U.S. lawmakers from both parties are pushing for more funding to address wildlife trafficking and encourage a ban on overseas markets that sell live and exotic animals, which have been linked to several virus outbreaks including the current pandemic.
But the oversight of U.S. fishmongers and neighborhood sellers of fresh meat and poultry remains a patchwork of local and federal enforcement, adding to the difficulty of controlling the problem domestically.
Lawmakers are pushing for a “substantial increase” in funding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help fight illegal wildlife trafficking from other nations, said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.
“I don’t know yet what the dollar amount will be, but I can assure you we’re very engaged, all the appropriators,” said Udall, citing bipartisan support behind the effort to boost the funding. “We’re hearing a lot of information flowing in about where are the places that we should fund, and put additional attention to, as a result of this pandemic.”
And the Republican chairman of the Senate spending panel, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), said she is increasingly concerned about links between illicit wildlife trafficking and human health issues tied to some overseas markets.
Murkowski has previously increased funding for controlling the health risks of illegal wildlife trafficking in the annual spending measures. She “will work with her colleagues to determine how to best allocate funding across all programs to address the pandemic,” a subcommittee aide said.
Murkowski sees funding requirements “evolving” since the pandemic, as she and Udall draft the fiscal 2021 Interior-Environment spending bill, the aide said. The lawmakers are now focused on making sure “our funding priorities are in line with current needs, and wildlife trafficking issues are no exception.”
Push for WHO Action
In the Democratic-controlled House, “we are focused on how we can provide more resources to address this issue,” said a House Appropriations Committee aide.
Separately, more than 60 Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), recently joined in calling on international organizations, including the World Health Organization, to “ensure that live wildlife markets are closed permanently in all countries and that the international trade of live wildlife not intended for conservation purposes is banned.”
And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in his Earth Day address, called on China and other countries to permanently close their so-called wet markets “and put an end to the scourge that is wildlife trafficking.”
Many scientists believe the coronavirus pandemic started because of wildlife trafficking, when the virus jumped from animals to people in a market of live and exotic animals in Wuhan, China.
John Calvelli, spokesman for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said conservation is one of the few issues that can get bipartisan support in Congress today.
“One of the great things that conservation has is that it has been able to bring the Lindsey Grahams and the Nancy Pelosis together,” he said.
But in its budget request for fiscal 2021 in early February, the Trump administration targeted for cuts wildlife trafficking enforcement by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which works with states and other nations to intercept illegal wildlife and wildlife products.
FWS law enforcement operations, including wildlife trafficking enforcement, would see a cut of roughly $5 million in fiscal 2021 from their $81 million current year level under Trump’s budget request.
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman declined to comment specifically on whether the administration would rethink its cuts. But the budget request was developed before the virus struck, during the fall of 2019, according to the spokeswoman. It “focuses on containing costs through management efficiencies and other savings to address government fiscal realities,” she said.
Also a U.S. Problem
The illegal trade of wildlife is an international challenge, with investigations coordinated between Interpol and national agencies, including the U.S. Department of State.
But the U.S. “remains one of the world’s largest markets for legal and illegal wildlife and wildlife products,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s fiscal 2021 budget request.
For example, an investigation from the FWS Office of Law Enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Administration led to charges of wildlife trafficking, money laundering, and heroin distribution in 2019 over a shipment of more than 10 tons of ivory and more than 400 pounds of rhinoceros horns destined for Manhattan.
Purveyors of live animals, sometimes alongside seafood and produce, are common in U.S. cities, said Thomas Lovejoy, senior fellow on biodiversity and environmental science at the United Nations Foundation.
Those shops are extraordinarily difficult to regulate, partly because they’re so small and numerous, Lovejoy said. “They may not be easy to find,” he said. “It might be some place you could walk into off the street in Chinatown.”
The issue also isn’t seen as a priority in the U.S., Lovejoy said. Investigations and prosecutions tend to happen only when violations are reported to regulators, according to Peter Paul van Dijk, a senior associate at Global Wildlife Conservation, which works on wildlife and habitat restoration.
“Authorities cannot monitor everything,” but they can be effective once they get tips from the public, van Dijk said. “If not, it could be a matter of more pressing priorities. Wildlife rule breaking is sometimes considered a victimless crime—except the wildlife victim—and treated accordingly.”
Some House Republicans say they’d consider incentives to give local populations, particularly in developing nations, an economic alternative to trafficking in declining species such as rhinos, elephants, and pangolins.
“On wildlife trade and wet markets, a lot of this is driven by economics, where third-world countries are relying on that trade to get by,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (Ark.), the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.
No Single Approach
Udall said Congress should give the Fish and Wildlife Service more funding to crack down on wildlife markets at home, while protecting the “rights of indigenous peoples to maintain traditional practices they have practiced for centuries.”
The U.S. has no single regulatory approach to such markets, which domestically tend to be limited to produce, caught fish, and perhaps some live seafood. Authority depends on the stage of slaughtering and processing or the type of animal.
Different parts of the Agriculture Department oversee animal welfare versus ensuring the safety of meat, with most seafood regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Federal enforcement of local markets is a rarity, leaving it to local health departments.
“There’s no doubt that we need stricter enforcement of existing state and federal laws on this front,” said Udall. “And we should take a fresh look at these laws and partnerships to see if they need to be updated or strengthened in light of the risks that have been exposed by this global pandemic.”
Congressional and White House attention has focused on overseas markets where fish, seafood, and vegetables are sold in close proximity to caged animals or slaughtering operations.
Van Dijk said he isn’t aware of any retail outlets in the U.S. that are comparable to such markets overseas.
“But if you’re defining a wet market as a market where produce like meat or vegetables are offered for retail sale without active cooling and chilling systems, quite a few farmers’ markets would qualify,” he said.