Why the Ocean Needs the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act

Sharks are crucial for a healthy ocean, but overfishing is killing them. This bill takes a step in the right direction.

We are in a biodiversity crisis. Species are disappearing across the globe, undermining the biological networks that allow life on earth to survive and thrive. In the ocean, sharks are both pillars of productive ecosystems and victims of this crisis, with some species of shark declining by over 80% in the last half century.

Earthjustice is fighting to protect sharks because these millennia-old scientific wonders are on the path to disappearing before we even understand them, which will leave gaping holes in ocean ecosystems and the human communities they support. Sharks are crucial for a healthy ocean, a stable climate, and the livelihoods and culture of people around the world. We are fighting for sharks because we need them, and the earth needs them.

Overfishing is one of the greatest killers of sharks. We take too many sharks out of the ocean, both purposefully and accidentally as bycatch. One of the biggest drivers of overfishing is illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. Illegal, unregulated, or unreported fishing is fishing that violates existing laws or happens without any oversight to ensure legal compliance. Far from land and regulation, fishers catch and kill sharks at a devastating rate. Intentional illegal shark fishing often involves the cruel practice of finning sharks alive and throwing them back in the ocean to slowly and painfully drown. Illegal fishing is also often rife with violations of labor and human rights laws.

As the world’s biggest seafood importer, the U.S. has a responsibility to lead on making fishing more sustainable and promoting wise ocean stewardship. A recently introduced bill titled the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act takes a step in the right direction.

This bill amends and strengthens one of the most important tools the U.S. has to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing: the High Seas Driftnet Fishery Moratorium Protection Act (Moratorium Protection Act), which allows the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to identify, certify, and potentially sanction countries when their vessels engage in illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. The Moratorium Protection Act specifically targets shark fishing by allowing NOAA to identify nations for:

  1. Illegal shark fishing;
  2. Engaging in the bycatch of protected shark species; or
  3. Fishing for sharks on the high seas.

Despite the Moratorium Protection Act’s focus on sharks, however, NOAA has never listed a nation for catching sharks as bycatch or for catching sharks on the high seas, and only once has NOAA listed a nation for illegal shark fishing. Clearly, a stronger law is needed to promote better international ocean management.

The Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act takes a comprehensive approach to improving our existing tools for combatting illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing and transforming our nation’s role from being an unintentional consumer of illegal and unregulated fishing products to being a global leader on prevention. Three elements of the bill are crucial for Earthjustice’s priorities of sustainable and equitable ocean management and to combat the biodiversity crisis:

  1. Strengthening the mandate for NOAA to identify nations who are illegally fishing, including for sharks, under the Moratorium Protection Act;
  2. Strengthening and expanding the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which will help U.S. consumers know exactly where their seafood comes from; and
  3. Combatting human trafficking as a key part of overall efforts to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.

The Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act is both commonsense and urgent. Illegal fishing jeopardizes the survival of one of our greatest classes of ocean predators. Sharks are keystone species, and when they disappear, entire ecosystems suffer. More action is needed to protect sharks and preserve ocean ecosystems, and Earthjustice supports this first important step to stemming the tide of illegal seafood into our ports. With bipartisan support for advancing these practical solutions to the growing problem of illegal fishing, Congress must advance the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act this session.

As a senior associate attorney with Earthjustice's Oceans team, Danika helps to protect the beautiful and mysterious world under water.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.