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The science of sustainable seafood, explained

What is the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP)?

This post explains the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP). I review its origins and intended function, how various stakeholders have responded, a possible expansion under the recently passed America Competes Act, and the implications of the recent ban on Russian seafood imports into the United States.

What is the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP)?

The Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) was created under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 to establish data reporting and recording-keeping requirements for imports of seafood species groups most often associated with illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) catch, with the goal of keeping IUU seafood products out of domestic markets. SIMP is managed by U.S. Customs and NOAA with the mission to provide “additional protections for our national economy, global food security, and the sustainability of our shared ocean resources.”

At the outset of the program, thirteen species groups were identified as “particularly vulnerable to IUU fishing.” According to NOAA, this encompasses more than 1,100 unique species and nearly half of all seafood imports into the U.S.

  • Abalone
  • Atlantic cod
  • Blue crab (Atlantic)
  • Dolphinfish (Mahi Mahi)
  • Grouper
  • King crab (red)
  • Pacific cod
  • Red snapper
  • Sea cucumber
  • Sharks
  • Shrimp
  • Swordfish
  • Tuna (Albacore, Bigeye, Skipjack, Yellowfin, Bluefin)

The importer of record must provide information on how the fish was caught or farmed and where and how it was processed into its final product form – information that most importers should already be accustomed to collecting from suppliers. However, unfamiliar new codes and terminology were also added to the list of requirements. Some importers detested these new requirements for being tedious and superfluous.

The reporting is done at the moment of import, in part to help integrate with existing electronic infrastructure and alleviate the burden of learning a new and separate data system. The importer must also keep all relevant records on file afterward and be ready to share additional data with the International Trade Data System, the U.S. government’s single data portal for all import and export reporting.

Past the importer of record, SIMP has no requirements for data reporting down the supply chain. SIMP records are not shared within the domestic supply chain. The program is solely intended to block IUU products from entering the country and does nothing to increase traceability past that point.

SIMP is a relatively unique effort to combat IUU imports at the national level. Only a few other countries and the European Union have a seafood import program of similar scope and intent.

How has SIMP been received?

SIMP was initially applauded during its genesis during the Obama administration in 2016; it was part of a broader effort to combat forced labor in all industries. But since then, SIMP has been scrutinized by virtually every stakeholder group. Early supporters like Oceana and the National Resource Defense Council called for SIMP to be expanded to include all seafood species imported into the country. As Beth Lowell, Oceana’s deputy vice president for U.S. campaigns, said in a March 2021 press release, “all seafood sold in the U.S. should be safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled.”

Conservationists also questioned the depth of SIMP, worrying the added data requirements were being lost farther down the supply chain past the importer of record. A letter to congress sent last December, signed by over 100 scientists in support of SIMP expansion, explained that the current program “does not require traceability from the point of import to the final point of sale, resulting in significant gaps in SIMP’s traceability requirements.” The same letter called for mandatory automatic identification systems (AIS) and other measures for domestic fishing vessels to boost traceability industry-wide, not only on imports.

However, SIMP has never been about increasing supply chain traceability and educating consumers. The program was designed solely to block the importation of IUU seafood. The data reporting requirements include vessel flag state, landing port, product form at time of landing, and other elements that are important for spotting IUU threats but are not necessarily valuable to a seafood consumer or end buyer. Furthermore, some of that information is considered proprietary and would not be shared willingly by importers.

Criticizing SIMP from another perspective is the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), which compared SIMP to lawn darts: “While you’re unlikely to be impaled by a flying Seafood Import Monitoring Program, expansion of the program could do more harm than good. It’s also a misdirected effort of federal programming, a compliance headache, and a regulatory mess.”

SIMP’s fishing industry critics suggest most seafood import violations are actually reporting errors, not instances of premeditated fraud. Even in instances of premeditated fraud, opponents argue that the new data requirements from SIMP will not adequately deter or identify a bad actor. Additionally, NFI said that SIMP “creates significant cost and administrative burdens for the entire value chain, thus impacting U.S. jobs and raising prices for American consumers.” To date, the seafood industry is estimated to have spent over $50 million on SIMP regulatory data compliance.

In 2019, Francisco Blaha, an independent fisheries adviser with experience at NGOs and within the industry, was critical of the European Union Catch Certification Scheme (EU CCS) and SIMP for designing slightly different approaches to the IUU problem. The misalignment in importers’ required data elements and book-keeping expectations could mean “there is a real risk of a proliferation of non-harmonized unilateral trade instruments to combat IUU fishing.” Seafood sellers that appeal to both U.S. and European buyers must shoulder the cost of complying with two different traceability regimes.

In principle, few would oppose the idea of increased traceability standards to mitigate IUU fishing. But how to apply those new standards and who must shoulder the cost of this transition period is where debate originates.

What happens next to SIMP?

On February 4th 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American COMPETES Act. Part of this $350 billion spending bill included an expansion of SIMP to include all seafood species that enter American ports. However, the proposed expansion does not add new reporting requirements from the importer to final point of sale. There are still several approvals needed before the language of the bill is finalized, including other budget reconciliations and President Biden’s final approval or veto, but the momentum to expand SIMP is clearly building.

The current ban on Russian seafood imports has provided a compelling example for proponents of the new bill. Pollock and salmon, two species categories not included in current SIMP parameters, are two of Russia’s biggest seafood exports to the U.S. market. This omission means pollock and salmon import data are not as robust as they could be, and such products are susceptible to “laundering” via overseas processing. Is pollock caught by a Russian vessel, but processed in China before being sent to the U.S., still considered a Russian seafood import? That has not been clearly defined, but either way, it would be helpful to know more about the origin of those species categories in this unusual political situation. As the Seattle Times said last week, “the ban on seafood could pack a significant blow to Russia’s economy. It is meaningless, however, without tools to help the U.S. trace the origins of the food that ends up in restaurants, grocery stores, and seafood markets.”

But even assuming SIMP will be expanded to include more seafood species than the original 13 categories, there are still many obstacles before achieving the program’s lofty traceability goals and gaining broader industry acceptance. The Stimson Center, NOAA Fisheries, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) jointly released a report from a recent seafood traceability workshop to document the most worrisome obstacles for SIMP users. The most common suggestions for improvement were around standardized data requirements and increased interoperability. This lends to Blaha’s criticism of the divergence between SIMP and EU CSS, where purveyors to multiple markets cannot easily duplicate the reporting protocols from one market to another. But even developing one new set of data collection and reporting protocols is expensive and confusing for many seafood companies.

The overall struggle to standardize data characterizations is evident throughout the global seafood supply chain. The Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability (GDST) seeks to solve this problem and is bringing stakeholders together on defined traceability elements, but it’s a slow and grinding process that burdens supply chain actors trying to reconfigure their internal data systems to stay within compliance.

Solving global traceability and stopping IUU catch from making it to market is difficult. SIMP is a good step in the right direction, but many more must be taken.

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