USA: House hearing on the international seafood industry

The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife has held an oversight hearing to shed light on the illegal seafood trade and its violations of human rights.


The hearing provided a good overview of the various issues and showcased the need for governmental agencies to step up efforts to crack down on human rights abuses at sea and so-called IUU fishing; fishing that is Illegal – Unregulated – Unreported. One example of an agency that could be very helpful in this work is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Several members of the Committee — including Representatives Huffman, Radewagen, Sablan, and Case—expressed concern about whether NOAA was exercising the full extent of its authority to identify and penalize bad actors.

Examples of issues raised by Committee members:

  • Could NOAA use trade sanctions more often to encourage countries to act against IUU fishing?
  • Should NOAA expand the definition of IUU fishing to allow formal identification of nations with labour violations in their seafood supply chains?
  • Why has NOAA failed to identify nations that engage in illegal shark fishing?

One of the most powerful tools in NOAA´s toolbox when it comes to IUU fishing is the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act, but so far, NOAA has not fully leveraged it. In their most recent report, NOAA failed to identify more than three countries (Mexico, Ecuador and South Korea) engaging in illegal fishing in 2016-2018. NOAA only flagged China as ”a country of concern”, despite their well-documented illegal fishing operations in marine zones belonging to other countries in the region.

A big chunk of imported seafood is illegal

According to a study published in 2014, ( at least 20% of the wild-caught seafood imported to the United States hail from illegal operations. The supply chains for seafood are murky which makes it difficult to trace the true sources of the food, and there are also few efficient instruments available to inhibit the import of illegal seafood to the U.S.

Examples of illegal fishing practise:

  • Using illegal gear to fish
  • Fishing in protected areas without the proper authorization
  • Violating conservation measures enacted to protect marine habitats and biodiversity, e.g. measures to protect sea turtles, sharks, mammals and seabirds from the impact of fishing operations
  • Failing to accurately report catches


The intersection between illegal fishing and human rights abuse

The hearing included testimony from several experts that explained the strong connection between illegal fishing and human rights abuses. Examples of experts that testified on these issues at the hearing were investigative journalist Ian Urbina (writer of the book “The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys across the last untamed frontier”), Nathaniel Rickard of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, Ame Sagiv from Humanity United, and John Connelly who works for the National Fisheries Institute.

Committee member´s questions emphasized the need to address these issues in tandem instead of treating them as two completely separate problems.

While it might be tempting to see these issues as something committed far away, and in developing countries only, some of these abuses of humans and nature are taking place much closer to home. There is, for instance, the ongoing issue with human rights violations carried out on U.S-flagged longliner fleets that have Honolulu as their main harbour. These abuses have been illuminated in reports by both the Environmental Justice Foundation and the Georgetown University Law Center.