Editor’s note: As editor of MEAM, I have the privilege of looking through a lot of literature about marine conservation and management. Every once in a while, an article really stands out because it brings up an entirely new perspective (for me) on a topic. The recent article “Can the United States have its fish and eat it too?” published in Marine Policy was one such article. It describes some of the consequences of the US combining relatively well-managed domestic fisheries with significant imports of seafood from foreign fisheries, some of which have greater rates of overfishing, bycatch, and interactions with threatened species.

Moreover, this article appears at the same time that we are seeing the US proposing dramatic shifts in trade relationships with the rest of the world. We do not know how future trade negotiations will turn out, but several of the authors of the recent Marine Policy article spoke with us about their recent article and possible implications for global marine conservation if trade relationships do change. Lead author Mark Helvey is a retired assistant regional administrator for sustainable fisheries with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Co-author Carrie Pomeroy is an extension specialist with California Sea Grant and a social scientist specializing in the human dimensions of fisheries and fishing communities. Co-author Naresh Pradhan is a fishery analyst and economist with the New England Fisheries Management Council. The authors can be reached through Mr. Helvey at markhelvey2@gmail.com.

MEAM: Tell us about “leakage” as it pertains to US seafood consumption and fisheries.

Helvey et al. The term leakage (also referred to as “unequal ecological exchange,” “transfer effect”, and “spillover”) is used to describe the displacement of environmental impacts. This can occur when conservation policies aimed at reducing environmental pressure from production activities in one place lead to a countervailing effect in another place, offsetting the intended benefits of the initial policy.

Swordfish provides perhaps the best example of leakage resulting from conservation policies directed at US fisheries. In 2014, the US consumed a little over 19,000 metric tons (mt) of swordfish, 87% of which was imported. Documented swordfish leakage comes from the US Pacific fisheries operating out of Hawaii and California that harvest a healthy stock. The primary gear types used to harvest swordfish commercially are shallow-set longlines and, off California, nets because the state prohibits the use of shallow-set longlines. Both gear types inadvertently catch other marine species, but research conducted in the US has led to the development and adoption of methods that reduce those impacts to marine mammals, sea turtles, and sea birds, consistent with US marine conservation requirements.

However, because of restrictions on domestic fishing effort and therefore catches, US markets largely rely on imported swordfish that primarily comes from foreign nations, many of which don’t impose similar conservation requirements on their fishermen. Consequently, the conservation gains occurring in the US Pacific swordfish fisheries because of fishery restrictions are being leaked or lost to those foreign fisheries that supply the other 87% percent of the swordfish consumed in the US.

[Editor’s note: Two new regulatory programs – to reduce the import of seafood obtained through illegal and unregulated fishing and to reduce marine mammal bycatch related to seafood imports – were finalized in the second half of 2016 and are currently being implemented.]

MEAM: What are some actions the US could take to reduce negative marine ecosystem impacts of its seafood consumption?

Helvey et al.: One seemingly simple action would be to reduce US seafood consumption. This approach is naïve and impractical, however, because the nutrition and health benefits of seafood consumption would be lost and there would still be leakage due to increased agricultural food production to replace the foregone seafood production and consumption.

Another action advocated by many for reducing negative marine ecosystem impacts is curtailing US fisheries production. This tactic is short-sighted because while it may reduce domestic marine ecosystem impacts, it also reduces consumer access to domestically-produced seafood from well-managed fisheries.

One practical action is for the US to take greater ownership of its seafood demands by further utilizing its own capture and aquaculture fisheries as long as they are managed on sound scientific information. Consuming seafood means harvesting it from somewhere, but doing that under US (or likewise conservative) governance is probably the best action for reducing negative marine ecosystem impacts to practicable levels from a global perspective.

MEAM: The new US president, Donald Trump, has signaled that there may be an increase in trade protectionism for the US in coming years. Can you speculate on what impact a decrease in seafood imports into the US might have on marine conservation globally?

Helvey et al.: Seafood is among the most traded of all food commodities. The three largest seafood importers – the EU, the US, and Japan – are highly dependent on seafood imports from other – often developing –  countries. Many developing countries lack sufficient governance to ensure that the marine ecosystem impacts of their fisheries are minimized, so fishery products exported from these countries to developed countries often do come at higher environmental costs.

Global seafood trade also represents a significant source of income for many individuals, households, and firms across many countries. Given the economic importance of these trade flows, a decrease in seafood exports to the US may lead those nations to redirect their products to other global markets rather than reducing seafood production and associated impacts.

MEAM: Are there any other potential marine conservation impacts of shifting trade relations that marine managers and conservation practitioners should be aware of?

Helvey et al.: The US imposes standards under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act of 2006 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), among others, for how foreign fleets seeking to export to the US conduct their fisheries. Shifting trade elsewhere creates the risk that these foreign fisheries would no longer be incentivized to fish in more responsible and sustainable ways to gain access to US markets.