Do you know if your seafood dinner was caught and imported legally?
Chances are good now that you wouldn’t be able to find out. But this week, a special task force of a dozen federal agencies released recommendations on how the U.S. can rein in illegal, or pirate, fishing and make seafood more traceable and sustainable.
Carol Browner, a former EPA Administrator who now serves on the Global Ocean Commission, told National Geographic that she is “impressed” by the new recommendations, which call for better monitoring and control of seafood products.
The recommendations are now in a 30-day comment period, before the president issues final rules.
“They have articulated a very comprehensive strategy,” said Browner. “If they can figure out the implementation this really positions the U.S. in a leadership role.”
We spoke with Catherine Novelli, Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment about the recommendations and the next steps. Novelli was instrumental in guiding the report process.
Why is it important to fight illegal fishing and improve seafood traceability?
I think it is hugely important. Global losses attributed to illegal fishing are between $10 and $23 billion a year. This is a great environmental problem because we have many fish that are overfished and are being fished to their limit. (Learn more about illegal seafood.)
But this is also a great economic problem. We have to make sure we have the resources left to feed people, as well as consider people who make their livelihood fishing.
Why has it been hard for the U.S. to fight illegal fishing?
The U.S. has taken steps to be good stewards, so our fish stocks have rebounded. But 90 percent of the seafood we consume in the U.S. is imported.
The ocean is a big place. There have been things put in place through regional fisheries organizations and for registering vessels, but how do you compile all that info in a usable way? Setting up a mandatory system means we have to find ways to get this information working and flowing. (Learn about how drones can also be used to fight illegal fishing.)
We need to do two things: One, make sure we don’t let our market be a harbor for illegally caught fish. Two, make sure consumers know what fish they are eating. There have been studies showing fish is not labeled correctly, 20-30 percent of fish. That could be for nefarious reasons or inadvertent reasons. We really want to make sure there will be consumer confidence.
How did the process of coming up with the recommendations to the president come together?
It was a pretty quick process but we worked very hard to reach out to stakeholders to make sure we had input for this. We had a 30-day comment period before we put out anything. We had webinars and meetings, in remote locations and Washington, to try to get input from everyone.
We recommend that we continue that intensive outreach so we get perspective from fishermen, industry, consumers, and NGOs, so we can see the 360-degree parameter of this. We need to make sure what we do will be effective and also not a burden for our fishermen and industry.
Did anything in the process of working on the recommendations surprise you?
There was a ton of work already being done on this issue, with a level that was heartening and that surprised me. But folks weren’t communicating to each other from other agencies and I think we need to work in a smarter way.
One of the interesting things for me was the whole question of what fish are called. The same fish often has different names, so tracing that fish through the chain is very difficult. One of the things we are doing is to give one name to each fish, so everyone knows that they are talking about the same thing. I had no idea there was that much dissonance, and this will really help us harmonize in the U.S. government to get even better.
Do you think Congress will pass the supporting legislation that’s called for by the recommendations?
We believe there is bipartisan support for the Port State Measures Agreement. The Senate passed a bill and we are working with our colleagues in the House. Having port state measures go into force globally is going to benefit our fishermen because it means we’ll have a level playing field.
Our fishermen won’t have to compete with those who are not following laws in their countries. This is a win-win for everyone.
In general we haven’t encountered any huge resistance in policy. It’s more been about getting the details right.
What will be the hardest of the recommendations to implement?
I think it’s going to be challenging. It’s going to be tough to create an effective traceability system. That’s why we are asking for input and, effectively, doing this in phases. Phase 1 is from bait to first point of entry. We feel we’ll learn some lessons there and then extend that.
How do you think the recommendations will play internationally?
We tried to find a balance. We are working through AID to do capacity building and we are working with regional fisheries agencies. We try to take an approach that this is one ocean and we can’t take care of it ourselves. We have responsibility for our borders but we also want to work with others.
This interview has been edited and condensed.