NOAA Just Named 31 Nations That Engage in Illegal or Unregulated Fishing. Here’s Why That’s a Step in the Right Direction.

This new approach will help the agency protect marine biodiversity.

In Earthjustice’s legal work to protect the ocean, one of the most pernicious problems we face around the globe is widespread illegal fishing practices that deplete species and upset marine biodiversity. 

It’s not an easy thing to measure, but we do have one key indicator — the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides a report to Congress every two years about international fisheries management. In that report, NOAA identifies countries where fishing fleets use illegal or unregulated practices. Once a country gets an official listing in the report, NOAA engages with that nation to fix the problem. If the nation fails to change practices, the United States can negatively certify that country and impose various penalties. The NOAA report is both a tool to shine light on unsustainable fishing behavior and the first step in a process to hold bad actors accountable.

Although illegal or unregulated fishing accounts for 15–30% of annual global catch, in previous reports, NOAA identified only three to 10 nations engaging in illegal fishing — a drop in the ocean. In the recently released 2021 report, NOAA started to swim in the right direction, improving the agency’s approach to how it determines whether a nation gets listed and also expanding the number of nations listed as having illegal or unregulated fishing practices to 31.

The biennial reports are a key component of the U.S. regulatory scheme to combat illegal fishing and protect U.S. fishers and consumers. In the reports, NOAA is required to list countries for three types of fishing behavior: violating international fishery conservation measures, incidental catch (called bycatch) of protected species, and shark catch on the high seas.

Of the 31 nations listed in NOAA’s 2021 report, seven were listed for violating international fishery conservation measures and 29 were listed for protected species bycatch. For only the second time since it began reporting to Congress in 2009, NOAA negatively certified a country — Mexico — for allowing Mexican fishermen to illegally fish red snapper in U.S. waters. This means that the U.S. may impose penalties on Mexico for not effectively addressing these illegal fishing practices.

Illegal fishing: NOAA listed seven countries that were engaged in illegal fishing. In the 2021 report, NOAA took the step of relying on evidence provided by non-government organizations monitoring the problem and collecting testimony from fishermen, fisheries observers, and undercover investigators. In some cases, these brave individuals put their lives at risk to provide this evidence in hope of stopping the forced labor and fishing practices that violate human rights and can devastate our marine ecosystems. By taking into account evidence from these sources, NOAA is expanding its on-the-ground capacities to identify and stop illegal fishing.

Bycatch of Protected Species: In the 2021 report, NOAA listed 29 countries with fishing fleets that catch sea turtles as bycatch in the Atlantic Ocean and lack a regulatory scheme with protections comparable to those required by the U.S. Until now, NOAA had identified only one nation that was harming sea turtles by snagging them as bycatch when fishing fleets were targeting other species — and that was back in 2015. NOAA’s previous neglect of the bycatch issue meant that nations were not being held accountable, and marine biodiversity was at risk. With the 2021 report, NOAA took a large step towards fixing this oversight. However, there are other protected species, such as sharks, at risk from fishing practices. 

Shark Catch: Unfortunately, in its 2021 report, NOAA still failed to list a single country for catching sharks on the high seas, even though it is clearly happening. Illegal and unregulated shark catching is a significant problem that NOAA is supposed to address in these reports under the law. Sharks are a major victim of the biodiversity crisis: Over a third of shark species are at risk of extinction, with some species declining by more than 99% over the past half century. Sharks are also one of the biggest victims of illegal and unregulated fishing, often targeted for their fins and tangled up as bycatch. NOAA’s continued neglect of this avenue to list countries and address the problem means that nations are still catching sharks on the high seas with impunity. Until regulators can get a handle on illegal shark catching, marine ecosystems are at risk.

Sharks are apex species, which means many other marine creatures depend on them in the finely tuned oceans ecosystems. At Earthjustice, working to protect this marine biodiversity is at the core of our legal work. You can join us in the effort.

First, there’s a bill in Congress worth keeping an eye on called the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act. It targets human rights abuses and illegal fishing practices in the seafood supply chain.

The bipartisan legislation was introduced by Congressmen Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, and Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican. The legislation would expand NOAA’s authority to identify nations whose fleets engage in illegal or unregulated fishing practices, and it would strengthen NOAA’s capacity to enforce penalties if a nation fails to improve, once identified. The legislation also specifically strengthens legal provisions that require NOAA to list nations that are fishing sharks on the high seas, a change that will help close a gap in the way the agency implements the law. Given the growing threat of illegal fishing, the abundant evidence of where it is occurring, and the bipartisan support for swift Congressional action, we urge members to pass the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act this year without further delay.

Second, if you eat seafood, make sure it is sustainable and traceable. You can do this by looking for a label or certification that indicates the seafood is sustainably caught. There are also seafood guides available that can help you make responsible decisions on which seafood to choose.

Natalie Barefoot is a senior attorney with the Oceans Program.

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.