US government eyeing seafood shake-ups

The past year was a big one for the seafood industry in terms of actions either taken or proposed by the U.S. federal government.

The past year was a big one for the seafood industry in terms of actions either taken or proposed by the U.S. federal government – with some positive and negative news.

Federal-level actions on traceability, tariffs, and even the legality of certain fisheries have all taken place over the past year, and all signs are pointing to the federal government continuing to consider moves on seafood regulation from a wide array of angles. Here are a few of the key issues to keep an eye on in 2023.

SIMP expansion is coming

The Seafood Import Monitoring Program, commonly referred to as SIMP, was created in 2016 during the last days of the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama. The genesis of the program was the Presidential Task Force on Combatting Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud, which was authorized by Obama in 2014.

The program initially focused on 11 species groups, which included products like Atlantic cod, red snapper, swordfish, and tunas. Initially, shrimp was left out of the program – but it too was added on to SIMP gradually by NOAA Fisheries.

The seafood industry and the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) have long opposed the program on the basis that it adds additional regulatory burdens to the industry without actually accomplishing its goal. NFI Vice President of Communications Gavin Gibbons has said in the past that SIMP’s aim of stopping IUU hasn’t been accomplished in the years it has been running – NOAA itself acknowledged in 2022 that SIMP didn’t stop illegal products from entering the U.S. market.

Regardless of the seafood industry’s opposition, SIMP expansion is essentially all-but-inevitable at this point. At first, it seemed as though SIMP expansion would happen through an act of Congress. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the American COMPETES Act on 4 February – a legislation that would have expanded SIMP to cover every species entering U.S. ports. That bill eventually died in the Senate, but it didn’t signal an end to the pressure to expand SIMP.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, and the U.S launched sanctions on Russian seafood, members in Congress again called for the expansion of SIMP and claimed that without it, any bans on Russian seafood would be “unenforceable.”

Pressure to combat IUU also started coming from the White House. U.S. President Joe Biden issued a broad memorandum on 27 June, 2022 calling for more work to fight against IUU due to its threat to American economic competitiveness and national security.

Even more recently, the U.S. House again called on NOAA to expand SIMP and provide a timeline for when it would cover all species.

Now, at the start of 2023, it seems as though SIMP expansion is finally taking real steps forward. Officials with NOAA Fisheries announced a plan to expand the program, with a proposal that would more than double the number of species targeted. The proposal would also clarify what importers are responsible for, and include new requirements that would force importers to keep electronic records of chain of custody data.

The public comment period on SIMP ends on 28 March, 2023. From there, NOAA will begin the process of considering what SIMP expansion might look like, and seafood importers should begin preparing for what it means.

A marketing board gains traction

In 2019, the idea of resurrecting a national seafood marketing effort came up during a meeting of the Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee panel.

That meeting triggered a groundswell of affirming businesses and individuals who sent a letter to Congress supporting the necessary appropriations to revive the National Seafood Council – the original name of the marketing board back in 1986. More than 60 organizations wrote to Congress in 2021 asking for it to be brought back, calling for USD 25 million (EUR 23 million) to fund the marketing effort.

Last year in September, the Seafood Marketing Act of 2022 managed to make it all the way to the Senate floor, where it was read twice and sent to the committee on commerce, science, and transportation.

Since then, the Senate has passed an omnibus spending budget that includes language requesting NOAA provide a report to the committee that would detail how the agency would facilitate a National Seafood Council.

Lobster gets a reprieve

The U.S. lobster fishery has also been subject to federal actions lately, with the fishery being taken on a roller-coaster ride in 2022.

A federal judge ruled for a second time in 2022 that the U.S. lobster fishery was violating the Endangered Species Act due to insufficient protections for critically-endangered North Atlantic right whales. The ruling forced NOAA Fisheries to either come up with changes to how the fishery is managed, or institute fishing bans.

The federal actions had ripple effects throughout the U.S. lobster industry, with the Maine fishery losing its Marine Stewardship Council rating as a result. The fishery also received a red-listing from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program.

The latest federal action, coming in the omnibus funding budget, arrived at the last minute to spare the fishery from closure. A rider authored and advocated for by both the Congressional delegation of the U.S. state of Maine – comprised of U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, and U.S. Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden – and Maine Governor Janet Mills made it into the budget that passed.

The rider to the budget deems the current rules sufficient through 31 December, 2028, and provides that new regulations for the fishery would take effect in six years. It also authorizes a new grant program to “promote the innovation and adoption of gear technologies in the fisheries.”

Now, the industry has six years to perform more research to help determine whether the fishery needs to take additional steps to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

Federal funding for purchases and disasters

The federal government spent big in 2022 to help fisheries impacted by disasters, and to purchase seafood for federal programs.

In December, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo announced the approval of a series of fishery disaster requests for crab and salmon fisheries in the U.S. states of Alaska and Washington. A related USD 300 million (EUR 276 million) funding request to pay affected crabbers and fishers and to support research and habitat restoration was also added into the 2022 omnibus appropriations bill.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also stepped up its spending on seafood, and the organization announced early in the year that it planned to purchase more domestic fish and shellfish in 2022. Throughout 2022, the department made a number of big seafood buys, including a USD 5.7 million (EUR 5.2 million) purchase of breaded, oven-ready catfish and a USD 31 million (EUR 28.5 million) set of contracts sent to Pacific Northwest seafood suppliers in early September.

Signs point to the purchases continuing: The USDA kicked off 2023 with a USD 8 million (EUR 7.3 million) contract for salmon in early January.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/MyTravelCurator


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