Conserve Ocean Fisheries Threatened by Illegal Fishing

Key U.S. laws permit both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens to receive large monetary rewards for blowing the whistle on fishing-related crimes.

The U.S. is one of the largest importers of seafood in the world, regularly purchasing over $18 billion of product each year. Yet marine life around the globe is under threat from a host of forces including ocean pollutionclimate changeand illegal fishing, which is sometimes referred to as Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (or IUU fishing).   

Illegal fishing is a particularly grave concern, costing the global economy up to $23 billion USD each year, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Illegal fishing is becoming increasingly widespread as corrupt companies ramp up operations to meet growing consumer demand. Fish populations suffer losses from which they are sometimes unable to recover, and fish-dependent communities are left without food security and economic sustenance. 

Whistleblower reports are key to ending illegal fishing practices and allowing ecosystems and fish populations to recover from the strain of overfishing. Oftentimes the only witnesses to violations of law are those brave individuals who work on ships or in ports of call alongside the criminals and bring forward evidence. Key U.S. laws permit both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens to receive protections and awards for blowing the whistle.

The National Whistleblower Center (NWC) works to educate potential whistleblowers about how to participate in whistleblower programs focused on illegal fishing, provides legal assistance to whistleblowers, and advocates for stronger whistleblower protections in Congress and other policy making forums. 

The successful implementation of whistleblower programs and leveraging whistleblower laws will revolutionize the detection of wildlife crime, radically increase effective law enforcement, and help protect the biodiversity of our oceans. 

Empowering Whistleblowers in the Fight Against IUU Fishing 

Several existing U.S. laws provide rewards and protections for whistleblowers who come forward with information related to fishing-related crimes. Among the most important laws are the Lacey Act, False Claims Act, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Fish and Wildlife Improvement Act, and Endangered Species Act. 

Some of these laws have one or more of the following features that are critical for incentivizing whistleblowers to step forward: 

  • Anonymity, which allows attorneys for the whistleblowers to submit their information to law enforcement without revealing the identity of the whistleblowers.
  • Confidentiality, which allows the information to be provided to law enforcement without informing the public (thus allowing an investigation to take place before the violator has an opportunity to cover its tracks), as well as for law enforcement to investigate using the whistleblowers’ information but ensuring that law enforcement’s actions will not allow anyone to backtrace or otherwise figure out the whistleblowers’ identity. 
  • Rewards, in which law enforcement distributes to the whistleblower a portion of any civil or criminal penalties recovered due to the whistleblower’s information. Some of the laws also provide for restitution to be paid to the communities harmed by the illegal fishing. 
  • Anti-Retaliation, in which the laws prohibit companies from retaliating against the whistleblower for their actions in blowing the whistle, both internally and in cooperating with law enforcement.

A whistleblower need not be a U.S. citizen or a company insider to collect a monetary reward. So long as the whistleblower provides original information not otherwise available to law enforcement, and this information leads to civil or criminal penaltiesmany U.S. whistleblower laws provide for an award to be made. U.S. policy makers wisely recognize that foreign nationals and even NGOs are often essential for successful prosecutions.  

As evidenced here, there are already a host of laws that could be employed in the fight against IUU fishing – with whistleblowers at the center. And as an October 2020 poll from the Whistleblower News Network shows, corporate whistleblowers enjoy broad support from the American public. When asked if passing stronger laws that protect employees who report corporate fraud should be a priority for Congress, 82 percent of those surveyed agreed, with 29 percent stating that it should be an immediate priority.

This poll should provide Congress with all the encouragement it needs to act on pending whistleblower bills addressing private sector corruption, like H.R.864, which is aimed at the trade in endangered wildlife, illegal timber and seafood. If passed, this bill could prove a powerful tool for greater accountability in the fishing industry and have a powerful impact on curbing the illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing that threatens marine life around the globe.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office

After a year-long investigative process into the current implementation of wildlife whistleblower laws, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) vindicated the position of the National Whistleblower Center. In May 2018, GAO issued a report which demonstrates that U.S. government agencies must take action to better enforce and combat the illegal wildlife trade, including illegal fishing. “This report reinforces the urgent need for Congressional action,” said Stephen M. Kohn, Chairman of the Board of NWC. The report proves that the current wildlife trafficking and extinction crisis is untenable, and that something must be done urgently. The full text of the GAO report can be viewed here.

Both the Department of Commerce (for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the Department of Interior (for the Fish and Wildlife Service), which implement the current laws on the books, have concurred with the GAO’s recommendations. This means that they will be moving forward with changing their current policies on the basis of the GAO’s recommendations. To see the progress of these agencies in implementing the GAO’s recommendations, click on the recommendations section of the report’s page here.

Read NWC’s In-Depth Analysis of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Whistleblower Program

The National Whistleblower Center used Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests to conduct an in-depth analysis of Fish and Wildlife Service’s whistleblower program and its payment of rewards from 2003 to 2016. Access all of the documents on whistleblower cases here. The National Whistleblower Center published a report explaining how the Departments of Commerce and Interior should implement the GAO’s recommendations, drawing upon the lessons learned from the cases analyzed from the FOIA production documents. NWC provided the agencies with this report to assist in their reform process. The report is required reading for anyone who wants to have an in-depth understanding of how these laws should and could work. Read the updated report here.

The National Whistleblower Center continues to fight to ensure that the government agencies in charge of implementing the whistleblower reward laws passed by Congress do so, and do so well.

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