WASHINGTON -- A bill aimed at taking down "pirate" fishing by keeping illegally caught fish out of U.S. ports is headed for President Barack Obama's signature.
The Senate late Wednesday passed a bill aimed at giving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard greater enforcement capabilities to combat illegal and unregulated fishing, a multibillion-dollar problem for Alaska and the U.S. fishing industry.
The bill, which brings together such unlikely bedfellows as Republican lawmakers and Greenpeace, passed the Senate by a unanimous vote. The House passed the same legislation in July.
The bill has the backing of the White House, which determined in 2014 that new legislation was needed to implement a port agreement requiring member countries to reject ships that have illegal product onboard. The European Union, Australia, Chile and New Zealand have signed on, among other countries. Ten more are needed to reach the 25 required before the agreement takes effect, according to environmental group Oceana.
"This important legislation, which imposes added sanctions on countries whose vessels engage in IUU fishing, would provide our authorities the tools they need to fight back against these global criminals and ensure millions of pounds of illegally caught product never reach market," said Alaska Rep. Don Young, a Republican who co-sponsored the House version of the bill.
The bill would increase the ability of those agencies to inspect, identify and monitor illegal foreign boats, Young said. It amends several international agreements, adds new financial penalties for illegal fishing, and enhances information sharing among countries.
Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, sponsored the Senate bill, along with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.
The new law should help the U.S. keep fish from vessels suspected of illegal fishing out of U.S. and other countries' ports.
"Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is a global problem, and this legislation will increase and streamline enforcement tools and assist the Coast Guard and NOAA in curbing this criminal activity that threatens our domestic fishermen by endangering the health of our fisheries resources and distorting our markets," Sullivan said.
"By cracking down on the illegal harvesting of fish, we are leveling the playing field and protecting the livelihoods of the 80,000 Alaskans who are directly or indirectly impacted by our seafood industry," Murkowski said.
Pirate fishing depresses prices for U.S. fish, according to Democratic Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.
Illegal fishing produces as much as 25 million tons of seafood each year for a hungry global market, and experts estimate the global cost is between $10 billion and $23 billion. Alaska's seafood market in particular sees an impact from illegal crab fishing in Russia.
Oceana has a campaign to prevent seafood fraud and has found quite a bit of it through testing. A third of seafood samples Oceana tested in 2013 were mislabeled. In 2014, 30 percent of "Gulf" shrimp the group tested were "misrepresented." And tests this year found that 38 percent of "Maryland" crab cakes were not actually blue crab.
"We applaud Congress for taking a stand against the modern-day pirates who exploit weak enforcement and lack of regulations on the high seas and in many countries around the world," said Oceana's senior campaign director Beth Lowell. Lowell estimated that illegal and unregulated fishing accounts for 20 percent of the world's catch.
Tony Long, who directs a campaign to end illegal fishing at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said that "global illegal fishing activities force U.S. fishermen to compete on an uneven playing field" and lauded the bill's passage.
Note: This article has been edited to reflect that Alaska Rep. Don Young co-sponsored the House version of the bill.