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U.S. aims at PRC in new illegal fishing policy framework

The Associated Press

United States President Joe Biden’s administration is stepping up efforts to combat illegal fishing by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), ordering federal agencies to better coordinate among themselves as well as with foreign partners in a bid to promote sustainable use of the world’s oceans.

In late June 2022, the White House released its first National Security memo on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing to coincide with the start of a United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

Nearly 11% of U.S. seafood imports in 2019 worth U.S. $2.4 billion came from IUU fishing, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

While the PRC isn’t named in the policy framework, it is a dominant seafood processor and, through state loans and fuel subsidies, has built the world’s largest distant water-fishing fleet, with thousands of floating fish factories spread across the Indo-Pacific, Africa and the Americas. (Pictured: Fijian law enforcement officers and U.S. Coast Guard personnel board a Chinese-flagged vessel off the coast of Fiji in April 2022 during patrols to counter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.)

Specifically, the memo directs 21 federal departments and agencies to better share information, coordinate enforcement actions such as sanctions and visa restrictions, and promote best practices among international allies.

It was expected to be followed quickly by new rules from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expanding the definition of illegal fishing to include related labor abuses, a first step to the eventual blacklisting of flag states that fail to comply.

Conservation groups praised the effort, which builds on work started under former U.S. President Barack Obama to clean up U.S. seafood supply chains.

“American fishermen have to follow a lot of rules and regulations by the U.S. government,” said Beth Lowell, vice president for Oceana, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “By taking actions against other countries like China that have a poor labor and environmental record, it levels the playing field and that benefits legal fishermen all over the world.”

The plan also calls for expansion of the U.S. seafood import monitoring program, which requires importers to provide documentation from the point of catch to insure that illegally caught fish don’t slip into the U.S. Currently, the program covers about a dozen species. Oceana and other groups have been pushing for the program to cover all imports.

“Until the United States holds all seafood imports to the same standards as U.S.-caught fish, illegally sourced seafood will continue to be sold alongside legal catch,” Lowell said.

In Lisbon, where officials and scientists from more than 120 countries attended the five-day conference, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres criticized some countries — which he did not identify — for looking out for their own economic interests instead of the needs of the planet.

The U.N. hoped the conference would bring momentum to the protracted efforts for a global ocean agreement on conservation on the high seas.

President Biden’s administration’s announcement came as the World Trade Organization (WTO) heralded a historic agreement, reaching a deal during its June 2022 conference in Geneva, Switzerland, to curb IUU fishing, reduce the strain on dwindling fishing stocks, and ensure more transparency and accountability through improved conservation and management measures. The WTO deal explicitly prohibits subsidies, considered by environmentalists to be the biggest contributing factor to depleting fish populations globally.

“IUU fishing is hurting our ocean, our people and our planet. It jeopardizes our environment, rule of law and our maritime security. To tackle this multifaceted problem, we need a multifaceted approach,” Monica Medina, assistant secretary for the U.S. Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, said during the U.N. conference in Lisbon. “That is why the United States is proud to see WTO members have taken a positive step forward to discipline harmful fisheries subsidies, establishing the first-ever multilateral trade agreement with environment at its core. And as the WTO negotiations continue, we will continue to pursue more ambitious fisheries subsidies disciplines.”

Oceans cover about 70% of Earth’s surface and provide food and livelihoods for billions of people. Some activists refer to them as the planet’s largest unregulated area.

The Treaty of the High Seas is being negotiated within the framework of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the main international agreement governing maritime activities.

Guterres said “significant progress” has been made toward a deal on the treaty and that the world stands at “a crucial moment” for the future of the oceans.

“We need to make people put pressure on those who decide,” he said.

Threats to the oceans include warming and acidification from carbon pollution, and massive plastics contamination, the U.N. says. Potentially harmful deep-sea mining also lacks rules.

The conference was also expected to reaffirm and build upon the more than 60 commitments made by governments at the previous summit in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2018, from protecting small island states with ocean-based economies to sustainable fishing and combating warming waters.


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