Inadequacy of US screening system for IUU risks laid bare in trade study

Published on
April 7, 2021

Seafood caught via illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and fishing involving forced labor amounting to USD 2.4 billion (EUR 2 billion) was imported into the United States in 2019, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

The 18 March report, “Seafood Obtained via Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing: U.S. Imports and Economic Impact on U.S. Commercial Fisheries,” suggests the U.S. government does not have effective controls in place to limit IUU-sourced product from entering the country.

The report names China, Russia, Mexico, Indonesia, and Vietnam as key sources for illicit wild-caught product, with the main species involved named as swimming crab, warm-water shrimp, yellowfin tuna, and squid. The report also claims 9 percent of the harvested weight of farmed seafood imports is made up of IUU-tainted feed ingredients. It states IUU-sourced seafood is a serious threat to the jobs and earnings of U.S. fishermen.

Beth Lowell, deputy vice president for U.S. campaigns for environmental non-governmental organization Oceana, said while the U.S. government has taken some steps to combat IUU fishing, including establishing the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) in 2018, it has much work to do on its import screening systems. SIMP rules – which currently apply to 13 species of seafood – currently cover around 40 percent of the value and volume of U.S. imports, but not some of the top IUU species identified by the report, Lowell said.

“Squid is not a species covered by SIMP, so traceability is not required,” she told SeafoodSource.

Oceana is calling for U.S. traceability requirements to be expanded to incorporate more species, and also the full value chain – currently, documentation requirements end with the arrival of the seafood at port, she said.

“SIMP requires some imported seafood at risk of IUU fishing and seafood fraud to be accompanied by catch documentation about where and how it was caught. SIMP also requires those products to be traced from the fishing boat or farm to the U.S. border,” Lowell said. “[However], to make it fully traceable, SIMP needs to be expanded to all species to require the catch documentation and traceability for all seafood imports and the FDA traceability rule needs to be finalized to finish traceability requirements from the U.S. border to the final point of sale.”

As the world’s top two markets for seafood, the E.U. and the U.S. both have to improve screening of IUU catches, according to Julian Hawkins, the CEO of Vericatch, a Canada-based developer of software solutions for fisheries management, and seafood traceability.

“Import controls in both areas have tightened but there may be some escapes, but it's getting small for fish if it is undocumented,” he told SeafoodSource.

By escapes Hawkins said he means “exceptions that either accidentally or deliberately seek to bypass or avoid the seafood regulations.”

“[They] may be legitimate loopholes, but in general, these are an absolute minority,” Hawkins said.

Better coordination between major importing countries in the West would likely reap large benefits, according to Hawkins.

“The supply chain in the U.S., Canada, and E.U. is not homogeneous,” he said.

Forced labor is another persistent issue threatening the integrity of the U.S. seafood supply chain, according to the Seafood Working Group, a group of 27 labor, human rights, and environmental NGOs, convened by Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum. The group has called for the U.S. Department of State to take more aggressive action against countries with labor issues in their supply chains, including listing Taiwan and Thailand as Tier 2 countries in the department’s upcoming 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.

“This is necessary due to the continuation of violations of internationally recognized labor rights that make migrants particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, as well as a deterioration of rights for vulnerable workers stemming from COVID-19 policies,” the group said in a press release introducing a 47-page report that includes details of 24 cases of labor abuse from frontline worker organizations in Thailand.

“The Thai government has failed to make any progress in fulfilling its commitments to ratify ILO conventions on freedom of association and collective bargaining and continues to restrict foreign workers from organizing and forming unions. The report shows that the government and employers continued to retaliate against workers, trade unionists, and labor rights defenders who attempt to organize and improve working conditions,” GLJ-ILRF Legal and Policy Director Esmeralda López said. “The cases of union retaliation and judicial harassment have posed serious obstacles to preventing human trafficking and protecting potential victims. The cases send a message that workers who speak out will face consequences, creating a chilling effect for reporting future abuses.”

The Seafood Working Group report alleges abuse in the seafood processing, fishing, and large-scale agriculture industries, where it said employers used document confiscation, physical violence, wage withholding, and forced overtime “to keep migrants working under poor and dangerous conditions to meet product demand.”

There was also “a pattern of excessive overworking in the seafood industry due to increases in demand for shelf-stable seafood during the pandemic,” the report said.

In seafood processing hub Samut Sakhon, government authorities sealed off a housing area for 3,000 migrant workers with barbed wire in December 2020, “collectively quarantining infected and non-infected workers together, which caused food prices to skyrocket and sudden mass unemployment,” the group said.

“COVID-19 further exposed the systematic discrimination facing migrant workers in Thailand. Policies and employer practices that were unchecked by the government prevented migrant workers from accessing social security benefits and in some cases medical care during the pandemic. Nearly a year since COVID-19 hit Thailand, the government has failed to address these issues. Without employment and access to social protections, these people have become increasingly vulnerable to labor abuses and human trafficking,” López said.

Photo courtesy of the Seafood Working Group

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