IUU bill passes, but more int’l action needed

A bill addressing pirate fishing waits on the president’s desk, but even if signed, the international problem will need more international solutions.

On Oct. 22, the U.S. Senate approved the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act of 2015. The bill is the latest in a series of legislative and executive actions broadly aimed to get international pirate fishing under control.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, or IUU fishing, is too big a problem to handle domestically; the best that can be done at the national level are largely vague enforcement strategies or information sharing programs between law enforcement entities on either side of the Bering Sea.

The president’s signature, if he assents, will serve as more a show of intent than a comprehensive overhaul, with the U.S. finally joining the Port State Measures Agreement, the largest but most problematic international piece of the IUU puzzle.

IUU fishing is a worldwide problem but damages Alaska disproportionately as both the largest seafood producing U.S. state and one of the world’s largest seafood producers in its own right.

“It drives me crazy to think that I can go into a Costco back home (in Alaska) and go over the counter to buy king crab that’s marketed as Alaskan but I don’t have that surety of knowing it is Alaskan,” Murkowski said in a press conference.

Estimates vary regarding the economic impact of IUU fishing, in large part because the expansive data is nearly impossible to compile. The U.S. Coast Guard, however, estimates IUU fishing annually drains $10 billion to $23 billion away from the legitimate seafood industry worldwide.

Russian IUU crab alone has cost Alaska Bering Sea crab fishermen up to $560 million, according to one estimate by United Fishermen of Alaska, the state’s largest commercial fishing industry group.

Mark Gleason, executive director of industry group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, has been involved with the legislation for years and called its senatorial passage a “huge symbolic victory.”

In May, Alaska’s U.S. Sens. Murkowski and Dan Sullivan along with Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, introduced the bill, which closely mirrored the language Alaska Rep. Don Young’s House bill, which passed on July 27.

The bill amends a complicated array of international maritime treaties, broadly aimed to give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration more enforcement ability at U.S. ports where millions of pounds of pirated fish enter domestic markets. It also signs the U.S onto the international Port State Measures agreement, which establishes port controls for member nations to keep tabs on IUU fishing.

Murkowski said the bill makes it clear at U.S. ports there’s “a cop on the beach,” but it’s unclear what the legislation would change operationally for NOAA. Murkowski said NOAA’s law enforcement will now have the ability to compile lists of known IUU vessels, as well as the authority and ability to turn these vessels away at port pending discovery.

“The most important thing is making sure we’ve got the ability to deny entry if a vessel is listed as an IUU vessel, giving the enforcement side some teeth,” said Murkowski. “It probably will require that NOAA have more resources directed to its enforcement.”

The price tag for the increased NOAA law enforcement is unknown along with the particulars of how day-to-day operations would change for the administration. NOAA representatives would only say they are “looking into how this new legislation can assist our mission to protect sustainable fisheries at home and abroad.”

The most important piece of legislation is the U.S. government’s signature on the Port State Measures Agreement. The agreement would require that each nation under the agreement require foreign vessels delivering seafood to provide highly detailed reports in advance of port entry, showing a full chain of legal custody for seafood imports and exports.

To pass as an international measure, the agreement needs to be ratified by 25 countries. If signed, the U.S. will be the 14th. A presidential task force on IUU fishing had adopted the end of 2015 as tentative timeline for successful total ratification.

Murkowski said the U.S. will have to wheel and deal to get the necessary 25, possibly using the agreement as an international bargaining chip with nations who profit from IUU fishing. Such nations, she said, receive too much benefit from IUU seafood’s economic value to make the agreement attractive.

“I use the example of the Russians with the illegal take of crab, putting that out and flooding the market with additional crab thus lowering the price,” said Murkowski. “When they are violating terms of agreement, we have other negotiations we engage with in Russia in other matters. We can come back to the violation and say ‘in order for us to continue…we need you to be a more cooperative neighbor for our fisheries.’”

Russian IUU crab has been linked to organized crime in that country, making IUU enforcement a joint problem in the North Pacific. The U.S. and Russian governments signed a bilateral agreement on Sept. 11 mostly aimed at information sharing between law enforcement on either side of the Bering Sea.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

11/04/2015 - 2:21pm