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Protecting Alaska’s Fisheries

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing


"Fighting IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud: Enhancing Traceability and Transparency Through Strengthened Governance Frameworks" panelists.

Credit: Dimitra Lavrakas


Combating illegal fishing on the high seas, also known as international waters, which have no sovereignty, has been a thorn in the side of every nation that has a coastline. Relatively recent issues such as fishery sustainability, climate change, and deliberately mislabeling fish and fish products have prompted an effort to mount a worldwide coordinated response to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU).

This issue and others were addressed at the annual Seafood Expo North America in Boston in March. The expo attracted 1,341 exhibiting companies from 57 countries—including new attendees from Fiji, Oman, Ukraine, and Venezuela. The exhibitors included not only the fishing industry but companies that support it such as transportation companies, equipment suppliers, and other support organizations. All told the Seafood Expo attracted more than 22,600 attendees from more than 120 countries.

An international panel offered perspective on IUU fishing, which violates national laws and/or internationally agreed upon conservation and management measures in effect worldwide. The panel was titled, “Fighting IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud: Enhancing Traceability and Transparency through Strengthened Governance Frameworks.”

Participants included Giuliana Torta, counselor for Environment, Climate Action, and Maritime Affairs with the EU delegation to the United States; Somboon Siriraksophon, Fishery Policy and Program coordinator at the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center; Rune Dragset, deputy head of unit in the Seafood Section of the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Fisheries; and, Deirdre Warner-Kramer, acting deputy director of the Office of Marine Conservation, US Department of State. All panel members agreed that cooperation across the world and a strict set of controls on how fish get to market are vital to dampening the problem of international fishing and seafood fraud.

“The problem exists because fish swim,” said Marcio Castro de Souza, a senior fishery officer with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations Committee on Fisheries for trade issues and the panel facilitator. “How do countries deal with migratory stock?”

De Souza said it is most important to know when the fish were caught, where they were caught, and how they’re distributed. “The international fish trade is more valuable than the cattle and poultry industries combined,” he explained.

Additionally, the fishing sector provides food security and jobs for small communities, so care must be taken to ensure the sustainability of international, regional, and local stocks, de Souza said.

“It’s very true, fish swim,” said Warner-Kramer. “They don’t carry passports [and] don’t know where international borders are, so we need a set of broad tools to protect fish wherever they swim.” She continued, “When fisheries changed, the world came together and passed global rules on how to harvest resources and a code of conduct for responsible fisheries. Countries needed to do it together and stakeholders needed to know other countries are following the same rules.”

“Ninety-five percent of our stock is shared with others,” said Dragset. “Ten to fifteen years back, we had a problem in the Barents Sea [part of the Arctic Ocean, located north of Norway and Russia]. There was 100,000 tons caught illegally, but Russia closed off ports to help. We have very good stocks now because of this cooperation.”
Warner-Kramer, de Souza, and Dragset work with the FAO Committee on Fisheries. It is the only global inter-governmental forum in which major international fisheries and aquaculture problems and issues are examined and recommendations are addressed to all stakeholders worldwide—governments, regional fishery bodies, non-government organizations, fish workers, and the international community.

The FAO Committee on Fisheries aims to reduce IUU issues by not only monitoring international waters but also the ports where fish are delivered. The FAO Committee on Fisheries estimates that globally IUU fishing accounts for annual catches of up to 28.6 million tons with a value of up to $23 billion.

“We’re talking about US$12 billion worldwide. With unreported fish it could be much higher,” says Torta. “Then there’s the social aspects of IUU fishing—equality, slavery, labor forces, or adding illegal nitrates to make tuna look more red.”


IUU in Alaska

Alaskans are well aware of the significant value of fish in-state, both economically and culturally. According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Alaska’s fishing and seafood industry is the third-largest FTE job creator after the oil and gas and visitor industries, directly employing nearly 60,000 in-state workers every year. In 2015 and 2016, it contributed an annual average of $5 billion to the Alaska economy. Since 1959, state fisheries have produced more than 169 billion pounds of seafood.

IUU fishing is not a new concept, and steps have been and continue to be undertaken to preserve and protect Alaska’s rich fisheries.

“In addition to our domestic fisheries enforcement, every summer the Coast Guard conducts Operation North Pacific Guard where we deploy a cutter and a C-130 Hercules airplane to detect and deter IUU fishing activity in the North Pacific,” says Lieutenant Brian Dykens, spokesman for the Coast Guard’s 17th District in Juneau. “This operation is just one of many that are coordinated multi-laterally to combat IUU fishing on the high seas.”

Operation North Pacific Guard addresses IUU fishing activities such as large-scale pelagic drift-net fishing. There is significant economic value to these high seas fisheries for all North Pacific nations, and local economies and food security are improved when these fisheries are appropriately regulated. Regional partners including Japan, Canada, Russia, South Korea, and China contribute to enforcing fisheries regulations and other laws in the area. Operation North Pacific Guard has seen significant success since its inception in 1992. In fact, “We have had zero foreign-flagged fishing vessels found illegally fishing in the US exclusive economic zone surrounding Alaska in 2015, 2016 or 2017,” Dykens says.

Despite the presence and persistence of multiple countries, IUU fishing persists in the North Pacific, says Dykens. The most recent incidents were three high-seas drift net fishing vessels that were seized for fishing illegally, one each in 2011, 2012, and 2014. In addition, foreign partners have prosecuted twelve vessels for IUU fishing from 2013 to the present.


National Steps

In December 2016, the US government officially established the Seafood Import Monitoring Program to address IUU fishing products entering the market: reporting and record-keeping requirements for certain seafood products were established to prevent illegally caught or improperly labeled seafood from entering the US market. This first phase applies to abalone, Atlantic cod, blue crab, dolphinfish (mahi-mahi), grouper, red king crab, Pacific cod, red snapper, sea cucumber, sharks, shrimp, swordfish, and tunas.

The program coordinates efforts to combat IUU with cooperation from local and state governments, the fishing industry, and non-government organizations to create a risk-based (meaning penalties are applied) program to trace seafood from the net to the port.

“For the first time, there is a national mandate of a broad-based certification program focused on traceability recognizing that more information needs to arrive with the fish,” Warner-Kramer said.


Minimizing Bycatch

Bycatch is a classification of sea creature that was unintentionally caught during commercial fishing operations. Bycatch runs the range of being entirely the wrong species to members of the correct species that are the wrong size, sex, or age. Bycatch is often discarded, tossed overboard back into the fishing area, though much of the bycatch is often dead or non-viable.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act requires, to the extent practicable, that commercial fishermen “(1) minimize bycatch and (2) to the extent bycatch cannot be avoided, minimize the morality of such bycatch.” The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act is a national standard that was established in 1976 and amended in 1996 to directly address overfishing and bycatch.

Dragset said at the Seafood Expo North America that twenty years ago in 1987 Norway was cognizant of and working to minimize bycatch, introducing a discard ban on cod and haddock for economic and ethical reasons. In 2009 Norway’s discard ban was expanded to require all dead or dying species of fish be landed, though viable fish can be released back to the sea.

When a commercial operation discards dead or dying fish instead of hauling them to port, the bycatch becomes de facto unrecorded catches. This can skew fishery statistics, which is problematic for the scientific assessment of stocks to develop best practices and policies for fish management.

Alaska has multiple world-class fisheries. Seafood is significant in Alaska as an economic driver, but fish are also an integral part of the life and culture of every Alaskan. Alaskans are fierce about protecting its fisheries, and that will only continue as new techniques and policies are developed in Alaska, the United States, and internationally to keep fisheries safe, clean, and productive.

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