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CECC Co-Chairs Call for Increased Enforcement, Import Bans on Chinese Seafood

The co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China called on DHS to report on actions it has taken to address forced labor in seafood supply chains, noting that the agency already had been informed of the contents of a recent article detailing forced labor in Chinese seafood processing operations before it was published.

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In their Oct. 24 letter, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also called on DHS to issue withhold release orders for all seafood processing facilities in Shandong and Liaoning provinces. The letter also said that DHS should put the companies using forced labor on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act Entity List and should stop imports from companies using North Korean labor, in compliance with the UFLPA and the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

The letter was announced at a hearing held the same day that came in the wake of a report published by the Outlaw Ocean Project focusing on the use of Uyghur forced labor in seafood processing facilities in Shandong (see 2310230059).

Ian Urbina, who led the team that wrote the article, said at the hearing that the problem of forced labor in China's seafood industry is "deep and consistent." Forced labor began to be relied upon more on land and more after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to "logistical and supply chain problems in China," Urbina said. The Chinese government began moving "thousands of workers" across the country from Xinjiang to Shandong, "a coastal eastern province in the far east where much of the seafood infrastructure is based," to keep their seafood industry running, he said in written testimony released ahead of the hearing.

The investigation found that Uyghur workers were relocated to at least 10 seafood processing plants in Shandong that supply "dozens" of U.S. seafood brands and brands in at least 20 other countries, Urbina said. Urbina called on U.S. agencies to enforce their laws, saying the laws are "pretty clear" and the issue is whether they will be enforced in the industry.

Urbina said that his investigation found North Korean forced laborers at an "additional set of processing plants in China" that export to the U.S., though he said he is "intentionally refraining, for the time being," from discussing the issue. "We will soon publish more about these findings," he said at the hearing.

According to Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said in written testimony that until the "recent repatriation" of North Korean workers in August, there were "thousands" of North Korean workers at Chinese seafood processing plants. The workers processed a "wide variety" of seafood products including cod, pollock, clams, crab, snow crab, squid, octopus and shellfish, he said.

The letter from the commission's co-chairs said "up to 80,000" North Korean workers were forced to work in Chinese seafood processing operations in the cities of Donggang and Dandong.

While concerns around forced labor continue to be an issue for consumers, it is hard for them to know if their seafood is produced with forced labor or not, Sally Yozell, director of the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center, said. The seafood supply chain is "complex" and seafood is often processed at seafood centers in China, where it mixes with seafood from other "global catches" and is altered, making it difficult to distinguish," Yozell said in her written testimony. That also opens "the potential for mislabeling" before it moves to suppliers and other countries, she said.

For example, the U.S. imports about 85% of all of its seafood, but just under 40% of the U.S. seafood imports were initially caught in the U.S. and exported to Asia and China for processing. That fish is then "reimported" to the U.S., Yozell said.

Russian seafood, currently subject to a ban on imports imposed after its invasion of Ukraine (see 2203140051), is intermixed at Chinese seafood processing plants and becomes products of China under U.S. Country of Origin Labeling rules. This can hide the "real origin" of the fish, allowing Russian fish to enter the U.S. marketplace, Yozell said. As a result, Russian seafood exports have grown by 173% since 2014, Yozell said.

As part of the effort to rid the U.S. of seafood tainted with forced labor, experts at the hearing said they believe the Seafood Import Monitoring Program should be expanded, including to address forced labor and cover additional species. One of the problems with SIMP is that it doesn't cover "several high risk species, including pollock, salmon, blue swimming crab, squid, and haddock," Yozell said.

"Expanding the Seafood Import Monitoring Program to include all species is a good next step to provide greater confidence to consumers that the seafood they buy is not illegally harvested," Yozell said.

Yozell also said that as NOAA works on improving SIMP, it is important to remember that it is a "single narrow program" and not a true traceability system. This is in part because SIMP places the burden of proof on the importer, and without "digitization and electronic catch certification," importers lack the information needed to verify if their seafood supply chain is safe from forced labor, Yozell said.

This lack of trace transparency also makes it harder for consumers to know the source of the fish they are buying, Dr. Tabitha Grace Mallory said in an interview with International Trade Today the day before the hearing. "If you try to figure out where your seafood comes from, it's really challenging," Mallory said. This includes going online to sites like Amazon, she said.

One of the reasons that the system we have is not more transparent is because the "industry lobby" is strong, Mallory said. "It's more costly for the industry to have to provide that information," she said. There is also some fear that sharing a lot of that data could reveal "trade secrets" or industrial knowledge with competitors, Mallory said.

This lack of traceability also comes down to the number of species of a particular fish that are being traced, Mallory said. Of the 30 to 40 species of squid that are considered "commercially important" to U.S. trade, U.S. trade data only tracks "two species" and one genus of squid, Mallory said. Everything about other species of squid is "lumped together," Mallory said.

If you aren't tracing the different types of squid, that "increases the chances that you're going to be importing squid that's either not sustainable" or have some that was processed with "labor rights abuses," Mallory said. Mallory said that she supports expanding the data to the species level.

Yozell said that the U.S. should "work with other countries to develop a consistent global list of high risk species" and that the U.S. should move to a "full digitized traceability system." Yozell also said that NOAA Fisheries should amend its definition of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing to include forced labor. Federal agencies also need to work together "to consider other risks linked to vessel histories, ownership information, and land and sea-based processing," Yozell said.

This also includes giving more data and information to federal agencies to help them better trace seafood. Yozell said that her think tank recently interviewed "several federal agencies" and asked about what tools would help make their jobs easier. Yozell said the agencies all said that "sharing data and information" was important. "NOAA collects a significant amount of information through its SIMP program, but it does not share it," Yozell said. "So we really need to open that aperture and understand all that we can about risky flags, risky vessels" and "risky ports."

"IUU fishing is a global problem that requires global solutions," Yozell said. "The United States government has the opportunity and the responsibility to ensure more transparency and to chart a path forward that moves the seafood supply chain out of the shadows."