Establishing a Comprehensive Framework to Combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud


To: Carrie Selberg, Chief of Staff, Office of the Assistant Administrator, National Marine Fisheries Service

From: Sara Naghavi

Date: March 31, 2015

Subject: Establishing a Comprehensive Framework to Combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud



          The seafood industry has a higher employment rate than that of the world’s population, accounting for 10-12 percent of the world’s livelihoods, and directly affects consumers around the world.1 There is a problem, however, with Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud, which occurs when a product meant for human consumption is mislabeled to deceive retailers and consumers. In reality, these fish may be of lower quality or of an overfished species, then labeled and marketed as a more attractive species. I write to draw your attention to the necessary improvements that the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud has the ability to enforce, in the hope that you will model your efforts after those of other agencies who share similar goals to prevent further damage to the seafood industry and those who rely on it. IUU fishing and seafood fraud undermine the economy, cheat consumers, and encourage overfishing with disregard towards future use of the oceans and future food security. Many people rely on fish for their sustenance, and with growing populations the demand for seafood will become even greater. Supply, and subsequently IUU fishing, will increase to meet that demand, but in doing so they will damage the food supply system that they themselves, and countless others, rely on.



          Seafood is a critical source of protein in diets around the world. The FAO report on “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2014” identifies seafood as providing 7.2 billion people with 15 to 20 percent of their protein for 2010.1 While the United States has made advancements against overfishing in federal waters4, it remains the world’s largest importer of fish, followed by Japan and China, which is also the world’s largest exporter of fish.1 This means that these countries are dependent upon the health of international seafood stocks. Seafood is an important market commodity, making up more than half of the total trade of some developing countries.1 This large international demand for seafood causes intense fishing pressures on already stressed fish stocks.2 The abundance of demand causes competitors to want to actively participate in this market, with many of them participating in fraudulent behavior to circumvent regulations and increase their profit.

Mislabeled seafood misinforms retailers and consumers of possible health risks and the sustainability of the fish, causing possible damage to the citizens’ health, their wallets, and ocean ecosystems.3 In an extensive study conducted by Oceana, the organization sampled fish from various retailers across the country and through DNA analysis, uncovered that 33 percent of the samples had been mislabeled.3 Snapper was mislabeled 87 percent of the time, and tuna 59 percent of the time, causing consumers to be unaware of what fish they were actually purchasing and consuming.3 The study also identified mislabeling at multiple places along the supply line: a retailer may purchase a product under a false pretense and sell it directly to consumers or to restaurants, which then serve a mislabeled product. This betrays the trust of consumers and causes buyers to pay for a higher quality fish while receiving a lower quality fish. 3 The nature of importing seafood makes it difficult to discern at what point in the supply chain the fish became mislabeled, from on the boat to in the market.3


Current Action

          The Task Force has identified multiple areas of concern and has recommended several implementations. Among these is the lack of a unifying body that encompasses participating federal agencies and their individual responsibilities. Various agencies monitor domestic and international seafood trade, with jurisdiction ranging from preventing fishing violations to monitoring food labeling. No one agency has total authority over a single issue; this in addition to the lack of uniformity among data collection and lack of cooperation among the agencies prevents proper management.4 The Task Force should oversee all of these participating agencies and create uniform methods for their data collection and information sharing; this would be in accordance with the recommendations set forth by the Task Force. While I agree with these recommendations, I would like to draw your attention to the regulations in place under the United Nations, as a reference for the nature of the regulations that the United States should put in place.

The FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries provides recommendations for countries to follow, based on international regulations.2 Additionally, the international consensus on World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreements allows the Dispute Settlement Body to assess disagreements between countries over trade regulations.2 The document includes the responsibilities countries have, most important of which are to follow the international policies that prevent jeopardizing the ocean ecosystems for short-term monetary gain.2 It emphasizes that the creation of laws be scientifically based, clear, and concise, as to not try to confuse other nations or hide behind unclear statements.2 Nations should work together towards this common goal and aid developing countries with the implementation of clear fishing and seafood trading laws when possible and appropriate.2 While laudable, the problem with the FAO guidelines is that it holds no legal power.


Recommendation and Implementation

          I recommend that the Task Force implement structures to unify agencies concerned with IUU fishing and seafood fraud in the United States, in a fashion similar to those of the FAO and WTO that oversee the compliance of their responsibilities and cooperativeness. The beauty is that although the FAO’s Guidelines hold no legal power, the United States has the ability to accomplish such an endeavor. The United States has the opportunity to aid other countries to adhere to agreed-upon regulations within the WTO Agreements so that violators of these policies no longer undermine the accomplishments of the United States.

In addition to this organizational structure, I believe that the first action of the Task Force should be to work with international agencies to create a transparent tracing system for seafood. Traceability should be thought of as a tool that can pinpoint from where the product originated and where it is headed at any point in the supply chain.5 It “can contribute to the protection of consumers against deceptive marketing practices and facilitation of trade on the basis of accurate product description…by reinforcing confidence in the authenticity of the product and the accuracy of information provided on the products.”5 I believe that addressing this aspect of seafood fraud will identify more concrete areas under which IUU fishing can then be addressed. Tackling the issue of traceability will aid in identifying the source of mislabeling, so that guilty parties may be held accountable. This should involve uniform punishment of varying degrees dependent upon the extent to which mislabeling occurred. I caution against the use of certification systems, due to the discriminatory behavior that may result against vendors unable to afford such certification.2 A traceability program should be an open conversation between all parties involved in order to prevent the unfairness and ineffectiveness that implementation without such discussion could produce.


SWOT Analysis


  • The transparency of tracing the source of seafood ensures its source and identifies parties involved in mislabeling.


  • There are many fishing fleets to be tracked; 4.72 million fishing vessels, with 68 percent of them in Asian waters, as of 2012.1


  • The assistance of developed countries to assist developing, exporting countries in this process so that importing countries can be assured of the food’s quality.5


  • Countries in which a traceability program is not a possible endeavor may be discriminated against unjustly.5 The proper compliance with WTO Agreements should mitigate this issue.



          IUU fishing in one area harms the economy and ecology of interacting ocean ecosystems, even in areas that follow and adhere to sustainability practices; it negates the good that is being done.4 Poor governance is the largest threat to the sustainability of the fishing industry, which is crucial for food security and the economy.1 I believe that our nation is making the correct advancements towards having a sustainable seafood industry, and that it is our nation’s responsibility to hold other nations accountable to sustainable fishing practices.




  1. Mathiesen, A. M. The State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012. 3–92, 199–223 (2012).
  2. FAO. FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries. (2009).
  3. Warner, K., Timme, W., Lowell, B. & Hirshfield, M. Oceana study reveals seafood fraud nationwide. Oceana Retrieved August 11, 2014 (2013).
  4. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Reccomendations of the Presidential Task Force on Combaing Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud. (2014). at <>
  5. Commission, J. F. C. A., Organization, W. H. & Programme, J. F. F. S. Codex alimentarius: food import and export inspection and certification systems. (Food & Agriculture Org., 2007). at <,+as+defined+above,+is+one+of+a+number+of+tools+that%22+%22the+effectiveness+and/or+efficiency+of+the+actions+that+may+be%22+%22Guidelines+for+the+Development+of+Equivalence+Agreements+Regarding+Food+Import+and%22+&ots=qxcQ2p2geF&sig=HnA7fJP3fb5yzIDb4RIvN3MJ718>

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