The US is a dumping ground for illegal seafood. Some lawmakers want to clean up the market

In the end, the eels were worth an estimated $160 million. For four years, they passed through US seaports in 138 shipping containers, which eight people were later accused of illegally importing.

In March, a grand jury indicted the CEO of American Eel Depot, a New Jersey company, along with three employees and four business partners in connection with the alleged crimes. US attorneys allege that the eels – packaged and labeled as unagi – were illegally harvested as juveniles in Europe and Asia and then shipped around the world to disguise their origins. They were raised to adulthood on a Chinese fish farm and sent to the United States as supposedly legal food.

Those 138 shipping containers represent just a tiny fraction of the illegal seafood sold in America each year. Illegal seafood accounted for $2.4 billion in sales in 2019, or nearly 11 percent of the $22 billion in seafood imports that year, according to a report by the US International Trade Commission. Should the allegations against American Eel Depot prove true, their capture will be a coup for federal investigators, a rare victory in an often elusive battle to slow the rate of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) seafood being eaten in large quantities come through US ports. It’s been a problem for years, but legislation currently in Congress aims to spur efforts to contain it.

“IUU fishing really undermines all the strides that the U.S. and other countries around the world have made in trying to manage their fisheries more sustainably to ensure we have fish forever,” said Beth Lowell, who campaigns for the Deterring Illegal Fishing at Environmental Protection Oversight Nonprofit Oceana. “Obviously that’s important because of food security, the coastal economy, and people rely on these fisheries for jobs, but also for food.”

Lowell describes IUU as: fishing without a permit, ignoring catch limits, fishing in restricted areas where marine life is harmed or habitat destroyed, or fishing where there are no regulations or reports at all.

“Illegal fishing really undermines all the strides that the US and other countries around the world have made in trying to manage their fisheries more sustainably to ensure we have fish forever.”

The United States is already restricting such abuses in its domestic fisheries. From an ecological perspective, they are among the most tightly regulated in the world, and national labor laws prevent the problems of forced labor often associated with seafood elsewhere. But fishermen working in the US regularly compete with illegally acquired — and often cheaper — imports. In 2016, the nation began implementing the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) to change that. SIMP creates a paper trail for specific seafood imports, tracking those fish from the docks to traders to buyers. This documentation helps law enforcement and deters the kind of system prosecutors say American Eel Depot has devised.

However, the SIMP only targets 13 species groups. They’re the most imported and illegally or mislabeled seafood in America — including tuna, shrimp and cod — but they account for just 45 percent of the country’s seafood imports.

New legislation introduced last year by U.S. Representatives Jared Huffman (D-California) and Garret Graves (R-Louisiana) could extend the rules to all imported seafood and require importers to keep records of where fish was harvested and landed and the chain of custody before arriving at ports. The expansion would include hundreds of other species. The legislation also proposes expanding data requirements, introducing seafood labeling and stepping up enforcement.

After initially stalling, the proposal became separate iterations of new bills in the House and Senate. Most workable now is the America COMPETES Act, which relates primarily to manufacturing and has the best chance of becoming law, although both the House and Senate have passed versions of the bills. Efforts to reconcile the two are now underway, but efforts to combat IUU fishing generally have strong bipartisan support in America — five of the last six presidential administrations have backed efforts to keep IUU seafood out of the country. This latest effort has so far been hailed as a success by environmental and labor representatives. It is also supported by local fishermen and others in the fishing industry.

An uneven playing field

Nathan Rickard is one of those supporters. Rickard is an attorney specializing in trade remedies for the Southern Shrimp Alliance. It’s a big job right now. 85 percent of America’s seafood is imported, ripe for the illegal finfare that ends up in grocery stores, restaurants, and convenience foods. According to Rickard, shrimp make up 27 percent of those imports, making it difficult for local shrimp fishermen to make an honest living while competing with cheaper, illegally sourced products. For 19 years, Rickard has been helping them fight back against this illegal tide every day. And this is how much effort it takes: every day for 19 years.

If something shows up at the frontier, he says, being able to trace it back to the pond or boat it came from will be “incredibly helpful for instilling some level of accountability in this industry,” he said.

Expanding the SIMP, for example, could make it easier to track imports from countries like China, India, Thailand and Vietnam that pay tariffs on certain shrimp products to ensure they don’t circumvent the rules. These tariffs help maintain a level playing field with countries like China, which have given subsidies to shrimp producers, allowing them to land cheap shrimp in the US market and drive down prices on domestic shrimp.

A shrimp boat at sunrise in the Gulf of Mexico

These native crabfish fish in small boats between the southeastern tip of Texas and the outer shores of North Carolina. Their catch is limited to ensure the health of the species. They must also use technology that prevents turtles from becoming entangled in their gear and comply with a variety of other rules issued by the National Marine Fishery Service. Landings by these fishermen are closely monitored to ensure compliance, and local fisheries are also monitored by marine biologists, who often travel aboard vessels collecting data on fishing practices and the health of various species.

But these shrimp fishermen have to compete with Gulf crab fishermen from Mexico, who don’t have comparable catch limits, have different job requirements, and aren’t required to turtle-proof their gear. And some of the farmed shrimp they compete with from abroad not only can harm mangroves and other vulnerable ecosystems, they can also be farmed in tanks in countries where antibiotics or chemical use aren’t regulated. Chinese aquaculture, for example, can often be identified simply by testing for antibiotic residues, Rickard said.

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