Op-ed: The Wild West of global fisheries

Drew Lawler is the managing director at AJ Lawler Advisors and the former deputy assistant secretary for NOAA International Fisheries.

Drew Lawler is the managing director at AJ Lawler Advisors and the former deputy assistant secretary for NOAA International Fisheries.   

While the term “Wild West” may conjure up images of outlaws acting with impunity in faraway outposts, it’s an apt metaphor for what’s taking place on the high seas just outside our 200-mile exclusive economic zone and around the world.

Too much of the world’s seafood – including seafood imported into the U.S. – is caught using slave labor used onboard vessels operated by Chinese, Taiwanese, and other nations’ companies. Global Fishing Watch estimates the number of enslaved seafood workers as reaching well into the tens of thousands. From a humanitarian perspective alone, this is outrageous. From an ocean-conservation perspective, the effects are devastating. Slave labor is the leading cause of overfishing for the simple reason that when you use slave labor, you can afford to deploy thousands more fishing boats and replenish them at sea, keeping them working 365 days a year.  

Another notable problem area is the dozens of nations whose longline boats use J-hooks, which indiscriminately catch such severely depleted shark populations as shortfin mako, as well as marlin and sea turtles – including the magnificent leatherback turtles, which can grow to eight feet and are now practically extinct. Every year, millions of endangered sharks, marlin, and sea turtles are caught and killed using destructive J-hooks. For conservation reasons, the U.S. fishing fleet discarded J-hooks years ago, opting instead for circle hooks. Marine animals swallow J-hooks, which snag on their stomachs or gullets. But circle hooks will hook species in the corner of the mouth, enabling bycatch such as marlin, sharks, and sea turtles to be released alive.

Wearing the white hat on the world’s oceans is the U.S. fishing fleet, arguably the most-regulated fleet in the world. U.S.-flagged boats pay competitive wages; deploy onboard cameras to monitor compliance and advance research; and use conservation-oriented circle hooks instead of destructive J-hooks. How can the U.S. get other nations to adopt standards similar to those used by the U.S. fishing fleet? 

There’s already a law that does just that. The High Seas Driftnet Fisheries Enforcement Act of 1992 says nations looking to sell fish in the U.S. must use comparable methods of conservation – including the use of circle hooks in their longline fisheries. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is charged with enforcing this law and just recently put other nations on notice that we will begin to do so. If we can get more nations to use circle hooks, it will be an enormous win for global conservation, potentially saving millions of sharks, marlin, and sea turtles each year.

The U.S. can also take the lead in global fishery conservation by changing our definition of illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing to include the use of slave labor. The High Seas Driftnet Fisheries Enforcement Act of 1992 also authorizes the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to make updates to the definition of IUU. In doing so, the law could allow for a ban on the import of all seafood from any nation that uses slave labor. This would be a much more effective tool than the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which only prohibits imports of individual shipments of seafood caught with slave labor. Impounding a container here and there is just a pinprick to China, with its estimated 16,000 boats fishing the high seas. But if we banned all seafood imports from a nation because of their use of slave labor – through changing the definition of IUU fishing – that would substantially reduce global overfishing and provide a positive change for human rights. 

Photo courtesy of Drew Lawler


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