The Obama administration announced on Tuesday an initiative to track every fish sold in the United States, a move designed to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, mislabeling of seafood and related problems.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who is leading the push for new ocean conservation measures, said the measures will ensure all seafood sold in the U.S. is both sustainable and traceable, meaning all customers will know exactly who caught it, where and when.
The United States plays a big role in the world's seafood market; it's the largest importer after Japan. But an estimated 20% to 32% of the wild-caught imports are illegal and unreported, according to a study published this year in the journal Marine Policy.
Tuesday's announcement, delivered in a taped message from the president and in person by Kerry at an Our Ocean conference in Washington, was well-received by a crowd representing 80 countries and several environmental organizations.
Among the ocean plan's most ambitious and controversial steps would be expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument southwest of Hawaii. In January 2009, President George W Bush gave monument status to nearly 87,000 square miles around uninhabited islands, an area that is home to thousands of migratory birds, fish and mammals.
A White House fact sheet states that the administration is considering an expansion of the reserve, but plans to first consider input of fishermen, scientists and other stakeholders.
Ray Hilborn, a marine biologist and University of Washington professor who spoke at the conference, said he is skeptical of the reserve's purpose, adding that he is not aware of any significant fisheries that would be shut down as a result of the expansion. However, the proposal could eventually more than double the area of ocean protected by the United States, environmental groups said, and block the incursion of future fisheries.
The president also established a task force of at least a dozen federal agencies to develop recommendations to better combat seafood fraud and IUU fishing. The administration did not offer details on how the fish might be tracked.
The United States imports more than 90% of its seafood, and most fish is flown or shipped from China and Thailand, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Meanwhile, more than 85% of the world's fisheries are fished beyond sustainable limits, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO. Much of that is due to illegal fishing practices.
Traceability is essential to a good management system, says Eric Schwaab, chief conservation officer of Baltimore's National Aquarium and former acting assistant secretary for conservation and management for NOAA. You can't have a management system without a way to distinguish the illegal from the legal imports.
He hopes traceability requirements proposed by the federal government will help curb illegal practices abroad.
A 2013 study by the nonprofit Oceana found that 25% to 70% of popular fish such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod are mislabeled in the United States, disguising cheaper and less desirable fish.