New NRDC report provides recommendations to improve seafood traceability and combat IUU fishing.
In the late days of December 2022, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released a much-anticipated proposed rule to expand and update the United States’ seafood traceability program, called the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP).
As ocean stakeholders work to inform the final rule, NRDC’s new report, Strengthening U.S. Leadership to Deter Illegal Seafood: Implementation Challenges and Recommendations for the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, analyzes industry feedback on the program’s implementation and offers actionable steps and guidance to help make SIMP perform as a more effective tool to block illegally harvested and fraudulent seafood from U.S. commerce.
Created in 2016, SIMP was conceived as the United States’ key mechanism to disincentivize illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fished and fraudulent seafood from the U.S. market. By tracing seafood to its origin through SIMP, NMFS should be better able to track down and enforce against actors that engage in illegal fishing, an industry that depletes marine ecosystems and is linked to rampant human rights abuses. (For more on how SIMP works, see here.)
The United States is the world’s largest seafood-importing nation by value, and thus holds outsize purchasing power and the market leverage necessary to help transform the seafood industry. Although SIMP has been in effect for six years, a U.S. International Trade Commission study found that 11 percent of 2019 U.S. seafood imports, valued at $2.4 billion, was obtained through IUU fishing. The continued influx of illegal seafood into the U.S. market is in no small part a result of major gaps in SIMP regulation and enforcement of the program.
NRDC sought to fill a gap in the publicly available information about on-the-ground SIMP implementation. We also wanted to explore whether the program is meeting its goal of stemming the flow of IUU-fished and fraudulent product into the United States and to investigate the industry’s attitudes about SIMP expansion.
For this assessment, NRDC commissioned FishWise, a nonprofit sustainable seafood consultancy, to conduct an independent, third-party analysis of program implementation. Utilizing surveys and interviews, FishWise’s study focused on the U.S. seafood industry (including processors, exporters, importers, distributors, and brokers) with the goal of identifying the benefits and challenges of the program, as well as data collection or reporting challenges from the industry’s perspective. NRDC’s report summarizes the results of the FishWise study and offers policy recommendations aimed at improving companies’ experiences and making SIMP more effective in blocking IUU-fished shipments from the stream of commerce.
Highlights of these findings include:
- Views on the ease of SIMP compliance are mixed, with half of industry respondents reporting challenges or obstacles in sending, receiving, or obtaining data needed for SIMP from other companies in their supply chains. In general, companies that found the program to be overly time consuming or resource intensive were using paper reporting or other rudimentary traceability systems rather than electronic documentation systems.
- The most common compliance challenges include: attenuated relationships along the supply chain; perception of harvest information as proprietary; data management challenges; data reporting challenges—with 75% of respondents specifically highlighting challenges entering data in the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE); and lack of interoperability among market-state traceability systems.
- Companies want greater transparency around SIMP implementation, with 85 percent of survey respondents seeking more communication from NMFS about how it is carrying out SIMP and the impact the program is having in combating IUU fishing.
- Companies are broadly concerned that traceability information is rarely verified and that the audit selection process is unclear. Ninety percent of interviewees raised doubts about data verification and/or the SIMP audit process, and raised concerns that high rates of compliance do not necessarily correlate with stopping the flow of IUU-fished seafood into the United States.
These findings reveal that companies along the seafood supply chain are experiencing several specific challenges with SIMP compliance and implementation. If left unaddressed, these problems will likely continue to undermine the program’s effectiveness and erode companies’ confidence in the program. However, the study also showed that there is general support for the underlying goals of SIMP.
NRDC’s report recommends several actionable steps to address industry feedback and improve SIMP:
- Prioritize data standardization, completeness, and verification. To ensure NMFS receives data that are suitable for verification, NMFS should standardize and digitize all SIMP data and records. This standardization would include standardizing data fields to minimize errors and ensure that all required data are reported. We recommend that NMFS establish a timeline for transitioning to a fully electronic traceability system for capturing critical tracking events, and require importers of record to submit SIMP data 72 hours in advance of a product’s arrival at a U.S. port of entry. NMFS should also accelerate its plans to apply predictive analytics and machine learning to SIMP’s import data to help target high-risk seafood shipments.
- Coordinate and align requirements with those of foreign governments. The need for companies to comply with multiple import monitoring systems creates redundant work for them, and the lack of synchronization among individual U.S. programs hampers full traceability. NMFS should work to make SIMP interoperable with other traceability systems worldwide, particularly in the EU and Japan, to decrease reporting redundancy, support data verification, and improve enforcement efforts.
- Expand SIMP by a set date. SIMP’s limited scope, currently applying to approximately 45 percent of U.S. seafood imports, means that seafood caught using IUU fishing practices will continue to enter the U.S. market unless SIMP is expanded to all species. NMFS should commit to expanding SIMP to all seafood imports by a set date. 33 percent of survey respondents supported SIMP expansion, and 25 percent were neutral on the matter. Of the companies who oppose expansion, many want the program to be improved before it is expanded. Industry responses supported the idea that if NMFS builds confidence in the program through greater transparency around audits and increased efficacy, industry support for expansion will grow. Committing to SIMP expansion by a set date would allow companies to gradually bring their non-SIMP species imports into compliance as they establish traceability systems for all of their imported products.
- Increase transparency and accountability around SIMP performance. NMFS should provide greater transparency on enforcement actions, data verification, and audits. It should ensure that companies understand the procedures and requirements of the program, including by offering more detailed information about the audit process and the success of interventions resulting from SIMP.
- Expand outreach and compliance support to overseas stakeholders. NMFS should partner with international governments to host workshops and trainings for workers at all stages of the seafood supply chain. NMFS should prioritize outreach in three to five countries exporting large volumes of seafood to the United States, especially if those countries (as the country of harvest or origin) have a lower-than-average rate of their seafood passing SIMP audits.
Much work remains to stem the flow of IUU-sourced or fraudulent seafood into the United States. A fully scaled, efficiently functioning SIMP would ensure that U.S. consumers can feel confident about the fish they buy and that the companies and fishers that supply seafood responsibly do not face unfair competition. Unfortunately, NMFS’s proposed rule indicates that the agency currently plans to take modest steps to improve SIMP functionality, verification, and enforcement, while only folding some additional species and species groups into the program’s requirements.
During the upcoming months, NRDC and partners will be following this rulemaking closely and advocating for broader reforms that build on lessons learned and incorporate the recommendations highlighted in this report.