Study blasts loopholes in NOAA's seafood inspection program
Roughly 60 percent of all seafood coming into the United States is not covered by a federal inspection program operated by NOAA, according to a new report by the environmental group Oceana.
As a result, Americans are eating tons of food that’s likely the result of illegal fishing, the study said, noting that 85 percent of all seafood consumed by Americans now comes from foreign sources.
“When Americans order calamari at a restaurant, they do not want a side of criminal activity to come with it,” said Beth Lowell, Oceana’s acting vice president for the United States. “The reality is that imported seafood on Americans’ plates can originate from illegal fishing, crime, environmental destruction and human rights abuses.”
Oceana criticized NOAA’s seafood monitoring program, which began in 2016 and now applies to only 13 fish and fish species groups. The organization called on President Biden to plug loopholes in the program and expand it to allow better screening and tracing of all seafood “from net to plate.”
The report released yesterday, called "Fishing for Trouble: Loopholes Put Illegally Caught Seafood on Americans’ Plates," highlighted four species that have fallen through the cracks under the federal program: the Caribbean spiny lobster from Belize, the Maya octopus from Mexico, the blue swimming crab from the Philippines, and squid from Peru. The report said squid ranked as Peru's top exported seafood, with 30 percent of it going to either the United States or Europe.
“President Biden should ensure all seafood sold in the United States is safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled by expanding traceability of seafood and transparency at sea,” Lowell said.
NOAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment this morning.
On its website, NOAA said the inspection program now covers roughly half of all U.S. seafood imports and noted that the 13 fish and fish species groups covered includes more than 1,100 unique species.
According to NOAA, the covered species are abalone, Atlantic cod, blue crab, dolphinfish, grouper, king crab, Pacific cod, red snapper, sea cucumber, sharks, shrimp, swordfish and tuna.
The issue of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has prompted growing concern among many green groups and members of Congress in recent years.
In 2019, Oceana released a study that found widespread fraud in the fishing industry. The organization tested fish species not covered by the federal program and found that 1 of every 5 fish tested was mislabeled.
According to estimates, the United States imported $2.4 billion worth of seafood that came from IUU fishing in 2019 alone. The study said the high domestic demand for seafood, coupled with loopholes in the inspection program, is allowing food from illegal sources to flood the United States, with much of it produced by forced labor.
A bill introduced in the House last year took aim at IUU fishing by seeking to expand the seafood import monitoring program to cover all species and increase data requirements for monitoring.
When he introduced H.R. 3075 in May, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, called IUU fishing “an environmental and humanitarian crisis” (E&E Daily, May 13, 2021).
The issue received worldwide attention in 2016, when the Associated Press won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for a series of stories that exposed the use of slaves in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia and showed how the seafood ended up in U.S. supermarkets. After the 18-month investigation, more than 2,000 slaves were freed.
Four years later, in 2020, the Government Accountability Office criticized U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials for not doing enough to stop the use of slaves and illegal labor practices in the seafood industry.
By: Rob Hotokainen
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