NOAA scolded for skipping hearing on Russian seafood ban

Experts say agency action is crucial to the success of the president's ban, but NOAA irked House lawmakers by failing to send anyone to an oversight hearing yesterday.

April 08, 2022

President Joe Biden’s bid to stop all Russian seafood from entering the United States will fail unless NOAA steps up its monitoring to include all imported fish species, experts told a House Natural Resources panel yesterday.

“Despite the good intentions to strike an economic blow to Russia after its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, this ban will not work without full seafood traceability and real information on the origin of the catch,” said Sally Yozell, director of the environmental security program at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C.

Testifying before the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, Yozell said NOAA “has an opportunity to lead in that effort” by expanding its Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which now covers only 13 species groups.

The panel’s oversight hearing came in response to Biden's signing an executive order last month that would block all Russian seafood imports by June 23.

Lawmakers planned to grill the agency on its plans to help enforce the president’s ban, but they complained that they couldn't ask questions because the agency chose not to participate.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), the subcommittee’s chairman, told his colleagues it was “regrettable that NOAA chose not to appear” and that the president’s ban would never work without the agency’s help.

“While I fully support the president’s goal, I regret to inform the president and all of you that this well-intentioned ban won’t work — not under current laws and policies, not under the less-than-watchful eye of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA,” Huffman said.

NOAA officials would not say why they declined to testify at the hearing, but Lauren Gaches, a spokesperson for the agency, said enforcement of the ban is the responsibility of Customs and Border Protection and that NOAA "stands ready and willing to support" CBP's enforcement of the order.

"However, NOAA has no independent authority to exclude seafood from the Russian Federation from being imported into the United States," Gaches said in an email to E&E News.

At yesterday's hearing, Huffman said NOAA’s monitoring program now covers only 40 percent of all imported seafood and that the agency needs to do more quickly to make sure Americans aren’t helping finance the Russian war against Ukraine.

“Until that happens, Russian seafood will continue to line grocery store shelves in the United States, and American consumers will continue unwittingly supporting Putin’s war machine,” Huffman said.

Criticizing NOAA’s refusal to beef up its monitoring, Huffman said: “They won’t act, and apparently they don’t want to talk to Congress about why they won’t act.”

'Sooner or later, we need to hear from NOAA'

Other lawmakers scolded NOAA, as well.

“Unfortunately, we are unable to hear from the agency. …. I join the chair in expressing my dissatisfaction with their refusal to show up,” said Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ore.).

Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) expressed puzzlement over NOAA’s silence at the hearing.

“I don’t quite frankly know what to make of NOAA’s absence here — I think it’s unfortunate; I think for me it’s uncharacteristic,” Case said. “And I don’t know whether NOAA just doesn’t have an answer right now or doesn’t want to go down this road to start with, but you know, sooner or later, we need to hear from NOAA.”

In her email to E&E News, Gaches said NOAA is conducting a review of its monitoring program and plans to publish a proposed rule to expand it later this year. She said the program now establishes permitting, reporting and record-keeping requirements for imports of roughly 1,138 unique species but that "it does not confer NOAA with the authority to deny or prevent entry of fish or fish products into the United States."

At the hearing, witnesses told the subcommittee that expanded inspections by NOAA would also help address another loophole that could jeopardize Biden’s ban: While the president’s order would prohibit all seafood that originates in Russia, it does not cover Russian-caught fish that’s shipped for processing to other countries such as China, where most of the world’s seafood is processed.

“With all species covered, consumers will have greater confidence that the seafood they buy was not harvested by Russia or commingled with Russian catch if processed elsewhere,” Yozell told lawmakers.

Austin Brush, a senior analyst with the natural resources program at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, told the panel that the United States now “has an opportunity to set the gold standard for transparency and traceability” by expanding the NOAA monitoring program and doing more data collection.

One opponent warned the panel that requiring more monitoring would be a mistake.

“The existing data requirements at entry are already detailed and demanding,” said Mike Lahar, representing the National Customs Brokers & Forwarders Association of America. “More is not necessarily better.”

By:  Rob Hotakainen
Source: E&E Daily