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Illegal Fishing Proposal Stabbed by Greens

WASHINGTON (CN) - A seafood traceability program proposed Friday does not go far enough, conservation organizations say.

A presidential task force formed last year announced its proposal Friday to establish a "chain of custody" seafood traceability program in the U.S. to combat seafood fraud. The proposal would apply to imported fish and seafood products, and does not apply to domestic fisheries, which are already regulated, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in the announcement.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing poses a direct threat to food security and socio-economic stability, undercuts legal fisheries, affects the seafood market by creating doubt in consumer perception of food safety, contributes to unsafe working conditions for illegal workers and is purportedly implicated in other illegal activities such as drug running and human trafficking. The IUU trade also threatens the viability of the world's fishery resources, especially at risk species, in addition to the staggering economic costs.

"In a 2009 peer reviewed article, it was estimated that the global value of economic losses from IUU fishing range between $10 billion and $23.5 billion annually, representing between 11 and 26 million tons. While this article may represent a reasonable estimate, due to the very nature of illegal, unreported and unregulated, documentation, these activities are difficult to quantify and their impacts are very dynamic. Implementing the Action Plan recommendations developed through the Presidential Task Force, will assist in getting a better handle on what the actual level of activity and impacts are," NOAA said.

The National Ocean Council Committee to Combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud is in charge of implementing the recommendations of the task force, which is co-chaired by the State Department and the Department of Commerce, primarily through NOAA, its oceans agency. The task force includes 13 other federal agencies and White House offices.

"Traceability is a key tool for combating illicit activities that threaten valuable natural resources, increase global food security risk and disadvantage law-abiding fishermen and seafood producers," NOAA administrator Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D., said. "We are asking the seafood industry, trade and consumer sectors, our international partners and the conservation community to help guide us in creating an effective, efficient program."

Initially, the traceability program will only apply to a list of seafood species known to be particularly vulnerable to IUU fishing and seafood fraud, which is one of the shortcomings of the proposal noted by Oceana, an international environmental organization that has championed the cause of seafood traceability.

"With more than 1,800 species of seafood available for sale to the United States, limiting traceability to only a group of 'at risk' seafood leaves the rest of the seafood supply unguarded," Oceana's senior campaign director Beth Lowell, said. "There must be a concrete timeline to expand the rule to all species and extend traceability from boat to plate in the final rule."

The proposed rule would only track fish and seafood to the point at which it enters the U.S., and would not trace the products to the final point of sale. "Requiring documentation at the first point of entry into U.S. commerce may protect seafood buyers from purchasing some products caught by IUU fishing, but it does not stop seafood fraud, which can happen anywhere throughout the supply chain, even within U.S. borders," Lowell said.

The World Wildlife Fund, another conservation organization concerned with this issue, praised the action as an important first step in the right direction, but also expressed concern over the proposal's limitations. "As this proposed rule is considered further, it will benefit from clarification of definitions, additional information requirements, definitive timing for application and expansion to include all species, and a robust verification process," WWF vice president of oceans policy, Michele Kuruc, said. "It's critical that this proposal is seen as a next step toward ending illegal fishing, not the final one. We still have a way to go to ensure that all seafood products imported into the U.S are traceable and legal."

Comments on the proposal are due April 5. Public webinars are scheduled for 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time Feb. 18 and 24, and an in-person public listening session is scheduled for 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. EST March 7, in Boston, Mass.

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