Congress Puts Unregulated Fishing on the Hook

February 1, 2023 by Alyssa Greenstein

Man fishing at dawn

U.S. Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK), respectively the Chairman and Ranking Members of the Senate Armed Service Committee, and U.S. Representatives Adam Smith (D-WA) and Mike Rogers (R-AL), their counterparts on the House Armed Services Committee, led the charge in passing the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2023 Fiscal Year.[1] This year’s NDAA is a bipartisan agreement that has a notable expansion of measures to prevent illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which is both an environmental and national security concern.[2]

A wide array of fishing activities falls under the umbrella of IUU fishing. Illegal fishing refers to fishing activities that contravene either regional or international laws and regulations.[3] Unreported fishing activities are those that are either not reported at all or are misreported to the relevant authorities in violation of regional or international laws.[4] Unregulated fishing encompasses fishing activities conducted in a manner that does not comply with international marine conservation law in areas without other applicable conservation or management measures.[5] Unregulated fishing also occurs when a vessel in a Regional Fishery Management Organization (RFMO)’s jurisdiction either does not fly a flag of any nationality or flies a flag that is not part of the RFMO and conducts activities that conflict with the regulations of the RFMO.[6] Some of the most common IUU fishing activities include keeping undersized and/or protected fish, fishing without a license, fishing in closed areas, and fishing with prohibited gear.[7]

IUU fishing is a global problem at the intersection of environmental sustainability, national security, and human rights, one with costs in the billions of dollars.[8] Firstly, IUU fishing activities destroy marine ecosystems by causing overfishing, which has left many overfished species in grave danger of extinction.[9] Overfishing threatens not only the marine environment, but also countries like the United States that rely heavily on fish as a source of food.[10] Furthermore, in 2019 the U.S. Coast Guard declared that IUU fishing is a “leading maritime security threat” because it “destabilizes economies and increases international conflict.”[11] Importantly, the IUU fishing industry causes intolerable human rights abuses through the trafficking of poor migrant workers who work on unregulated fishing vessels. Hundreds—if not thousands—of fishermen aboard these vessels are murdered.[12]

The United States—which imports 5.3 billion pounds of seafood per year[13] —has committed itself to combat IUU fishing in recent years. The 2023 NDAA expands measures to prevent the importation of unregulated seafood and combat human trafficking in the fishing industry. For example, the NDAA calls for amplifying seafood importation monitoring and screening through increased audits, an expansion of the marine forensics laboratory, and improvements to the Seafood Import Monitoring Program Message Set at the directive of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).[14] It also directs the NOAA to expand “capacity-building projects for implementing measures to address illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing, fraud, forced labor, bycatch, and other conservation measures” with other countries.[15] Furthermore, the NDAA appropriates $20 million from 2023–2027 to enforce Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930, which bans the importation of goods made with forced labor.[16]

These measures in the 2023 NDAA follow up on President Biden’s National Security Memorandum to address IUU fishing released on June 27, 2022, and demonstrate an effort that spans across the aisle to combat an issue that affects a unique intersection of environmental, economic, national security, and human rights issues.[17] Given that the United States relies so heavily on seafood, it is not only in the nation’s best interest to continue to expand measures to prevent IUU fishing, but it is also morally incumbent on the United States to wield its economic power to stop the human rights abuses and environmental perils that directly result from the IUU fishing industry.

[1] SASC and HASC Release Text of FY23 NDAA Agreement, United States S. Comm. on Armed Services (December 6, 2022)

[2] Id.; Molly Masterton & Valerie Cleland, Senate Passes Measures to Combat Illegal Fishing, Nat. Res. Def. Council Expert Blog (December 19, 2022),

[3] Understanding Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, Nat’l Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin. U.S. Dep’t of Com., (last visited December 29, 2022).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Jaemin Lee, Subsidies for Illegal Activities?—Reframing IUU Fishing from the Law Enforcement Perspective, 22 J. of Int’l Econ. L., 417, 417–419 (2019).

[10] Understanding Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, supra note 3.

[11] Masterson & Cleland, supra note 2.

[12] The Human Suffering Behind our Seafood, Nat. Res. Def. Council Action Fund (June 9, 2021),

[13] Illegal Fishing, World Wildlife Fund, (last visited December 30, 2022).

[14] James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023, H.R. 7776, 117th Cong., § 11330, § 11332 (2022).

[15] Id. at § 11339.

[16] Id. at § 11335; Katie Hobbs, Annual Defense Bill Nets Environmental and Public Health Gains, Nat. Res. Def. Council Expert Blog (December 16, 2022),

[17] Fact Sheet: President Biden Signs National Security Memorandum to Combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Associated Labor Abuses, The White House (June 27, 2022),