Up to 30 Percent of Seafood in the U.S. Is Caught by 'Fish Pirates'

As much as 30 percent of all seafood in the US is caught illegally by "fish pirates" according to new reporting detailed in the National Geographic documentary Trafficked.

Presented by investigative journalist Mariana van Zeller, the Trafficked episode airing on February 2 follows "fish pirates" and the organizations and authorities around the world trying to stop them.

The episode highlights how illegal fishing has become a multi-billion-dollar black market, putting additional strain on ocean ecosystems already under enormous pressure from legal fishing practices.

"I think shocked is probably the most accurate term," van Zeller told Newsweek when asked to describe her reaction to the findings.

"But when you learn just how easy it is to fish illegally and get away with it, you understand why it's being done so often and so widely. As a former special agent with the National Marine Fisheries Service told me, 'It's like robbing a bank in the middle of the ocean.' In this case it's a bank worth more than 20 billion dollars, which is what the black market for illegal fishing is estimated to bring in. It's the biggest wildlife trade on the planet and yet almost no one seems to be paying attention to it," she said.

The investigative journalist said that among the most shocking truths she explored while filming the episode was how destructive legal fishing practices are too:

"I spent several days out in the Atlantic Ocean, aboard some of these industrial fishing vessels, and what I witnessed was shocking. The nets are gigantic, and when they are reeled in you can see how they just bring everything up. All of the fish within half a mile or so out of the water, all in one swoop. You're literally mining the ocean of all its life. And this is all legal. I think that was the most shocking thing I found during filming this episode of Trafficked. That the impact of illegal fishing is huge, but it still pales in comparison to the effects of industrial legal fishing," she said.

The documentary airs at a time when authorities in the United States are seeking to clamp down on alleged illegal fishing practices that occur around the world, including in the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced in a report published on Wednesday (January 12) the US government would impose port restrictions on all Mexican fishing vessels that fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

Effective from February 7, NOAA said the vessels would be "prohibited from entering U.S. ports, and will be denied port access and services."

The decision follows Mexico's identification by NOAA for "illegal, unreported and unregulated" fishing in the region.

"This action by the United States is a result of Mexico's identification for IUU fishing in 2019 and subsequent negative certification in NOAA Fisheries' 2021 Report to Congress on Improving International Fisheries for its continued failure to combat unauthorized fishing activities by small hulled vessels (called lanchas) in U.S. waters," NOAA said.

Mexico's Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development, and Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, were contacted for comment by Newsweek.

New episodes of Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller premiere Wednesdays at 9 P.M. ET/PT on National Geographic. Episodes are also available to stream on Hulu.

Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller
Trafficked with Mariana van Zeller. The investigative journalist said that she was "shocked" to learn up to 30 per cent of seafood in the US is caught by so-called "fish pirates". National Geographic Content | Disney Branded Television