NOAA’s New IUU Report Demonstrates that Import Measures Are Needed

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a report required by Congress, Improving International Fisheries Management (Aug. 2023). As part of the agency’s obligations under the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act, NOAA prepares and publishes a biennial report identifying nations that are engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. This year’s report is the eighth issued by NOAA since the agency first began producing them in 2009. 

Due to a change in law supported by the Southern Shrimp Alliance, for the first time, the agency considered whether forced labor was being used in the harvesting of seafood as part of the report’s identification of nation’s engaging in IUU fishing. Following consultations with the U.S. Department of Labor, NOAA identified two countries as utilizing forced labor in the harvest of seafood exported to the United States: (1) China (tuna and squid); and (2) Taiwan (tuna). 

NOAA’s report also, once again, identified Mexico as engaging in IUU fishing, as it had done the prior four reports issued (2015, 2017, 2019, and 2021). After four consecutive reports identifying Mexico, NOAA finally “negatively” certified the country in its 2021 report. With the negative certification, effective February 7, 2022, Mexican fishing vessels working in the Gulf of Mexico were prohibited from entering U.S. ports and were denied port access and services. These measures curtailed the business operations of ports in Texas, with a particularly significant impact at the Port of Brownsville. 

Nevertheless, NOAA’s new report explains that “[d]espite numerous engagements with the Government of Mexico, related port restrictions, and the possibility of further negative actions” Mexican fishing vessels, known as lanchas, continue to illegally fish in U.S. waters. NOAA notes that the U.S. Coast Guard interdicted 321 lanchas between 2020 and 2022, with this total number severely understated because of the Coast Guard’s “no-boarding policy” for much of that three-year period in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. NOAA emphasized that the rate of recidivism was “soaring, with some Mexican nationals interdicted up to 40 times.” The agency warned that “[t]his indicates that those carrying out the illegal fishing perceive minimal or no consequences for this behavior.” 

Mexico’s lanchas target finfish in U.S. waters, including red snapper, that are subject to heavy commercial fisheries regulation by NOAA. That includes the U.S. shrimp fishery operating in the Gulf of Mexico, which is held strictly accountable for its bycatch of juvenile red snapper as part of the NOAA rebuilding plan for this stock. These lanchas employ fishing gear that severely endanger vulnerable populations of sea turtles and marine mammals for which the U.S. shrimp fisheries are also held strictly accountable pursuant to the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  To the extent that the status of these red snapper, sea turtle, or marine mammal populations are adversely impacted by this illegal fishing by Mexico’s launchas, the U.S. shrimp fisheries will pay the price through increased regulations needed to offset those impacts.  In result, the continuing, increasing, and blatant violations of U.S. law by lanchas pose direct threats to American commercial fisheries including the U.S. shrimp fisheries. The lack of effectiveness of the measures implemented by NOAA in response to this IUU fishing is, therefore, of grave concern to the U.S. shrimp industry. 

NOAA explains that negative certifications may result in the “potential prohibition of imports of certain fish or fish products from that nation . . . into the United States.” In discussing the renewed negative certification determination for Mexico in its 2023 report, the agency observes that “NMFS may recommend appropriate trade restrictions to the President, pursuant to the requirements of the Moratorium Protection Act and the High Seas Driftnet Enforcement Act.” 

Importers in the United States source substantial amounts of seafood from Mexico. Last year, the United States imported over $630 million in seafood from Mexico classified under Chapter 03 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTSUS). Over $103 million of these imports were of fish imported under the six-digit HTSUS codes used for the importation of snapper and certain other fish: 0302.89 and 0303.89. Through the first six months of this year, the value of U.S. imports of these fish products from Mexico increased to $61 million compared to $56 million over the first half of 2022. Moreover, the most significant seafood product imported into the United States from Mexico is shrimp, as shrimp products have accounted for over 40 percent of the value of all seafood imports classified under Chapter 03 of the HTSUS from Mexico since 2021. 

These figures indicate that access to the U.S. market is important to Mexican seafood producers. In the past, leveraging this market access has successfully incentivized changes in behavior in Mexico’s seafood sector, as the U.S. Department of State’s April 2021 determination to suspend the Mexican shrimp industry’s Section 609 certification – resulting in Mexican wild-caught shrimp being prohibited from importation into the United States – led to substantial improvements in the industry’s protection of sea turtles. However, for its part, NOAA has resisted using its discretion to recommend import measures. Even where another federal agency has recommended restricting seafood imports from Mexico, this Administration has declined to utilize this tool, as exemplified by President Biden’s refusal to impose trade restrictions after the U.S. Department of Interior’s findings regarding the Mexican seafood industry further imperiling the critically endangered population of vaquita dolphins. 

           “For as long as NOAA and the Endangered Species Act have been around, American fishermen know what happens if we’re found to be harming sea turtles or marine mammals. We are shut down. Out of business,” said John Williams, Executive Director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance. “Shrimpers cannot understand, or accept, that if a foreigner is doing it, NOAA asks them five times ‘pretty please’ to stop. It has been a decade. Shut it down.”   

Read NOAA’s Report to Congress: Improving International Fisheries Management (Aug. 2023) here: 

Read NOAA’s press release regarding the August 31, 2023 release of the Report to Congress: Improving International Fisheries Management (Aug. 2023) here: 

Read the Southern Shrimp Alliance’s News Alert regarding the State Department’s April 2021 suspension of Mexico’s Section 609 certification here:

Read President Biden’s July 17, 2023 letter to Congress declining to impose trade measures in response to the impact of Mexico’s fishing industry’s operations on the vaquita population:

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