Pirate fishing bill sponsored by Alaska’s senators headed to President’s desk

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect when the bill was passed and who sponsored it.

A new measure granting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration more authority to combat illegal fishing is on its way to President Barack Obama’s desk to be signed.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, also known as pirate fishing, frustrates many U.S. commercial fishermen by flooding the U.S. market and lowering the selling price for many species of fish.

The new bill, co-sponsored by Alaskan Republican senators Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan and Brian Schatz (D-HI) in the Senate, combines a number of existing fisheries treaties to enhance cooperation to report vessels and seize illegal harvests at U.S.-controlled ports. 

Murkowski said the estimated economic losses from pirate fishing are between $10 billion and $23 billion, which heavily impacts Alaska, where many communities depend on fishing. She cited the example of illegal Russian crab harvests, which the World Wildlife Fund estimated to be as much as 69 percent more than the country’s official reported harvest.

“As they are illegally harvesting our seafood, it results in economic losses, not only to our fishermen in the state but really a global loss and global value in terms of lost profits,” Murkowski said in a teleconference Thursday. “(We have seen) the impact that our Alaska crab fishermen have felt because of IUU fishing by the Russians for crab.”

The national government has focused several pieces of legislation on reducing illegal Russian crab fisheries in recent months. The U.S. and Russian governments signed an agreement Sept. 11 to combat pirate fishing, and some of the provisions of the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership may target pirate fishing.

The bill depends in large part upon agreements from the other countries that participate in the fisheries to report vessels engaged in pirate fishing. NOAA and the Coast Guard will compile and maintain the list, and port entry will be denied to vessels on the list. Any harvest or equipment determined to be used in pirate fishing could be seized as well.

Murkowski introduced the bill in the Senate in May. Alaska congressman Don Young and representative Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU) co-sponsored the House’s version of the bill in February, which was sent to the Senate in July, where it passed on Oct. 21. Ephraim Froehlich, a legislative assistant in Murkowski’s office, said the bills are nearly identical, but the House’s version will be sent to the president for approval.

“It gives enforcement measures to enforce these treaties and these regulations, and it’s kind of the culmination of a long path to do so,” Froehlich said.

The enforcement powers granted to NOAA will apply if Obama signs the bill, but the treaties that incorporate other countries must be approved by the representatives from those countries before they can take effect. That affects the port measures section of the bill, which denies pirate fishing vessels access to port.

Murkowski said if any countries refuse to approve it, it will show they are profiting from pirate fishing.

“The reason they would not is if they have something to hide,” Murkowski said. “You wouldn’t think we would have to put in place measures or treaties requiring you to do the right thing when it comes to seafood. But as we all know, you’ve got some who choose to disregard the rules that are out there to their financial advantage.”

Reducing the amount of illegal seafood that enters U.S. ports could help with reducing the mislabeling discovered at some retailers in the country. Several tests of packaged seafood at major grocers have shown that the labels do not match with the content. A group of researchers in St. Louis tested 85 samples from 45 retailers in April 2015 and found that a third failed to match the label. Oceana, a nonprofit advocating for ocean conservation, estimated in a 2010–2012 study that a third of seafood products nationwide are mislabeled, including in retail stores, restaurants and sushi venues.

The pirate fishing bill does not expressly address marketing issues. However, reducing the amount of illegal seafood imported into the U.S. could help reduce the amount of mislabeling, Murkowski said.

“As an Alaskan, as a consumer, I want better information about where my fish is coming from,” Murkowski said. “We believe this (bill) does help with the effort. If Russia can’t fill the market with illegally harvested crab, it can’t be mislabeled.”

NOAA will need more funds for its new enforcement powers. However, Froehlich said an excise tax on the fishing industry is not likely, but NOAA will have to allocate more in its budget toward enforcement. The agency had been funded for the past three years to start its pirate fishing enforcement role, he said.

“As far as future costs go, NOAA may ask for more money (from appropriations) to enforce the bill,” Froehlich said. “But they’re ready to get the ball rolling on this.”

Although the bill depends on the signatures of the other countries before it can go into full effect, on the domestic front, it places “a cop on the beach,” Murkowski said.

“This is all hands on deck to deal with a problem that we have that threatens the sustainable management of our fisheries and threatens foreign relationships as we fish in these international waters,” Murkowski said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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