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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
Growing up just outside of Washington, DC, I had a good vantage point on what the US government does: My father, who was a police officer working in the city’s northeast quadrant, would come home with stories from walking his beat. Stories of good people, struggling people, people who broke the law—and the police’s duty to help. At his side, I was absorbing the importance of the rule of law.
In the late 1970s, my career aspirations led me to law school. This was at a time of new and exciting developments, as the first environmental laws—from the Clean Air Act to the Endangered Species Act—were being enacted by the US Congress.
It is easy to have a romanticized view of how these policies guided people's interactions with nature, but I knew I couldn't operate in the world of theory. I wanted to understand the real issues people faced.
Coming out of law school, I worked for a federal appellate judge in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on cases of all types. My job was to listen to the arguments, be prepared, and analyze and evaluate the full case fairly. Those skills led me to the US Justice Department, where I worked on civil and criminal cases for the Wildlife and Marine Resources division. These were some of the most interesting cases I could imagine: working with the investigators in the field to tackle everything from the theft of rare saguaro cactus and the illegal hunting of grizzly bears to the smuggling of rare birds and reptiles.
I always needed to feel I was making a contribution to conservation in my own way, and that sense of purpose only grew during my time at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There, I worked on a once-in-a-lifetime case—to bring to justice three men who were smuggling large quantities of rock lobster from South Africa to the United States.
The men involved directed a fishing company that had been illegally fishing and importing these seafood products into the US since 1987. To do so, they were bribing fishing inspectors, conspiring to create fraudulent export documents and exporting the product illegally to the US. On arrival, the rock lobster was shipped to a seafood plant where women, who had been tricked into leaving South Africa for a better life, would process the lobster for transportation to stores around the country. All this illegal activity was driven by the desire for high profits. The men all plead guilty to conspiracy and smuggling and were ordered to pay nearly $30 million in retribution—an amount still being contested, and possibly to grow.
That's when I came face to face with the true scope and scale of illegal fishing—and the power of law enforcement to address it. Like other forms of wildlife crime, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a black market industry that steals billions of dollars from law-abiding (and therefore usually more environmentally sustainable) fishing operations. That epiphany, coupled with a clear sense that illegal fishing was only part of the problem, led me to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and then on to WWF.
IUU fishing is a global problem with serious conservation and humanitarian impacts, and it requires coordinated, global solutions. It depletes fish stocks, complicates fisheries management, disrupts or destroys marine habitats, disturbs market conditions, and threatens the livelihoods of many coastal communities.
Black market fishing occurs in all major ocean areas and is associated with hundreds, if not thousands, of marine species. The US is a huge, lucrative market for illegal fish, importing about 450 wild-caught seafood products from more than 130 countries annually. Because the global seafood supply chain is complex, illegal fish penetrate the supply chains quite easily. Once intermingled with legal products, these illegal imports are very difficult to detect.
But we have reached a historic moment. In June 2014, President Obama created a Presidential Task Force charged with recommending ways to combat black market fishing. In December, that group shared its recommendations—including the proposal of a national traceability program to track seafood from the point where it is caught to its entry into the US. In March 2015, the task force proposed an action plan that provides a roadmap to improve the implementation, application and coordination of a diverse suite of tools to address seafood traceability, increase international cooperation and capacity building, share information, and strengthen enforcement capabilities.
Key to the solution is breaking the link between major import markets, like the US, and international illegal fishing. American fishers deserve a level playing field worldwide. American consumers don’t want to eat stolen fish or inadvertently support international criminal networks that are often involved in illegal fishing as well as drugs, arms and human trafficking. And American seafood distributors and retailers will benefit if US border controls require fish-exporting countries to assure legal sources and traceable supplies. On this front, the European Union is already making great strides.
I have devoted much of my professional life to law enforcement as a tool for protecting nature. We need it to be strong. But we also need to be working in cooperation with fishers, responsible businesses, international policy makers and national leaders to tackle ocean health issues from every angle—from climate change to securing protected areas that benefit both people and wildlife.
With the global market influence the US has, it can drive a shift in fishing culture and put an end to invisible fishing. As we turn the tide through a combination of governance, enforcement and technology, and through engagement with fishing families, companies and regulators—and seafood lovers—the world’s oceans can be positively transformed.
By Erik Vance with additional reporting by Laura Margison
By all appearances, Kyle Wallis has a perfect life. A college graduate, he has a steady job as an engineer at a local power plant. He owns a house right near his hometown of Palacios, Texas. He has two kids, a supportive wife, and a 401(k).
Yet, late on a chilly Saturday morning in November, jet-lagged from a business trip the previous day, he's here at the docks loading pallets full of shrimp. Kyle owns a nominal percentage of one of the seven boats operated by his father Craig's company, but that's not why he's here on this frigid pier.
"It's a family heritage thing for me. It's been born and bred in me. I've been here doing it since I was eight years old—being around the waterfront," he says. "You are going out on the water, catching food for the American people, feeding the public. You feel like you are doing something worthwhile."
Kyle is a third-generation shrimp boat owner. This morning, one of his father's boats is unloading about 20,000 pounds of brown shrimp that will soon find its way from the Gulf of Mexico to dinner plates throughout the United States.
There's not a lot to be done; his father and the crew have it well in hand. But Kyle takes a few turns on the forklift anyway, loading 1,500-lb pallets piled high with orange bags of shrimp into a freezer truck. He talks a little business with his dad and jokes with some of the workers, but mostly he just takes it all in. He says that this is all he really wants—to take over the family business running shrimp boats on the Gulf. He'd quit his job tomorrow, taking a pay cut, and work here full time if he thought the US shrimping industry would be here long enough for his kids to go to college.
But instead he waits. Alongside his father.
"I've got a son who wants to get back involved [in the company]. But is this business here for another 30 years?" Craig Wallis says. "You can't stay in business if you can't pay your bills." The Wallises haven't bought a new boat since 2000 and still run some bought in the 1970s. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 15 years ago the Gulf fleet was 3,000 to 4,000 strong, but today it's around 1,400 (a local shrimp advisory panel estimates that no more than 1,000 are active). The opposite end of the bay, once full of shrimpers, now has only a few smaller boats run by aging Vietnamese fishers who came here after the war.
Gulf shrimpers have had a tough run lately, between monster storms and exploding oil platforms. But what keeps Craig Wallis awake at night and what keeps Kyle out of the business is something more pervasive, something harder to overcome: competition from a global market, much of which is either caught illegally or grown in poorly regulated farms.
It's a problem that goes far beyond shrimp or the Gulf of Mexico.
Since the 1980s, humans have found ways to take marine life from the seas at an astounding rate. In some parts of the world, huge portions of a vessel’s catch can be made up of non-targeted, commercially useless species—bycatch that goes overboard, left to rot on the ocean bottom. In others, boats willfully defy conservation laws and decimate whole populations. And in others, captains even use slave labor to fill out their ranks.
Meanwhile, years of hard-fought environmental advances have made US waters some of the most closely monitored in the world. Alaskan fisheries are a global model for sustainable management; California’s coast has one of the world's best systems of marine protected areas; and swordfish, red snapper and even the long lost Atlantic cod are coming back to life.
Of course many other countries have worked hard to create sustainable fisheries off their coasts as well. Mozambique requires boats to avoid "no take" fishing zones; traditional lobstermen in Mexico use some of the most sustainable practices in the world; fewer Fijian tuna boats set out now than in the past, allowing the species to recover. But many developing countries simply do not have the resources required to effectively police their waters—something WWF is helping to fix in targeted waters around the world.
Even though US waters and fisheries are now well-regulated, about 90% of seafood on US tables is imported, often from those places with few fishing laws or poor enforcement. Today, while law-abiding US fishers are recognized as crucial partners in saving our oceans, they are increasingly undercut by the influx of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) seafood across our borders.
In few places is the American fisher's efforts to survive this challenge more apparent than along the Gulf Coast.
In 2007, red snapper populations in the Gulf were in tatters. The stocks were pulverized by overfishing in the US, while the prices were massively undercut by foreign competition. Fake red snapper was rampant (one 2004 study even suggested 75% of red snapper was actually something else).
The problem was the existing "derby-style" system for allocating catch limits, which allowed permit holders to catch up to 2,000 pounds of snapper, per trip, in the Gulf. By 2006, plummeting stocks squeezed the allowable fishing window to just 10 days a month.
"Imagine that: The first 10 days of every month, every boat in the Gulf that had an endorsement was going out, regardless of the weather, and hammering on the snapper. And doing it in a way—I did it myself—that was not very conservation minded," says Bubba Cochrane, a veteran Texas snapper fisherman.
Cochrane is sitting in the wheelhouse of his 51-foot boat, the Chelsea Ann, in Galveston Bay. It's an immaculate boat with five bunks, a new stove and granite countertops. He's a broad, good-spirited man on dry land but on the water he has a reputation for running a tight, tough ship. Back then, Cochrane was fishing in a miserable race against time. If it was storming, he risked his life to get out. Demand for deckhands forced captains to hire junkies and thieves—anyone who could set a line. And if anything broke in those first 10 days, fishers caught nothing.
Worst of all, he was hurting the fishery by catching younger, smaller fish in his hurry to meet the deadline. Yes, he might be cutting off snapper populations at the knees, but he needed to fill up his boat and get back out before time ran out.
"Can you imagine the glut on the market?" he laughs. "Everybody's racing to get out there and deliver their fish faster and faster. You don't want to be the last one because you're going to get the worst price."
Then on the 11th of every month the well dried up. No boats went out. Rather than take red snapper off the menu, restaurants switched to cheaper imports or, on occasion, imposter fish, driving red snapper prices as low as $1.50 per pound.
In 2007, a simple policy change altered the snapper situation. In response to crashing fish stocks, the National Marine Fisheries Service adopted an Individual Fishing Quota system, under which each fisher was permitted to catch a set amount per year—whenever they wanted. After that, they were done. Cochrane and the rest of the fishing community fought the changes and many quit the business.
But Cochrane stayed on, even buying out competitors' fishing rights at huge risk. It paid off. Today, his boat pulls in about 3% of the US commercial snapper catch and the docks of Galveston are a different world.
Fishers no longer have to risk their lives in lethal storms. They can make more money and work more reasonable hours. They coordinate with each other so that there is always a steady, sustainable supply of fish. And because the high-quality, sustainably sourced fish holds a premium for many seafood buyers, at press time, red snapper was fetching $5 to $6 per pound, and local fishing incomes have gained some insulation against the flood of often-illegally caught foreign imports.
Best of all, the snapper has come back with a vengeance. Catch is up 70% and Cochrane says the snappers are fighting each other to get on his line. And if he starts to pull up younger fish, he blows the horn and the Chelsea Ann heads off to a new spot. A nonprofit called Gulf Wild, which tracks fish from hook to plate, now promotes his fish as a highly sustainable choice.
"[Fishers] are seeing the benefits of being open and honest about things, like having cameras on their boats," says TJ Tate, Gulf Wild's director of sustainability. “As much as people gripe about all the regulations for US fisheries and federal fisheries, they are working. Forty fisheries in the US are rebounding."
For his part, Cochrane takes a deep sense of pride in his role as a steward of the sea. "Stewardship was a word I didn't even know about back in the derby," he says, resting his hand on the steering wheel of his beloved boat. "I know what it means now. You can use whatever definition you want for it, but for me, being a good steward means I'm watching out for my business."
A few miles west of New Orleans, down a small street in an innocuous residential neighborhood, workers at Harlon's LA Fish & Seafood are bringing in a load of black drum and sheepshead. Even though it's a frigid morning, workers are buzzing around the drab gray building, quickly pouring ice over the fish as they come in.
"Harlon always says, 'quality, quality, quality,'" says Doyle Jones, a 30-year veteran fisherman with slick black hair straight out of a gangster film who's delivering his catch today. "'You gotta have the good stuff to compete.'"
We're waiting for Harlon Pearce, a well-known fish broker and vocal member of the Louisiana fishing community. Pearce originally planned to be a lawyer and paid his way through Loyola University's College of Law by working in the seafood business. He quickly got hooked and after graduation chose fish over law books and today has a flourishing wholesale processing and distribution business. He also sits on just about every board and association involved with Louisiana fishing.
Sitting in his office lined with trophies, he says that no matter how hard they try, American fishers will never compete with certain foreign fish. So Pearce takes a live-and-let-live attitude about imports.
"Good quality, properly regulated, properly harvested and properly processed imports aren't a bad thing," he says. "The bad thing is when you try to get into the trenches and drop your quality as a local producer to compete with them. That doesn't make sense."
The American fishing industry, he says, needs to build a reputation for quality so that it can demand higher prices. Alaskan fish, for example, are known around the globe as a higher quality, sustainable brand. That, Pearce says, is what all American fish should do—rise above being seen as a simple foodstuff, and gain footing as a rewarding, value-added brand.
No one on the Gulf Coast so personifies this new American fishing ethic as Lance Nacio. Born and bred in the Louisiana bayou, Nacio has a background the polar opposite of Pearce's. His father worked intermittently on oil rigs and as a hunter who raised his family in an off-the-grid trapping community that could only be reached by boat.
Nacio never graduated from high school and has been a shrimper most of his life. By 2000 he had saved up enough money to build a 55-foot bay skimmer called the Anna Marie and went into business for himself during a time of unprecedented high prices for shrimp. Then everything fell apart.
"In 2000, I built the boat and the prices were phenomenal. In 2001, I mean, they just crashed and we went on a 10-year spell where we just didn't get any price. So I started doing my own marketing and selling my own product," he says in a soft-spoken growl.
He says imports, many from countries where laws and enforcement lag far behind those in the US, drove domestic shrimp from $4 per pound in 2000 to as low as $1, while fuel prices went mostly in the opposite direction. Nacio's nascent business was dissolving like breadcrumbs in his hands. So he went to a local grocery chain called Rouses and sold his shrimp in front of the store.
Nacio doesn't immediately strike one as a salesman. He has a hulking frame with huge arms, deep-set unblinking eyes and a forest of a goatee. On his arm is a large, blurry tattoo of a wizard that he says he got when he was young and foolish. But as soon as he starts talking, his quiet, gentle demeanor could charm an angry dog. The grocery store's seafood buyer noticed him and struck up a conversation.
Nacio's business would never be the same. He began selling directly to the stores and soon realized that he didn't need middlemen if his product was good enough.
But there was more. Nacio also started using turtle excluder devices (TEDs) and other bycatch reduction devices, which allow some of the unintended catch to escape before the net is hauled in. While the federal government does require the use of TEDs, the state of Louisiana was not actively enforcing it. (That's slowly starting to change.) Nacio supports TEDs both as an environmental measure and because they make his work—and that of other fishers—more efficient. In some cases, unwanted catch in shrimp boats can be about 90% of what's hauled in; modern devices can get that down to around 60%.
He quickly became an expert on TEDs, honing his fishing technique and tools to the point where he regularly gets just 10% bycatch. This allows him to sell his shrimp as turtle-safe, though the nets save far more than just turtles. So where other fishers might get $3 per pound, Nacio says, his legally caught, turtle-safe white shrimp command $6 or more—an economic incentive that adds even more value to honoring the rule of law.
After a feast of fresh shrimp, Nacio is walking around his yard in a T-shirt that says "Slow Fish," talking about shrimping—and about his daughter, who's studying to be a doctor. Noticing solar panels lining his roof, I tease him by calling him a hippie. He smiles.
"It's just being sensible," he says. "I don't know if I would call myself an environmentalist. I just try to do what's right."
"Illegal fishing is a social justice issue," says Alfred "Bubba" Cook, who works with tuna fisheries in the South Pacific for WWF. "You've got guys that are out there desperately trying to do the right thing, and they simply can't compete with the guys who are doing it illegally."
He says Fijian tuna fishers have taken to using onboard observers, cameras and traceability measures to ensure their fisheries are sustainable. But they are still undercut by a host of fishing boats that sweep in every year and decimate local tuna stocks for the international trade. Those stark points are driven home later, during lunch in Nacio's kitchen. Wiping fingers slathered in shrimp juice and mayonnaise, he pulls out an iPad to watch a video about Thai fishers forced to work on the high seas under threat of beatings or death—just the sort of ugly ripple effect illegal and unregulated fishing can cause. In fact, WWF is working with US companies and Thai producers to clean up those ugly practices, but the news still stops Nacio cold.
The broad man with calloused hands who grew up on the water, who has spent decades honing his craft to protect the oceans, who didn't finish high school but has speaking engagements across the world, shakes his head.
"This is why people should know what they're eating," he says.