Senate Foreign Relations Committee Considers Key Pact to Fight Illegal Fishing

02/12/2014 - Stronger port controls would prevent illegally caught fish from reaching consumers

With illegal fishing costing the global economy billions of dollars each year and threatening the national security of the United States and many other nations, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Feb. 12 began consideration of an international agreement that would cut off market access for illegally caught fish.

The committee hearing, held by Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), featured witnesses who support U.S. ratification of the Port State Measures Agreement, which would shore up inspections and controls in ports. Nations that ratify the agreement pledge to inspect foreign vessels suspected of illegal fishing and to deny port access and services when there is clear evidence of fisheries crimes.

Photo Credit: Per Erik Berg

Large-scale illegal fishing, carried out with vessels that are often more than 100 feet long, results in thousands of tons of fish entering the market through loosely controlled ports. Experts say that approximately one-fifth of the wild ocean fish catch is illegal or unreported, accounting for as much as $23.5 billion worth of fish each year. Reports from the U.S. State Department and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime note that many illegal fishermen also engage in other transnational crimes, including drug smuggling, human trafficking, and human rights abuses.

“This committee’s consideration of this agreement is a critical first step toward further empowering the United States to protect its economy, national security, and natural resources from illegal fishing,” said Tony Long, who leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to end illegal fishing. “We thank Senator Markey and Senator Rubio for holding this important hearing and urge Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey and ranking member Bob Corker of Tennessee to advance these critical fisheries agreements as soon as possible.”

The United Nations adopted the Port State Measures Agreement in 2009. The pact will take effect once 25 parties ratify it; nine have done so (eight countries and the European Union), and 19 others have initiated ratification through their domestic political processes. Two U.S. agencies¬—the State Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—played leading roles in negotiating the terms of the agreement. “By ratifying the agreement now, the United States will send a strong message to criminal fishers that they cannot move their illegally caught fish through U.S. ports,” Long said.

On July 30, 2013, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved two related bills: the Pirate Fishing Elimination Act (S. 267), which is the implementing legislation for the Port State Measures Agreement, and the International Fisheries Stewardship and Enforcement Act (S. 269). Both bills would strengthen the ability of U.S. law enforcement to detect and prosecute foreign illegal fishing activity in U.S. waters and on the high seas.

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