal seafood, says Hocevar of Greenpeace, so seafood buyers have to take more responsibility in stopping IUU fishing by enforcing traceability.

"I would like to see federal legislation mandating that people selling seafood are able to trace where their seafood came from, back to the vessel or farm," 
says Hocevar.

All interested parties agree that traceability of bluefin tuna and other high-ticket species like Chilean sea bass is the solution to end IUU fishing. Traceability of each shipment back to the boat, such as the certification that the Marine Stewardship Council provides ensuring that the company is not overfishing a species, was lauded by Kumar of Fishin' Co. The company sells MSC-certified products including ocean perch, whiting, orange roughy, salmon and cod.

There are many different solutions to cracking down on illegal fishing and improving industry traceability, noted Kumar, including video cameras on fishing vessels, maintaining a database of vessels that have been charged with illegal fishing in the past and implementing a traceability system for each boat.

Kumar believes one of the best solutions is certifying importers that have traceability and including them in an international database that would be similar to MSC's certification of sustainable fisheries, suggests Kumar.

"There are good and bad people everywhere. We have to identify the good people [who are] part of this type of 'green' database. If you have traceability in your catch, that's a sign of more responsible behavior on the industry's part," says Kumar.

At the same time, Kumar is realistic that it is difficult to trace and certify all international boats. "It is more difficult as you enter international waters. Is the country of origin based on the flag on the vessel? We know that the owner may be a lot different than the flag on the boat, and there are a different set of rules in each country," says Kumar.

That is the exact problem - determining how to track thousands of vessels in international waters - the COFI meeting discussed last month.

At the meeting, some countries called for the U.N. to develop and maintain a global database of fishing vessels, says Tinkham.

"When you consider that China alone has over 40,000 fishing vessels, you begin to get a feel for how difficult that task will be," says Tinkham.

"The patterns of trade are so complicated and the co-mingling of products from [wild] and aquaculture fisheries make it that much harder to find out where the fish comes from."

While the IUU issue remains complex, it is clear that U.S. officials will continue their efforts to stop IUU shipments while working out differences with their trading partners.


Contributing Editor Christine Blank lives in Lake Mary, Fla.


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