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United States

When illegal fishing hits home

Story by WWF September 29th, 2015

feeding the american people

Adapted from a story by Erik Vance, originally published in World Wildlife.

Kyle Wallis has a day job. Yet, late on a chilly Saturday morning in November, jet-lagged from a business trip the previous day, he’s at the docks loading pallets of shrimp. Kyle owns a nominal percentage of one of the seven boats operated by his father Craig’s company. But that’s not why he’s on this frigid pier.

“It’s a family heritage thing for me. It’s been born and bred in me. I’ve been here doing it since I was eight years old – being around the waterfront,” he says. “You are going out on the water, catching food for the American people, feeding the public. You feel like you are doing something worthwhile.”

Kyle is a third-generation shrimp boat owner. This morning, one of his father’s boats is unloading about 20,000 pounds of brown shrimp that will soon find its way from the Gulf of Mexico to dinner plates throughout the United States.

There’s not a lot to be done; his father and the crew have it well in hand. But Kyle takes a few turns on the forklift anyway, loading 1,500-lb pallets piled high with orange bags of shrimp into a freezer truck. He talks a little business with his dad and jokes with some of the workers, but mostly he just takes it all in. He says that this is all he really wants – to take over the family business running shrimp boats on the Gulf. He’d quit his job tomorrow, take a pay cut, and work here full time if he thought the US shrimping industry would be here long enough for his kids to go to college.

“I’ve got a son who wants to get back involved. But is this business here for another 30 years?” Craig Wallis asks. “You can’t stay in business if you can’t pay your bills.”

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Gulf shrimpers have had a tough run lately, between monster storms and exploding oil platforms. But what keeps Craig Wallis awake at night and what keeps Kyle out of the business is something more pervasive, something harder to overcome: competition from a global market, much of which is either caught illegally or grown in poorly regulated farms.

It’s a problem that goes far beyond shrimp or the Gulf of Mexico.

Humans have relied on the sea for substance for millennia. But since the 1980s, people have been taking marine life at an astounding rate. In some parts of the world, huge portions of a vessel’s catch can be made up of non-targeted, commercially useless species – bycatch that goes overboard to rot on the ocean bottom. In others, boats willfully defy laws and decimate whole populations. And in others, captains even use slave labor to man the nets.

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fish from afar

Meanwhile, years of hard-fought environmental advances have made US waters some of the most closely monitored in the world. Alaskan fisheries are a global model for sustainable management, and California’s coast has one of the world‘s best systems of marine protected areas. Swordfish, red snapper and even the long-lost Atlantic cod are coming back to life.

Of course, many other countries have worked hard to create sustainable fisheries off their coasts as well. Mozambique requires boats to avoid certain “no take” fishing zones; traditional lobstermen in Mexico use some of the most sustainable practices in the world; and Fiji has shrunk its tuna fleet, allowing the species to recover. But many developing countries simply do not have the resources required to effectively police their waters.

And while US waters and fisheries are now well-regulated, about 90 per cent of seafood on US tables is imported, often from those places with few fishing laws or poor enforcement. Today, while law-abiding US fishers are recognized as crucial partners in saving our oceans, they are increasingly undercut by the influx of illegal, unreported and unregulated seafood across our borders.

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the good stuff

A few miles west of New Orleans, down a small street in an innocuous residential neighborhood, workers at Harlon’s LA Fish & Seafood are bringing in a load of black drum and sheepshead.

“Harlon always says, ‘quality, quality, quality,’” says Doyle Jones, a 30-year veteran fisherman. “You gotta have the good stuff to compete.”

Jones is quoting Harlon Pearce, a well-known fish broker and vocal member of the Louisiana fishing community. Sitting in his office lined with trophies, Pearce says that no matter how hard they try, American fishers will never compete with certain foreign fish. So he takes a live-and-let-live attitude about imports.

“Good quality, properly regulated, properly harvested and properly processed imports aren’t a bad thing,” he says. “The bad thing is when you try to get into the trenches and drop your quality as a local producer to compete with them. That doesn’t make sense.”

The American fishing industry, he says, needs to build a reputation for quality so that it can demand higher prices. Alaskan fish, for example, are known around the globe as a higher quality, sustainable brand. That, Pearce says, is what all American fish should do – rise above being just food and gain footing as a value-added brand.

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Doing what's right

No one on the Gulf Coast so personifies this new American fishing ethic as Lance Nacio. Born and bred in the Louisiana bayou, Nacio never graduated from high school and has been a shrimper most of his life.

“In 2000, I built the boat and the prices were phenomenal. In 2001, I mean, they just crashed and we went on a 10-year spell where we just didn’t get any price. So I started doing my own marketing and selling my own product,” he says. Nothing fancy – he went to a local grocery chain and sold his shrimp in front of the store.

Nacio doesn’t immediately strike one as a salesman. He has a hulking frame, huge arms, deep-set eyes and a forest of a goatee. But as soon as he starts talking, his quiet, gentle demeanor could charm an angry dog. The grocery store’s seafood buyer noticed him and struck up a conversation.

Nacio’s business would never be the same. He began selling directly to the stores and soon realized that he didn’t need middlemen if his product was good enough.

But there was more. Nacio also started using turtle excluder devices (TEDs) and other bycatch reduction devices, which allow some of the unintended catch to escape before the net is hauled in. Nacio supports TEDs both as an environmental measure and because they make his work more efficient. In some cases, unwanted catch in shrimp boats can be about 90 per cent of what’s hauled in; modern devices can get that down to around 60 per cent.

He quickly became an expert on TEDs, honing his fishing technique and tools to the point where he regularly gets just 10 per cent bycatch. This allows him to sell his shrimp as turtle-safe, though the nets save far more than just turtles. So where other fishers might get $3 per pound, Nacio says his legally caught, turtle-safe white shrimp command $6 or more – an economic incentive that adds even more value to honoring the rule of law.

“It’s just being sensible,” he says. “I don’t know if I would call myself an environmentalist. I just try to do what’s right.”

After lunch in Nacio’s kitchen, he pulls out an iPad to show a video about fishers on Thai vessels forced to work on the high seas under threat of beatings or death – another ugly effect of illegal and unregulated fishing. WWF is working with US companies and Thai producers to clean up those deeply disturbing practices. Nacio shakes his head.

“This is why people should know what they’re eating.”

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Footnote: Photos © Dominic Bracco / WWF-US. Additional reporting by Laura Margison. Edited for Exposure by Gretchen Lyons.
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