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The Seafood Rule and Import Standards

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For those who think the U.S. can’t legitimately do anything about the conditions of work and environmental exploitation overseas, please examine the new seafood importation standard implemented by the Obama administration starting January 1.

On Jan. 1 the United States started enforcing a new import rule, which requires fisheries exporting seafood to the United States to protect marine mammals at standards comparable to those required for U.S. fisheries. This rule aims to leverage American market power to reduce marine mammal bycatch worldwide. It also aims to level the playing field for U.S. fishermen, who currently face monitoring costs and fishing restrictions to reduce marine mammal bycatch – unlike some of their foreign competitors.

If this rule succeeds, it could serve as a model for responsible globalization by demonstrating that countries can be competitive in global trade without “racing to the bottom” in their environmental standards. But to make this happen, the United States will have to set the right standard, work with other countries that need help to comply and possibly defend the rule in international courts.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, enacted in 1972, federal regulators monitor marine mammal bycatch in U.S. fisheries. They also develop plans to ensure bycatch remains within well-defined limits that will not threaten marine mammal populations. If a fishery exceeds these limits, regulators can require fishermen to change their fishing gear or methods, or even close the fishery temporarily.

The MMPA is one of the world’s strongest marine mammal protection laws, and has greatly improved the status of Pacific dolphins, harbor porpoises and California sea lions. But it also has made U.S. fisheries less competitive by imposing fishing restrictions and monitoring costs that vessels in many other countries do not face.

The new rule, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gives countries that want to export seafood to the U.S. a five-year grace period to prove that their exporting fisheries monitor and limit marine mammal bycatch as effectively as U.S. fisheries are required to do under the MMPA. The idea is to level the playing field for U.S. fishermen by encouraging other countries to raise their environmental standards, rather than lowering U.S. standards. By benefiting both U.S. trade competitiveness and marine mammal conservation, this rule should have bipartisan appeal.

None of this is to say there aren’t challenges, as the article delineates. Perhaps the biggest is the world trade system, of course with the United States as its biggest supporter, that makes it difficult to enforce trade standards. A WTO challenge is extremely likely. Moreover, the standard is far from sufficient, largely because while it chooses to enforce environmental standards, it does nothing to create labor standards in an industry that is arguably the single most exploitative in the world. But it is crucial to point to examples like this, like the bipartisan support to close the slave labor loophole in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, and like older examples such as the Seaman’s Act of 1915, to demonstrate that the U.S. absolutely can exert some control over working and environmental conditions of the products brought into this country. That it chooses not to in most cases is a matter of political power, knowledge, and will rather than any meaningful legal barriers. We must work for comprehensive corporate codes enforceable anywhere. This is a step toward that.

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