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Assessing the Seafood Trade Sanction Systems of the United States and the European Union

April 15, 2013

The United States and the European Union – the 2nd and 3rd largest importers of seafood in the world – employ the threat of applying trade sanctions on countries whose vessels are engaged in illegal fishing. Since I’ve not seen anything comparing these two systems, I provide here a basic description and my own assessment.

The United States

The United States threatens the application of sanctions to fish imports through the publication of a biannual report and subsequent consultations to clean up the behavior of illegal fishing countries. This is as required the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006 (more on that here).  If a country doesn’t take corrective action, then some or all fishery imports from that country would be banned.

A country appears on the biannual NOAA IUU list if:

  1. NOAA has what it considers credible evidence that two or more vessels flagged to a country have engaged in certain types of illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) fishing in the past two years; and
  2. The country has not taken adequate steps to address the behavior, such as by taking legal action against the vessel or its owners.

Reports were released in 2009, 2011, and 2013 (see here). Below are the countries they listed in each of the years:




France Colombia Colombia
Italy Ecuador Ecuador
Libya Italy Ghana
Panama Panama Italy
China Portugal Korea
Tunisia Venezuela Mexico

Panama and Italy were listed for all three biannual reports, while Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela were listed for the last two. To date, no trade sanctions have been applied.

The European Union

The EU threatens trade sanctions on fish imports through the publication of an online list of “non-cooperating third countries in fighting IUU fishing.” If a listed non-cooperating country does not clean up its act, then some or all fish imports from that country can be banned. This is required by Council Resolution 1005 of 2008 and was supported by Commission Regulation 468 of 2010, which required the establishment of an IUU vessel list.

Council Resolution 1005 of 2008 also established that all imports of seafood must be accompanied by catch certificates, thus individual shipments of seafood can also be turned away if they do not meet the EU certification standards.

In November 2012, the EU published its first official notice of countries it considers “at risk” of being identified as non-cooperating, and thus at risk of suffering trade sanctions. In this official notice, the EU identified the following countries and their reasoning for identification:


Sri Lanka

To date, no trade sanctions have been applied (though it is likely some products have been turned away due to problems with their catch certificates).


It is fair to say that the U.S. system for blocking IUU products is rather weak. The fact is, no trade sanctions have yet resulted in spite of the fact that two countries have been every biannual report since first published in 2009, and three other countries have been listed in the past two reports (2011 and 2013).  Part of this is due to political will, but another big part of it is that the U.S. law only covers three specific categories of “IUU” activity:

  1. Fishing in violation of international measures required by an RFMO to which the US is a party;
  2. Overfishing of stocks shared by the US in areas without applicable international measures or management organizations; and
  3. Fishing that causes significant harmful impacts on “vulnerable marine ecosystems” (esp. seamounts, hydrothermal vents, or cold water corals) on the high seas in areas without applicable international measures or management organizations.

If you think about it, this coverage is weak because a) there are many RFMOs with weak management measures, b) the U.S. is not a participant in the vast majority of fisheries in the world, and c) it is very hard to prove that a specific fishing operator or country has significantly impacted a deep-sea environment. On point b, just look at the geographic extent of landings by U.S. flagged vessels vs. consumption from other fisheries.

From Swartz, W., U.R. Sumaila, R. Watson and D. Pauly. 2010. Sourcing seafood for the three major markets: the EU, Japan and the USA. Marine Policy 34:1366-1373. Available here.

From Swartz, W., U.R. Sumaila, R. Watson and D. Pauly. 2010. Sourcing seafood for the three major markets: the EU, Japan and the USA. Marine Policy 34:1366-1373. Available here.

The U.S. process is also weakened by taking a violation-by-violation, vessel-specific basis approach, rather than looking at patterns of behavior.  This means that countries with habitual IUU enforcement failures can obtain “positive certifications” (and thus avoid sanctions) so long as it resolves the individual cases cited in NOAA’s report. It also means a country with just a few unresolved violations but otherwise relatively good anti-IUU practices may be identified alongside of countries with much weaker laws or a very poor record of enforcement.

Meanwhile, it is too soon to say what will come of the EU system for blocking IUU imports. No trade sanctions have yet been applied, but this is entirely reasonable since no countries were identified until November last year. There are, however, two good reasons to both be a little excited and a little concerned.

On one hand, by design, the EU system should end up being more effective than the U.S. system. The EU process is based on a review of patterns of behavior, rather than on specific enforcement failures. The process is not limited to fisheries where its flagged vessels are active, as is the case for the U.S.; this point is quite important as, like the U.S., the EU is not active in most of the fisheries from which it sources seafood (see graphic below). Further, the EU has a catch certification program to reduce the number of illegal imports it receives.

EU Landings and Consumption

From Swartz, W., U.R. Sumaila, R. Watson and D. Pauly. 2010. Sourcing seafood for the three major markets: the EU, Japan and the USA. Marine Policy 34:1366-1373. Available here.

On the other hand, with the exception of Panama, the countries listed by the EU in November 2012 aren’t major flag of convenience states. The EU has far more leeway than the U.S. in listing major FOC countries…yet it does little better than the U.S. in listing major FOC countries, at least according the the RFMO IUU lists.

Here’s a chart of all those countries with vessels listed on RFMO IUU lists as well as their most recent identification status by the U.S. and the EU.

Current RFMO

Using Each vessel listing in each RFMO counted as ‘1’ listing.

Looking at the other picks by the EU, it does seem like the political bloc has taken important steps to reforming illegal fishing regulations and enforcement in some countries. But apart from Togo, it’s not clear that these countries are major players.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne Iudicello permalink
    April 15, 2013 11:35 am

    The IUU/bycatch provisions in the 2006 MSRA amendments are not the only trade sanctions the U.S. has available. More direct measures have been part of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Fisherman’s Protective Act and other statutes for decades. That the U.S. rarely imposes sanctions is less a commentary on the weakness of the system (though I agree that the MRSA provisions are convoluted, and make it impossible to enforce their bycatch measures, for example, see, e.g. Marine Mammal Commission letter to R.Lent, 30 Aug 2010) than it is on the power of the WTO and a shared global reluctance to constrain international trade to achieve national conservation goals.

    • April 15, 2013 12:13 pm

      Thanks, Suzanne. Very good comments. I’ll see about writing up these other trade sanction measures in future posts.


  1. How to Fix the EU’s Illegal Fishing Regulation | Breaching the Blue

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