On Thursday night, the U.S. Senate, by an 83 to 11 vote, passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (HR 7776), one week after the legislation had been adopted in the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 350 to 80.  The bill will now be sent to the President for signature and is expected to become law in the near term.
The NDAA advances two major priorities for the domestic shrimp industry.
First, as highlighted by a recent report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) (GAO-23-105289, Additional Actions Needed to Improve Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Efforts (Nov. 2022)), the shadow of the “Alternative Safety Compliance Program” established by 46 U.S.C. § 4503a, has been hanging over the commercial fishing industry for over a decade.  Although the U.S. Coast Guard has found that implementing additional safety requirements for commercial fishing vessels twenty-five (25) years and older would be unworkable, the recent GAO report recommended that the Coast Guard nevertheless develop a regulatory program in light of the statute. The adoption of any regulations now developed that would apply to vessels built two decades ago would likely render a significant portion of the U.S. commercial fishing industry, including some shrimping vessels, unable to legally operate.
Section 11509(a)(3) (“Fishing Vessel Safety”) of the NDAA repeals 46 U.S.C. § 4503a.  With that legislative change, there is no further obligation imposed on the U.S. Coast Guard to consider whether some iteration of an “Alternative Safety Compliance Program” should be implemented.
Second, Subtitle E of the NDAA is the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act.  This legislative effort, begun with the introduction of the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Representative Garret Graves (R-LA) has sought to strengthen the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), while recognizing that forced labor constitutes an illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practice.
While Subtitle E has been substantially revised from the original Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act, the new legislation substantially strengthens existing U.S. legal authority to combat IUU fishing and forced labor in foreign fisheries, including SIMP and the Moratorium Protection Act.  The bill further augments U.S. legal authority requiring foreign nations to adopt conservation measures preventing the bycatch of certain protected species by their fishing fleets, consistent with the requirements imposed on U.S. fishermen.
Subtitle E of the NDAA requires NOAA to prioritize audits of seafood imports covered by SIMP on the basis of the risk these imports present of having been harvested through IUU fishing, including through the use of forced labor in the seafood’s supply chain. Section 11334 of the NDAA requires NOAA to publicly issue annual reports documenting its SIMP enforcement efforts, ensuring some measure of accountability as the agency becomes more accustomed to taking responsibility for preventing the importation of illegal seafood.
Section 11331(b) of the NDAA now prohibits importers from using aggregated harvest reports to meet SIMP’s requirements with respect to imports of Northern red snapper.  Absent this change in prevailing law, the aggregation of harvest reports undermine the traceability of Northern red snapper imported from Mexico and facilitates the importation of illegally harvested snapper, a significant portion of which has been caught in U.S. waters.  The domestic shrimp fishery is held accountable for the health of the red snapper stock in the Gulf of Mexico under the federal snapper rebuilding plan.  Any illegal fishing by Mexican vessels undermines U.S. conservation of this stock and puts the domestic shrimp fishery at risk for more costly conservation regulations.
The legislation further authorizes appropriations of an additional $20 million per year from fiscal year 2023 through fiscal year 2027 to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for the enforcement of 19 U.S.C. § 1307, the statute prohibiting the importation of goods produced through forced labor.
In addition to the work of Representatives Huffman and Graves in the House, long-time shrimp industry supporter Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) provided crucial leadership in developing and securing these critical provisions in the Senate.
“In an era where our two political parties do not seem to agree on much of anything, the shrimp industry is grateful for the concerted, bipartisan efforts to pass legislation that helps keep shrimpers working,” said John Williams, the Executive Director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance.  “Once again, Congress, through the NDAA, has made clear to seafood importers that it is past time to clear illegal seafood out of their supply chains.”