Illegal fishing threatens ecosystems and puts food security and regional stability at risk

Key U.S. laws permit both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens to receive large monetary rewards for blowing the whistle.
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Illegal Fishing is Driving an Underwater Crisis 

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 ranging from ocean pollutionclimate changeand illegal fishing, which is sometimes referred to as Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing, or IUU fishing. According to the IUCN Red List, over 2,200 species of marine life are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.  

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. 

Empowering Whistleblowers in the Fight Against IUU Fishing 

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. 

Several 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, Fish and Wildlife Improvement Act, False Claims Act, Foreign Corrupt Practices 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.  

Advocacy for the Maritime SAFE Act 

For several years, the National Whistleblower Center has worked with NGO allies, law enforcement officials and policy makers to identify deficiencies in the current legal regime. A key milestone in our efforts was the introduction of the Maritime SAFE Act in the Senate in May 2019. This bill, introduced on a bi-partisan basis by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), would empower whistleblowers to report information about illegal fishing throughout the world and strengthen the enforcement capacity of U.S. laws. It is a critical tool to stop the current illegal fishing crisis.  

Read the press release by Senators Coons and Wicker here. Read the full text of the bill and the latest action by Congress here. More information will be coming soon!

The Role of the National Whistleblower Center 

The National Whistleblower Center works 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. 

Leveraging this system will revolutionize the detection of wildlife crime, radically increase effective law enforcement, and help protect the biodiversity of our oceans. 

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 – exactly what the National Whistleblower Center has advocated! 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. 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.

Read About the Vaquita’s Plight

Is the vaquita’s plight linked to the US government’s failure to take advantage of one of its most powerful wildlife crime-fighting tools, whistleblowing? Read the article in Earth Island Journal by journalist Richard Schiffman which investigates the missed opportunities to save the vaquita, a porpoise that has become critically endangered as a result of illegal fishing.

Learn More About Wildlife Whistleblowers

Confidentially Report Illegal Fishing  

If you have information related to illegal fishing, submit a report using our secure, confidential intake form, and our attorneys will review your case for free. Our Whistleblower Legal Assistance Program helps connect whistleblowers with legal representation. You can learn from qualified legal counsel about your potential eligibility for monetary rewards and work with counsel to determine whether and how to submit the information you have to appropriate law enforcement officials. 

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