President Obama: Sustainable Seafood Champion-in-Chief

A typical seafood market display. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

By Tim Fitzgerald and Matt Tinning

American seafood lovers come from all along  the political spectrum. Similarly, the elected officials who have championed policies that advance sustainable seafood have been both Republican and Democrat. President Obama has emerged as one such champion through his administration’s work to end overfishing and transform American fisheries management. This week, through a Presidential Memorandum to crack down on the seafood black market, he’s taken another bold step that seafood lovers of every ideological hue should welcome.

It’s a safe bet that the black market isn’t top of mind for most of us as we sit down to enjoy a delicious seafood meal. Yet the scale of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing presents a significant threat to the sustainability of our oceans. Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported on a study in Marine Policy that estimates up to a third of wild seafood imported into the US is illegally-caught, amounting to roughly $2 billion in 2011. Estimates of global losses resulting from IUU run as high as $23 billion annually. This massive seafood black market not only depletes the world’s fisheries: it hurts American fishermen, undercutting the price of their increasingly sustainably-caught product. It hurts the average consumer, too, who often isn’t getting what he pays for. If future generations are going to enjoy the wild-caught seafood that we love, doing more to confront IUU is essential.

The Presidential Memorandum issued this week elevates the Federal Government’s efforts to confront IUU and seafood fraud to the highest levels. A Task Force co-chaired by the Secretaries of State and Commerce will pioneer new approaches. It will bring together more than a dozen federal agencies that currently operate with minimal coordination to develop a comprehensive national strategy. Critically, it will operate under tight deadlines: convening immediately; making recommendations within six months; and reporting on implementation to the President within one year.

This sets the stage for a future in which the lucrative US seafood market is closed to illegally-caught fish, providing a powerful disincentive for black market purveyors to operate outside of the rules. A key part of the equation needs to be enhanced seafood traceability. At the heart of the illegal fishing problem is that most wild fish is traded through a complex global seafood supply chain of exporters, processors, importers, distributors and everything in between. This provides a multitude of opportunities to co-mingle legally and illegally caught fish.

Announcement of President Obama's order. Photo courtesy @
Announcement of President Obama’s memorandum. Photo courtesy @Podesta44

Other than Japan, the United States and European Union (EU) import the most seafood in the world and have the leverage to change such practices. (The EU has also committed to an advanced IUU control scheme to tackle the same problem.) The kind of supply chain transparency the Obama Administration envisions was trumpeted by Secretary Kerry in remarks this week when he said that “customers will know exactly who caught [their seafood], where and when.”

Achieving this kind of supply chain transparency may sound ambitious, but the truth is that it’s well within reach. Here in the United States, fishermen themselves are taking a proactive approach to seafood traceability, embracing practices and technology that distinguishes their sustainable product in the marketplace. Whether it’s the recent MSC certification of Pacific groundfish or voluntary initiatives like Gulf Wild, innovative and responsible fishermen know that good seafood traceability is good business.

Individually tagged and traceable Gulf of Mexico red snapper
Individually tagged and traceable Gulf of Mexico red snapper. Photo courtesy

The recovery of US fisheries has been a great bipartisan success story. The President’s new initiative is another example of how our success here at home gives us the stature to be more assertive in promoting change abroad. A more transparent seafood supply chain has the potential to deliver market benefits to hard working fishermen in the US, EU and beyond, and reward good fisheries management around the globe. It will do more to empower consumers. And it reinforces the notion that effective fisheries science and management provides the critical foundation for a fair and transparent seafood market.

Make no mistake: this is progress to dine out on.


Matt Tinning is Senior Director and Tim Fitzgerald is a marine scientist and senior policy specialist with the U.S. Oceans Program at Environmental Defense Fund



Meet the Author
Tim Fitzgerald leads EDF’s global programs on fisheries finance, training and capacity building, and seafood markets and supply chain engagement in an effort to improve the sustainability of the world’s fisheries. He serves on the boards of the California Fisheries Fund, Ecofish LLC and GulfWild®, and is an advisor to Fair Trade USA and the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions. Originally trained as a shark scientist, Tim has appeared on Shark Week and National Geographic Explorer, and also been featured in Time, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and NPR’s Fresh Air. He also provided invited testimony to President Obama’s National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Follow Tim on Twitter.