On Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) released a report detailing the agency’s experience in administering the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) since the program took effect in January 2018 (Report on the Implementation of the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program).
In the report, NOAA Fisheries explained that the agency had conducted over 3,139 audits under SIMP between January 2018 and March 1, 2021. Of these audits, over 1,880 – or more than 40% – were found to be non-compliant. Providing more detailed information regarding the 1,073 SIMP audits conducted in calendar year 2020, roughly 43% were found to be non-compliant. Accordingly, these numbers indicate that after two years of SIMP’s operation, NOAA Fisheries appears to have found a higher percentage of shipments to be non-compliant in calendar year 2020 than the agency had found in the previous two calendar years when the program was first being implemented.
Of the 458 audits found to be non-compliant in calendar year 2020, nearly half (203 of 458 or 44.3%) were found to have incomplete chains of custody, meaning that the importer could not track the seafood back to its source of harvest. In nearly one out of ten of the non-compliant shipments audited (44 out of 458 or 9.6%), the importer failed to present any traceability documents at all in response to the audit.
The report also provided details regarding enforcement operations conducted by NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Law Enforcement (OLE), in cooperation with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), investigating imports of tuna from Spain. In that joint-agency investigation, OLE, CBP, and the FDA found widespread misclassification of tuna – a species covered by SIMP – where thirty-two (32) importers were found to have misclassified albacore tuna, subject to customs tariffs of between 6 and 35 percent, as bonito, which is imported subject to significantly lower customs tariffs of between 4 and 6 percent. In total, NOAA Fisheries reported that uncovering this broad, illicit tariff evasion scheme led to the recovery of nearly $600,000 in unpaid customs duties.
Despite the substantial findings of noncompliance with SIMP, NOAA Fisheries explained that the program was incapable of keeping up with fraud in the U.S. seafood importing market: “As currently implemented, SIMP does not prevent or stop IUU fish and fish products from entering U.S. commerce.” NOAA Fisheries additionally observed that over 85% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. market was imported and that, coupled with the agency’s lack of experience in attempting to conducting oversight of imported seafood, the sheer volume of imports limited what regulatory audits were able to achieve:
A significant obstacle to the use of SIMP as a tool for independent identification of IUU fish and fish products is the volume of imports and the fact that, frequently, such identification requires specific detailed knowledge of the harvesting country’s fisheries laws. Given the large number of countries importing SIMP species into the United States, gaining such detailed knowledge has been challenging. Accordingly, most of the issues that have been found relate to issues apparent from the documents themselves (e.g., vessel permit dates do not match harvest dates, documents are missing).
The lack of regulatory experience with seafood imports combined with the absence of sufficient resources has meant that NOAA Fisheries has been unable to target audits under SIMP to imports that present greater risk profiles. The agency explained that the vast majority of the 3,139 audits conducted thus far had been done without reference to the potential risk presented: “To date, SIMP entries have been selected almost exclusively at random for audit. Only a few directed audits have been conducted.”
In result, NOAA Fisheries argues that greater resources are needed to effectively administer SIMP: “Implementing the full potential of SIMP, as well as being prepared to expand and grow the program as needed, requires a dedicated program lead to provide direction and oversight, and sufficient staff to support the program.” In addition to a “permanent supervisory program lead,” the report recommended that there be “[t]wo to four program staff to implement and run the program consistent with our strategic plan,” as well as “[d]edicated full time auditors . . .” NOAA Fisheries emphasized the importance of auditors: “Dedicated full-time auditors are essential to allow for more effective implementation.”
The Southern Shrimp Alliance believes that the newly-issued report highlights the importance of establishing an office within NOAA Fisheries dedicated to the enforcement of SIMP and to addressing seafood imported in violation of the laws administered by the agency. In addition, the report further confirms the need for legislation strengthening the provisions of SIMP, such as H.R. 3075, the Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act, a bipartisan measure introduced by Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Representative Garret Graves (R-LA) earlier this month.
“NOAA Fisheries’ announcements that, first, over forty percent of the SIMP audits it conducted last year found non-compliance with the program’s requirements and, second, that ten percent of the non-compliant imports found in 2020 were made by importers who did not present any traceability documents whatsoever shows the extent of the challenge the federal government faces in attempting to exercise any semblance of oversight of the imported seafood industry,” said John Williams, the Executive Director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance. “As the Office of Law Enforcement’s discovery of widespread misclassification of albacore tuna imported from Spain as bonito demonstrates, SIMP has not changed the way seafood importers operate. For this reason, the Southern Shrimp Alliance strongly supports the development of a dedicated office within NOAA Fisheries to administer SIMP and enhance the agency’s enforcement capabilities.”
Read NOAA Fisheries’ Report on the Implementation of the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program (May 2021) here: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/noaa-fisheries-releases-report-initial-implementation-us-seafood-traceability-program