NOAA moves to police seas

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As part of their continuing effort to take a lead in managing global fisheries, officials with the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration told Congress earlier this month that they’ll work with six countries – singled-out for their lack of enforcement — to cut down on illegal fishing around the globe.

A NOAA taskforce identified vessels in Colombia, Ecuador, Italy, Panama, Portugal, and Venezuela for illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, or IUU. Most infractions were for fishing out of season or without proper registration, but in one instance driftnets were used illegally by an Italian vessel to catch 24 eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna — 20 of them under the legal catch size — in the summer of 2009.

This overfished species was at the center of Looting the Seas, an ICIJ investigation that revealed an inept international management structure that fueled a $4 billion black market in eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna.

This is the second time NOAA has attempted this collaborative policing of the seas. Since 2007, an international provision of a U.S. law requires NOAA biennially to identify IUU fishing in U.S. waters, international waters shared with U.S. fishermen, and of protected living marine resources. It does this by working with fisheries management organizations, NGOs and by talking to governments and other regulators. NOAA then works through the U.S. State Department to address shortfalls in regional fisheries management operations or government regulations.

"Illegal fishing must be stopped as it subjects our (U.S.) fishermen to unfair competition and undermines efforts to sustainably manage the valuable fish stocks around the world that so many communities depend on for food and jobs," said Russell Smith, NOAA deputy assistant secretary for international fisheries in a statement.

This announcement comes as NOAA wraps up a controversial evaluation of the Gulf of Mexico-spawning western Atlantic bluefin tuna stock. The evaluation stems from a bid by a conservation group to list the species under the Endangered Species Act, and thus end all bluefin tuna fishing off the U.S. Atlantic coast.

On top of regional regulations, NOAA has set forth some of the most conservation-friendly fishing guidelines for American fleets — rules so stringent, some fishermen say they can’t compete on international markets.

The strict U.S. rules, though, have made American fishermen leaders in conservation efforts. A recently-retired NOAA scientist projected this month that 2011 will be the first year U.S. fishermen will not take more than their share from the sea.

By documenting effectively enforced reforms — reforms held to U.S. and United Nations management standards — NOAA has certified the six countries it pegged with IUU-fishing vessels two years ago in its first report to Congress. Italy, Libya, Panama, China, France, and Tunisia were all cleared of prior claims of fishing-rule violations, though Italy and Panama reappeared in this year's report for new violations.

This is a good sign, Smith said in a phone interview. "Our goal is to get countries to be responsible and take positive actions."

In the case a country doesn't enact appropriate reforms or illegal fishing persists, Congress can decide to bar its vessels from U.S. ports or ban imports.

"We don't want our dollars to go to those that are decimating the resources that we rely on both for food and jobs," Smith said.

In the future, the administration will centralize IUU vessel lists and continue to work "multilaterally" with fishing nations, Smith said.

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