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Global effort required to stem illegal fishing problem

Gulf of Maine cod were sorted at an off-loading facility in Gloucester. Gretchen Ertl/The New York Times/file 2011

Illegal fishing is big business — and fishermen who take advantage of shoddy enforcement or lax regulations in ports around the world make millions on the backs of honest fishermen and consumers. The Obama administration rightly sees the sale of illegally caught seafood as a major economic and environmental issue, and last week laid out a set of guidelines to rein in the practice. The rules are a good first step, but illegal fishing is a global problem that requires a multinational approach to solve it. The government needs to work with other major fish importers worldwide to ensure that fishermen with contraband cargo can’t unload their wares.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, illegal fishing is a $23 billion-plus industry, accounting for approximately one-fifth of the seafood caught worldwide. The practice not only undercuts legitimate fishermen, it makes it more difficult for scientists to accurately calculate the size of fish stocks — a vital tool in protecting threatened species like bluefin tuna. It also hurts consumers, since contraband fish are prone to mislabeling, and as a 2011 Globe special report uncovered, fish mislabeling runs rampant in the industry.

The Obama administration plans to address the issue in a number of ways. US officials will implement a new system to track seafood coming into its ports. By the end of 2016, all seafood meant for the American market will have to be paired with information about the fisherman who caught it, along with when, where, and how the fish were caught. This is a smart move. Fishing ships by definition are mobile, and it is very difficult to stop unscrupulous actors on open waters. But every ship needs a port, and requiring greater transparency when a boat docks will make it more difficult for smugglers to do business in the United States, while giving a leg up to fishermen who play by the rules.

But the fishing industry is a global one, and US regulations stop at international waters. And though tightening the rules here will help the American fishing industry, they won’t do much to solve the environmental problems posed by illegal fishing. As the report recognizes, an international effort is required.


The report recommends that Congress ratify the Port State Measures Agreement, a treaty adopted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2009. That treaty requires countries that sign it to inspect any vessel suspected of engaging in illegal fishing, and seize any illegal catch. The treaty will take effect only after 25 countries have ratified it, and thus far only 11 have. The Senate passed a measure doing so last year, but the full consent of Congress is required for the United States to ratify the treaty. Doing so should be a priority. Coupled with that effort should be a push to get America’s maritime allies to sign on as well. The European Union has already agreed, as has New Zealand, but many Pacific Rim countries are conspicuously absent. The United States is already engaging with many of them in negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. The United States should push for ratification of the Port State Measures Agreement to be a condition of entry into the trade deal.


Illegal fishing will continue so long as there are markets for smuggled seafood. But applying stricter international regulations will make it that much harder for dishonest fishermen to make a living flouting the rules.