Scientists, law enforcement officials and environmentalists have identified illegal fishing as a major problem that contributes to the depletion of the oceans and funds criminal operations worldwide. False seafood labeling can pose health risks to consumers who are eating the wrong species of fish unknowingly.
U.S. fishermen landed 9.9 billion pounds of fish and shellfish worth $5.5 billion in 2013, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Global losses from black market fishing range between $10 billion and $23 billion annually, according to federal officials.
“Seafood is one the most traded commodities in the world,” said Catherine Novelli, Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, in a statement. "Consumers should be able to know where their seafood comes from and have the confidence that it was legally and sustainably harvested."
NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan said in a statement that while the U.S. had "made strides" in combating illegal fishing and seafood fraud, the task force's proposals "serve as an important tool as we strive to level the playing field for legitimate fishermen.”
The recommendations, which will be submitted to the Federal Register this week, will be subject to public comment for 30 days.
Other proposals include directing the U.S. Trade Representative as well as State and Commerce Department officials to pursue international commitments to eliminate fisheries subsidies that contribute to overfishing and illegal fishing, as well as directing the Secretary of State to make pirate fishing "a diplomatic priority."
Karen Sack, senior director for international oceans at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said in an interview Monday that her group "welcomed the attention the administration is placing on the issue of illegal fishing, globally, and we look forward to the adoption of strong measures to stop free riders from stealing the ocean's fish."
Eric Schwaab, who served as NOAA's assistant administrator for fisheries during Obama's first term and now works as the National Aquarium's chief conservation officer, said in an interview that cracking down on false seafood labeling was especially important because nearly 90 percent of American seafood is imported.
"We're doing such a good job of managing our fisheries" now, Schwaab said, that if the U.S. does not ensure the safety and sustainability of seafood imports, "the steps that we're taking are going to be undermined."
Even as ocean advocates praised the move, some argued the administration can go further. Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana, wrote in an e-mail that since fraud can occur at any point in the seafood supply chain, the federal government will need to take more aggressive action.
“Selling farmed shrimp as wild caught or tilapia as red snapper not only cheats consumers, but also hurts honest fishermen and seafood businesses that play by the rule,” Lowell wrote. “We need mandatory and comprehensive full-chain traceability – from boat to plate – to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled.”