Graphic by Jessica Floum

Graphic by Jessica Floum

WASHINGTON — The world is waiting for the United States to ratify treaties to that would close global ports to illegal fishing vessels, witnesses told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday.

Illegal fishing– using illegal gear, failing to report catch and fishing without a license–has cost the global fishing industry up to $23.5 billion, threatened sustainable fishing and facilitated human trafficking, witnesses said at the hearing.

The panelists advocated for fishery treaties that would increase United States authority to manage Pacific fisheries and affirm American participation in the first international effort to stop fisherman from illicit activities.

“The ripple effect of illegal fishing expands to all shores,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said.

Limited capacity for regulation and exemptions from safety standards offer illegal fisherman economic incentives and a low-risk environment.

This environment caters to human and drug traffickers who take advantage of people who have minimal access to justice, said Mark Lagon, the adjunct fellow for human rights at the Council on Foreign Relations. Because there is little risk involved in illegal fishing, human trafficking for labor and sex–and even drug trafficking–is prevalent on illegal vessels, witnesses told the committee.

“The treaties would advance the stewardship of marine ecosystems and would also prevent vulnerable people from being utterly dehumanized and abused at sea,” Lagon said.

In 2009, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization adopted the Port State Measures Agreement to exert stricter port controls on foreign vessels. Under the agreement, countries with international ports would inspect and report vessels flagged for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing – called IUU fishing. They would also refuse such vessels port entry and services, making it nearly impossible for illegal fisherman to ship and sell their fish.

“A fish is worthless unless it is sold at a dock,” Markey said.

The treaty requires 25 countries for ratification. Although the United States was among the first to sign it in 2009, the U.S. has yet to ratify it.

“The world is waiting for the United States to act as an example,” Lagon said.

IUU fishing also threatens the ocean’s ecosystem and food security in the U.S. by contributing to the overfishing of diminishing fish stocks, said Russell Smith, deputy assistant secretary for international fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The United States imports more than 90 percent of its seafood, the NOAA official said.

IUU fishing also punishes those using sustainable fishing practices by contributing to the overfishing problem and inflating market prices, said Mark Gleason, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. Most American fisherman play by the rules and want to do so on a level playing field, Gleason said.

“[Signing the four treaties] would be good for U.S. fisherman,” said Raymond Kane, outreach coordinator for the Cape Cod Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance. “It’d be good for the fish stocks, all these fish we’re trying to save, and it’d be good for the United States unilaterally.”