Obama administration officials unveiled sweeping new measures in Boston on Sunday that seek to thwart rampant mislabeling of seafood and black-market fishing — practices that mislead consumers and cost the global fishing industry major losses each year.
The plan, laid out in a 40-page report released at an annual meeting of the seafood industry at the Boston Convention Center, aims to track fish and crustaceans from where they are caught to where they are sent.
A presidential task force drafted the plan, which will be launched almost immediately. It includes 15 measures to curb illegal fishing and fraud, including leaning on foreign governments to crack down on pirates stealing fish from other countries’ waters, and a new system to trace seafood before it enters US ports.
All seafood shipped to the United States will now be required to include new information, such as who the fishermen were who caught it, and when, where, and with what. That tracking data will be generated by federal, state, and local authorities and maintained in a central database.
“Our nation’s fisheries remain threatened by illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud, which negatively affects our markets,” said Bruce Andrews, deputy secretary of the US Commerce Department, who announced the new measures at the Seafood Expo North America. “The task force’s new strategic plan will aggressively implement recommendations to guarantee that US fishing fleets remain competitive in the global economy.”
The new measures come more than three years after a Boston Globe investigation revealed how restaurants and stores across Massachusetts had routinely mislabeled fish and sold cheaper, lower-quality seafood than they had promised their customers. A year later, a follow-up to that investigation found three-quarters of seafood samples taken from 58 restaurants and markets around the area had been mislabeled.
In 2013, US fishermen caught nearly 10 billion pounds of fish and shellfish, valued at $5.5 billion, but the vast majority of seafood Americans consume comes from abroad. The report estimated that illegal fishing accounts for losses of as much as $23 billion a year to the global fishing industry.
It also noted that illegal fishing makes it hard for governments to monitor the population of threatened and endangered species.
Illegal “fishing and seafood fraud undermine economic and environmental sustainability of fisheries and fish stocks in the US and around the world,” said Kathryn Sullivan, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “These actions aim to level the playing field for legitimate fishermen, increase consumer confidence in the sustainability of seafood sold in the US, and ensure the vitality of marine fish stocks.”
Representatives of the seafood industry said the administration was overstating some of the problems and raised concerns that some of their plans might go too far. They urged the administration to focus on enforcing existing laws.
“Do not put a second stop sign on the corner before you put a policeman there to see whether the first stop sign worked,” said John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, a Washington-based trade association that represents the nation’s seafood industry.
He also worries that law enforcement officials could potentially jail chefs for using generic names for seafood on their menus, rather than citing the specific genus of the fish they’re serving.
“The use of laws designed for eliminating organized crime to crack down on mislabeling fish seems to be using the proverbial sledgehammer to kill the fly,” he said. “We don’t think a chef mislabeling a product on a menu makes that chef into Don Corleone.”
But environmental advocates called the measures long overdue, if only a start.
“Traceability will forever change the way we think about our seafood,” said Beth Lowell, a senior campaign director of Oceana, a Washington-based conservation group. “Responsible seafood purveyors will no longer have to worry about the products they sell, and consumers can finally trust that they’re getting what they pay for.”
She cited a study last year in the journal Marine Policy that found as much as 32 percent of all seafood caught in the wild that enters the United States comes from illegal fishing.
“This type of activity, which can include fishing in closed areas, catching threatened or endangered species, or using destructive, banned gear, can decimate marine ecosystems,” she said.
Most of the administration’s measures can be implemented by executive authority, but some seek Congressional action.
The report’s first recommendation is for Congress to pass legislation that would bind states to similar rules for foreign vessels arriving at their ports.
Among the lawmakers who lauded the new measures was US Senator Edward J. Markey, who said he would continue to seek new legislation to bolster the administration’s efforts.
“These recommendations will help our fishing cops to police the foreign fish fraudsters and seafood swindlers who put a drag on our fishermen’s bottom lines and endanger our health,” Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement.
The effort to trace fish from source to ports will take at least two years to phase in, officials said. The administration will first focus on threatened species before fully implementing their plans to trace all seafood entering the United States by the end of 2016.
The plan also calls for new international agreements to curb illegal fishing and eliminate subsidies that harm fisheries, an increase in prosecutions for seafood fraud, and making it easier to share information between states and other governments about fishing concerns.
The Obama administration has been criticized for eliminating special agents who investigate seafood fraud by nearly half in recent years. That has contributed to significant reductions in the number of prosecutions.
“With this new plan, the left hand is doing one thing, while the right hand is doing another thing,” said Paul Raymond, a retired special agent who worked for NOAA for 26 years. “That doesn’t make any sense. We need more agents to do this work.”
In advance of the report, President Obama requested $3 million this year in his annual budget proposal to boost the number of agents investigating seafood fraud.
Environmental advocates welcome the additional law enforcement, but they said the true test of the administration’s new measures is whether they stop the flow of illegal fish before they enter the United States.
“We’re trying to fight the crime by prosecuting and denying the criminal profits,” said David Schorr, a spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund, an advocacy group. “What’s really fundamental is to try to stop the illegally caught fish from coming to market.”