How We Can Bite Back at Seafood Fraud

We’re supposed to eat more fish for our health. But when you look down at that filet of red snapper on your plate, do you wonder where it comes from,  if it’s even really red snapper? If not, perhaps you should start asking, because in the next two years, U.S. retailers will need to have answers.

Scientists estimate that nearly a third of the world’s catch is illegal, unreported, and unregulated. And practically every year, there’s a new report out about how farmed salmon is being passed off as wild, leaving consumers to suspect something fishy.

Earlier this week, a White House task force released an ambitious blueprint for cracking down on seafood crime by stopping illegal catch at the ports before it enters and tracking every piece of fish and crustacean from net to plate, starting with the most at risk, like Atlantic bluefin tuna. And it plans to have the final rules in place by 2016.

“The plan we are releasing today puts us on course to tackle these complex global challenges, with a new traceability program at its heart,” said State Department Undersecretary Cathy Novelli on Sunday when the plan was announced.

This is not an easy task and its one that world leaders, environmentalists, scientists and the fishing industry have been trying to tackle for decades as part of the struggle to feed the planet while maintaining precious resources.

Standing among 27 rows of salmon, bass, and more exotic species like coronet fish covering the Boston Convention Center floor at the Seafood Expo North America this week, Gib Brogan practically shouts into the phone to be heard above the din. Seafood is “one of the most complex supply chains of any food in the world,” he tells The Plate. Brogan is with Oceana, a nonprofit that works to protect the world’s oceans. And he’s worried that consumers are getting duped.

“Anytime there’s unreliable information or species have been swapped out, it undermines peoples’ abilities to make decisions – whether for health or environmental reasons,” he says. (Check out National Geographic’s Seafood Decision Guide for some help.)

“Sometimes a fish is caught in Boston, sent to China to be filleted, then re-imported. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell where it has been,” he says.

Still, seafood advocates are optimistic that the blueprint is a step forward. “Leadership by the U.S. government is the key here,” Tony Long, director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project for Pew Charitable Trusts, tells The Plate. Long has been pushing for the U.S. and other nations to sign the FAO’s Port State Measures Agreement, which would allow countries to stop suspect catch at the ports.

“When you talk about 26 million tons of fish… and one million American jobs a year, if the U.S. can close its borders [to illegal seafood shipments,] it makes a difference,” he says.

Perhaps unwittingly, the United States has been supportive of illegal fishing. Between 20 and 32 percent of seafood imported in the United States is illegal and unreported, according to an extensive study published this past September in the journal Marine Policy. And because the U.S. is the second largest importer of seafood in the world, behind the EU, that’s a whole lot of fish that’s not being counted.

As my National Geographic colleague Brian Clark Howard reported back in December, between 20 and 44 percent of the tuna, Pollack, salmon, squid and crab the U.S. gets from certain Asian countries is likely to be illegal, unreported and unregulated.

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Worldwide estimates of the illegal, unreported and unregulated seafood catch range between 13 and 31 percent of the total catch, according to the Marine Policy study. This amounts to between $10 billion and $23.5 billion in pirate profits a year, the study says. The money comes straight out of the pockets of those who fish by the rules, not to mention that it jeopardizes dwindling stocks and environmentally sensitive waters.

But a lot of the data the government needs to track the fish is already available, or being required under previous rules and policies (hello, country of origin labeling.) It’s just a question of getting it to the right hands in the supply chain at the right time, Brogan says.

“For a single piece of fish, there are more than 200 data pieces – where it was caught, where it was processed, and how it came to the U.S. One of the tasks going forward is to look at all the data elements and determine what is needed to tell the story of that fish…but in a way that isn’t overly burdensome to consumers or the fishing industry,” says Brogan.

The National Fisheries Institute, a non profit industry organization, has raised concerns about the blueprint’s potential costs and focus on both farmed and imported seafood. “Where is the money going to come from?” spokesman Gavin Gibbons asks the Washington Post.

Groups like the Institute of Food Technologists are already working on the answers, and recently released a report assessing the value of traceability with some case studies that may help businesses.

Long of the Pew Charitable Trusts  says consumers will play an increasingly vital role in ending fish piracy because of their ability to put pressure on retailers and restaurants to know their sources. “Industry can work faster than any government can,” he says, and “the bigger the supermarket, the more impact,” he says.

April Fulton is the senior blogger for The Plate. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.