By Megan O'Neill 

The global fishing industry is a cloudy animal of the high seas.

The traceability of seafood from international waters to an American plate is a difficult web of confusion, and black market fishing—or what we should correctly refer to as illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing—blurs the waters. But there’s hope for the American fisheries unfairly competing with IUU and fraudulent practices. And there’s hope for those consumers, chefs and buyers simply looking for transparency in seafood.

Earlier this month at the Seafood Expo North America, the Department of State and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced an action plan for the implementation of recommendations to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud. The recommendations were given by a 19-agency Presidential Task Force that was established by President Obama to create a comprehensive framework to oust the IUU fishing that thoroughly impacts the economic and environmental sustainability of U.S. and global fisheries.

The action plan spells out each forceful step, 15 in total, that federal agencies will take in both domestic and international settings as the Obama administration works to support sustainable fisheries and keep the American fishing industry strong.

In short, IUU fishing consists of fishing activities that are illegal (conducted in breach of applicable laws), unreported (not reported or misreported to relevant authorities in breach of reporting procedures), or unregulated (occurring in areas in which there are no applicable conservation measures). According to the report, which you can read in full here, the task force was established for two reasons: 1. to address this IUU fishing and 2. to address seafood fraud, both of which refer to all seafood species, not just fish. The Task Force includes a diverse group of members—Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Agency for International Development, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Defense and more.

So why, might you ask, would one require a 19-agency Presidential Task Force for recommendations on illegal fishing practices? It’s a fair question, but one that can be readily answered. By circumventing conservation and management measures and engaging in these fraudulent practices, the health of the general ecosystem is greatly impacted, and the sustainability of U.S. and global fish stocks is seriously undermined.

In its 2015 biennial report to congress, NOAA highlighted their findings and analyses of foreign IUU fishing activities on the high seas where nations do not have a regulatory program comparable to the United States. What’s astounding in their research is IUU’s incredible impact on the economic stability of the industry.

According to NOAA, global losses from illegal fishing practices are estimated between $10 and $23 billion annually.

But beyond the loss of money, and simply because of the massive oceanic nature, IUU fishing is difficult to place. “It can occur in capture fisheries both within areas of national jurisdiction and on the high seas,” stated the Presidential Task Force Report.

As the conclusion of a yearlong investigation by the Associated Press surfaces, American interest in the international seafood supply chain strengthens. The AP’s article, which was posted last week, brought to light modern day slave labor conditions in Indonesian fisheries. “Are slaves catching the fish you buy?” headlined the piece. It’s a clouded seafood supply chain, and according to the AP, tainted seafood mixes in with other fish at a number of sites in Thailand, including processing plants. It’s a jarring thought, and although extreme, it proves the need for higher regulation and transparency in the fishing supply chain in international waters.

“Because more than 2.5 billion people depend upon fish for food and nutrition, IUU fishing practices threaten food security and sustainability and undermine efforts to reduce global hunger and malnutrition,” stated the report.

According to NOAA, nearly 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported. Beyond that, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Ecuador are where we’re importing from. A greater understanding of where our fish come from (increasing required information available on seafood products) is one of the four general themes of the Task Force’s plan.  

Port sale measures, free trade agreements, fishery subsidies, and best practices for data tracking are among the 15 recommendations, broad in scope, provided to the administration by the Task Force.  Others include expanded federal, state and local enforcement provisions and information sharing and traceability programs.

The traceability system attempts to give chefs and consumers purchasing seafood in the American market an increasing confidence in the sustainability of the market. Though ambitious, it aims to track every piece of seafood that enters U.S. commerce from where it is caught to where it lands in the United States. According to the report, implementation by September 2016 should trace all at-risk seafood (or products of  particular concern) through data tracking.

The actions of the task force announced at the Seafood Expo might certainly give American buyers a peace of mind and hope for a future that truly combats questionable imports. Timelines are available for each of the 15 recommendations, and reassure the government’s commitment to not only leveling the playing field for U.S. fishers who are unfairly competing with illegal catch and seafood products, but also providing buyers with the ability to trace, the ability to trust and the ability to eat a piece of seafood that is correctly and ethically represented.