This article was written in partnership with InvestigateWest, the nonprofit newsroom for the Pacific Northwest.
President Trump likes lobster, I hear—Maine lobster was served at his inaugural lunch.
It’s a good thing, perhaps. Though his administration is already notorious for its anti-regulatory stance that takes as its premise that fewer rules will mean more jobs, it’s also going to have to decide whether a lack of regulation in the seafood industry will keep sending American jobs overseas.
The choice in question is over a rule governing seafood imports that was authorized in the waning days of the Obama administration as part of a national battle plan to fight the influx of illegally caught seafood. The rule forces importers to verify that the seafood they buy is caught legally and to trace its journey from boat to market. It’s intended to combat the immense amount of illegal seafood that’s believed to be finding its way to U.S. markets, much of it mislabeled for consumers.
If it stays, the rule will force seafood importers to follow the same rules American seafood companies have to follow to track where domestic seafood products come from and to prove that they’re legally caught, hypothetically evening the playing field. You’d think such pressure on foreign imports would have U.S. companies cheering. After all, many Americans spent the most recent election season pumping their fists in favor of a DIY nation. But a handful of American seafood companies are suing the federal government to block the rule.
These businesses are not just importers. They also buy seafood from American fishermen. But they’re fighting the rule because it would force them to disclose a practice many consumers are unaware of: that they ship U.S. seafood overseas for processing, mostly to mainland China, even though there is little oversight of the practice and it likely allows illegally caught fish to be co-mingled with our national fare.
The simple reason for overseas processing is that it’s cheaper. “There is obviously a cost savings in doing the work overseas than doing it here, and it allows for a more affordable end product,” said Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for National Fisheries Institute, the trade group for seafood businesses that, along with eight other companies, is suing the government.
Held to the rule’s new standards, the seafood companies that ship U.S. fish to fillet factories in China and elsewhere would have to account for its handling in ways that could explode their costs. Gibbons says those costs were first projected to jump by less than $250,000 a year industrywide. But the White House Office of Management and Budget recently revised that figure to roughly $6 million a year. And Gibbons and other industry experts suspect the true costs are actually much higher.
“Absolutely, it would increase their costs. And it should,” said Bubba Cook, the New Zealand–based tuna program manager from the World Wildlife Fund. Aside from the rationale that workers who process seafood should earn fair wages, he said, “That’s the cost that they need to bear so that the public can be confident that they’re not buying illegal [seafood].”
Gibbons counters that current regulations already provide enough documentation for people to know whether seafood is illegally caught and that adding this new rule is like putting a stop sign on top of another stop sign when what you really need is a traffic cop. But ask an actual seafood cop and you get a different answer. That new information that the new rule would require be added? “That helps,” said Mike Cenci, deputy chief of fish and wildlife police in Washington state. Which is why Cenci helped to author similar legislation in Washington to combat an immense amount of suspected illegal crab from Russia. And why a Seattle trade group for crabbers—who lost an estimated $550 million to illegal Russian crab over the past decade—petitioned and won standing in the federal case. “If this is a terrible law federally, then why are states enacting it on their own?” says the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers president Kale Garcia.
It’s this dynamic that creates a political challenge to President Trump’s campaign promises. If he supports corporations in this instance, and takes an anti-regulatory stance, it would severely undercut business for working crabbers and fishermen. It would also rob American workers of the possible return of seafood processing jobs, jobs that have declined by more than a third in the past 20 years. That decline came as the practice of filleting, canning, packaging, and otherwise finishing U.S. seafood overseas became more commonplace. There’s been a simultaneous general decline in domestic catch, and together this has shuttered nearly half of U.S. seafood plants in two decades.
That wasn’t the chief reason the Obama administration passed the new rule in December. That administration was mainly focused on the wider goal of limiting illegal seafood demand globally. Currently, American consumers are believed to unwittingly constitute one of the largest illegal seafood markets in the world—the U.S. imports 90 percent of the seafood consumed here. In the European Union, where a similar rule has been in place for five years, seafood mislabeling rates have dropped from an estimated 30 percent to 5 percent of products. Because the EU and America combined account for two-thirds of all seafood consumed worldwide, there’s hope that if all that seafood had to be tracked, it might exert enough pressure to reduce the worldwide appetite for illegal seafood.
This could have vast positive implications: The U.N. estimates that illegal, unregulated, and unmonitored seafood costs legitimate businesses like the crabbers up to $23 billion a year globally, in addition to imperiling fish populations worldwide and putting workers in the way of an industry that’s often tethered to slavery and human trafficking. (The nonprofit Oceana has also found that 1 in 3 fish tested were masquerading as more popular species in U.S. grocery stores and restaurants in a study in 2013. The conservation group suggests rules like the new import rule could also reduce seafood mislabeling for American consumers.)
So far, the Trump administration has been defending the rule against the businesses’ lawsuit. Government attorneys appeared in court June 7 on behalf of the United States to argue for keeping it. And staff tasked with implementing it at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working to do so before a compliance deadline for tracking the first 15 species hits companies at the end of this year.
Yet it’s not entirely clear whether these efforts are underway because the new administration supports workers over corporate savings or wants to help end illegal seafood. Maybe Trump’s advisers are finally articulating what “making America great again” looks like now that it’s jumped the campaign T-shirts for the policy arena. Maybe the Trump administration simply hasn’t given it much thought and is allowing business to continue as usual: The people that are active in this issue are holdovers from the Obama days. At a time where political leadership and appointees have been slow to take hold, there is no new national fisheries administrator yet, or an assistant, to steward the direction of this situation. And there’s no real clarity as to whether the fight for this rule is truly an aim of the administration, or just an oversight amid all the other hubbub currently swirling around the White House.
The administration could still settle this lawsuit, and put an end to the new tracking rule. But if it does, it’s sure to get some feedback from American workers who support this regulation because it protects their livelihoods.