As a public servant, I’m proud that the United States is committed to being good stewards of the Earth. We know that the living organisms inhabiting our lands and water sustain the health of our communities – and power our economy – affecting people in the United States and around the world.
That’s why we work with partner countries and international bodies to promote sustainable fishing. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing – or IUU fishing – is a threat to the health of the ocean and all who depend on it for food and livelihoods. IUU fishing can be connected to criminal activity and labor rights abuses. Unsurprisingly, it inflicts the most damage and hardship on vulnerable groups and communities.
IUU fishing includes several types of activity and can occur in a country’s own waters or beyond them on the high seas—the vast part of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction. And the scale ranges – IUU fishing can occur using small boats or through industrial scale enterprises as part of a transnational criminal syndicate.
Regardless of how or where it happens, IUU fishing threatens the livelihoods of law-abiding fishers and their communities and depletes a source of food for billions of people. The losses in food and income are disproportionately felt by vulnerable, coastal developing countries who often lack capacity for regulation and enforcement.
Combating IUU fishing is a top U.S. government priority. In June last year, President Biden made that fact clear, when he signed a National Security Memorandum to address IUU fishing and associated labor abuses. Later that year, in October 2022, the United States released its National 5-Year Strategy for Combating IUU Fishing.
Combatting IUU fishing is not just about protecting fish or even the ocean, which are urgent goals in themselves. It is also about: protecting people who are engaged in or rely on fishing, promoting and respecting human rights and labor rights, safeguarding food security, and advancing social and environmental justice.
Along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Coast Guard, I chair a working group of 21 different U.S. government agencies leading the effort. We are tackling the problem in all its dimensions: human rights and labor rights, the environment, rule of law, trade and commerce, and security. Our toolbox includes diplomatic outreach, law enforcement partnerships, information-sharing, and international capacity-building activities.
The United States is also promoting the implementation of the Port State Measures Agreement, the first and only binding international treaty focused on IUU fishing. It is designed to ensure catches from IUU fishing vessels cannot be offloaded in ports, enter the global market, and end up on your plate. This groundbreaking treaty has more than 75 parties covering over 100 countries and territories.
Our efforts have paid off. Previously in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, illegal catches of Patagonian toothfish or “Chilean sea bass” may have been as high as six times the authorized limit. Through international cooperation that tightened monitoring and tracked the trade in legal catches, that IUU catch is now a small fraction of what it used to be. While this is a success, much work still needs to be done.
We often imagine the ocean as vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—beyond our ability to harm. But we have put the ocean under enormous stress – from pollution, the climate crisis, and unsustainable fishing practices.
As the person entrusted with leading the United States’ environmental diplomacy around the world, I believe we must be responsible stewards of the ocean just as we are stewards of the land. Should the ocean degrade further, those who will suffer the most are those who depend on it the most.
There are ways you can help too. Do your part to support sustainable fishing by choosing sustainably caught and farmed fish and fish products. Before you buy, consult NOAA and private sustainable seafood guides, which help consumers identify sustainably caught and farmed fish. You can also reduce your use of single-use plastics to help minimize the chance of plastic debris ending up in the ocean, which harms both fish and other marine life. Together we can support the health of our oceans and our planet.