WASHINGTON — Illegal fishing undermines efforts to stop overfishing and shrinks the profits of legal commercial fishermen, the oceans chiefs of the United States and the European Union declared on Wednesday, as they pledged to cooperate to nab fish pirates.
Although it’s a global problem, the U.S. and the European Union declared they have a big responsibility for solving it because they catch and import so much seafood. The EU is the world’s top seafood importer, followed by Japan and the U.S.
Illegal fishing is one of the most serious threats to American fishing jobs and the health of the world’s oceans, said Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA says the illegal operations allow pirates to cut corners and lower their costs, and so they have an unfair competitive advantage. In the world’s poorest countries, the large pirate vessels take fish that’s needed by subsistence fishermen, Lubchenco said at a news conference here.
Her European counterpart, Maria Damanaki, who visited Washington to sign the agreement on Wednesday, said that an EU report estimated that pirates globally take 20 percent of the catch, but some environmental groups estimate it’s 30 percent.
“The truth is, we don’t know exactly, but we have to find out,” she said.
The lack of information makes it difficult for consumers to know whether much of their seafood was legally and sustainably caught. In the U.S., more than 80 percent of seafood is imported. About half of the imports are wild-caught fish, and half are farm-raised.
“We don’t have a real good handle on the extent of illegal imports,” Lubchenco said.
She said that the agreement she and Damanaki signed calls for the U.S. and the EU to work together to identify pirate vessels and deny them port entry and also to train more science observers and enforcement personnel.
Under Damanaki’s leadership as commissioner for fisheries and maritime affairs, the EU in 2010 started to require that all fish it imported or caught had to have a certificate showing its legality. Damanaki said her goal is to get international support for a global certificate.
Lubchenco said the United States didn’t plan a certificate program but instead would rely on the countries where fishing vessels are registered to make sure they operate legally. The U.S. already restricts port entry for vessels on the piracy lists of international regional fisheries organizations that it belongs to.
The U.S. also can impose trade sanctions on countries that don’t take steps to stop fish piracy.
Global economic losses from fish piracy are estimated at $10 billion to $23.5 billion a year, Lubchenco said.