From Catch to Plate: Ending Human Trafficking and Illegal Fishing

The Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act calls for an innovative, whole-of-government approach to the global seafood industry that is long overdue.

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard and Ghana Navy inspect a boat suspected of illegal fishing in the Gulf of Guinea.

I recently stood at the seafood counter at a grocery store, wanting to purchase some high-quality fish for a special occasion. Looking at the fillets of white, pink, and orange meat and jaunty piles of shrimp, I wondered how confident I could be that the seafood before me was harvested ethically and legally. Right now, the unfortunate answer to that question is—not very.

But, with the introduction of the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act in the U.S. House of Representatives today, the United States has the opportunity to remedy two inexcusable problems—human trafficking in the seafood industry and illegal fishing. Roughly a third of today’s global seafood harvest comes from fishing operations engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing practices (IUU) or illegal fishing. Illegal fishing depletes near-shore fisheries and perpetuates human trafficking in the seafood sector. As vessels must travel further and stay out at sea longer to catch enough fish, their costs increase, putting downward pressure on wages. When crews become reluctant to work under increasingly worse conditions, more operators turn to forced labor to provide the labor they need.

These are global crises, but ones that the United States has a responsibility to take a lead in combating. U.S. consumers spend more money on imported seafood than any other nation. The United States has the ability and the resources to ensure that all seafood sold in the United States is safe, legally caught, ethically sourced, and honestly labeled.

The Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act legislation would be a major step in combating illegal fishing and human trafficking in the global seafood industry. It calls for an innovative, all-of-government approach that is long overdue. The legislation would expand and modernize the United States’ seafood import system so that these imports stop being a major conduit for illegal and unethically harvested seafood. The legislation would also require and enable the United States to more vigorously enforce against IUU fishing in producer countries.

By closing loopholes in the United States’ traceability program, the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), and expanding it to cover all seafood species, requiring data regarding labor conditions and the supply chain (including transshipment information, harvest locations, and vessel ownership), and updating the electronic import control system, the act will allow the United States to more proactively identify and stop illegal seafood shipments.

The Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act strengthens the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act (High Seas Driftnet Act) by allowing the United States to put more pressure on nations whose fishing fleets engage in IUU fishing, human trafficking, forced labor, or child labor. It strengthens the act’s process for pressuring nations to end a variety of illegal and destructive fishing practices—including activities like shark finning, which is intimately linked to forced labor practices. The act also increases U.S. authority to penalize fishing nations for labor rights abuses, which will help curb illegal fishing and overfishing.

Seafood labeling and traceability requirements would be expanded. Currently, such requirements end at U.S. ports. The act would extend them throughout the supply chain, from “port to plate”—better ensuring that seafood consumers know what they’re eating and how it was caught.

The United States ought to have a zero-tolerance policy for both illegally caught seafood and seafood harvested and produced with forced or trafficked labor. Past efforts have been well-intentioned but inadequate to the scope of the task. The Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act would be a giant step toward tackling the intertwined issues of IUU fishing and human rights abuses in the seafood industry. If passed, it would help to establish the United States an international leader in the global effort to end both.