Seafood supply chains are often long, complex, and opaque. A salmon may be caught in Alaska, processed in China, and sent back to the United States before ending up in the grocery store seafood counter. A lack of transparency makes it difficult for buyers to know the origins of a fish, which increases the risk of mislabeled or illegally-caught products entering the U.S. Full-chain, electronic traceability for all seafood could help solve this problem. Traceability refers to information that follows a fish from the boat to the dinner plate, establishing a transparent and trustworthy supply chain that can hold bad actors accountable. The Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud has proposed new requirements for seafood traceability, but in its current form the rule only applies to thirteen “at-risk” species or species groups, and does not extend traceability beyond the first point of entry into U.S. commerce. This leaves the door open for seafood fraud.
Oceana’s latest report, “Fish Stories: Success and Value in Seafood Traceability,” features interviews with representatives throughout the seafood supply chain who use traceability. These pioneers shared with Oceana the value and benefits they get from using traceability. This report not only demonstrates that traceability is feasible, but also highlights the business case for providing more information to consumers and marketing the fish’s story. Here are just a few reasons why the seafood industry is increasingly choosing traceability as their standing operating procedure:
1) Storytelling works. Telling the story of the fish through scannable QR codes, physical tags, and labeling builds trust with the consumer—and our traceability pioneers have found that this trust builds sales. Domestic fishermen are already required to collect information about their catch, such as when and where it was caught, the gear type used, and who caught it. Full-chain traceability can take this a step further by providing some of that information to the end consumer. “Once a customer sees the amount of work that goes into a product they are willing to pay more for it…instead of being just another commodity item, [the fish] is now something they can hold up on a pedestal,” noted Steve Vilnit, Director of Fisheries Marketing at Maryland-based seafood company J.J. McDonnell. Reese Antley, Vice President of Operations at Wood’s Fisheries in Port St. Joe, Florida, agreed, saying, “We love to tell our stories of the generations that have come before us and why our product is so good. [Traceability] gives us a vessel to tell that to the consumer.”
2) Traceability promotes responsible fishing practices. Through the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act the U.S. maintains some of the most well managed fisheries in the world. Even so, over 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. Much of this imported seafood does not meet responsible fishing standards like those required by sustainability guides like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Traceability for all seafood in the U.S. would provide more accountability, allowing seafood buyers to make more informed purchasing decisions. Those decisions could help consumers to reward those seafood companies that are doing the right thing. “Without traceability and without valid data, you cannot have sustainability,” said Antley, of Wood’s Fisheries, noting that anyone can claim they are doing the right thing, but without data it’s impossible to know the truth. Traceability can also help U.S. fishers and business compete with cheaper imports that might be associated with illegal fishing, environmental degradation, and even human rights abuses. “[Traceability] is really important to harness the local momentum and start to build demand for our local fish,” added Jared Auerbach, Owner of Red’s Best, a Boston-based seafood company.
3) Traceability is the future of seafood. “People are interested in where their food’s coming from…it’s not a trend, it’s just an evolution of eating in America,” said Jeremy Sewell, Chef at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston. Large retailers, like Wegmans and Whole Foods, have responded to their customers’ demands by only sourcing traceable seafood. David Wagner, Director of Seafood Merchandising at Wegmans, noted, “Customers don’t [just] want to know [where their fish come from], they demand to know.” Responsible sourcing through traceability allows retailers to say with confidence that their product is not associated with human rights abuses, pirate fishing, or excess chemicals. This is important to people like MJ Gimbar, Chief Fish Monger at Black Restaurant Group in Washington DC: “I don’t want to be [assisting] in human trafficking and I don’t want to be assisting people who are overharvesting, or harvesting fish in the wrong areas… I think traceability helps me as a buyer and it also helps the customer…People deserve to get what they pay for, bottom line,” he said.
The only way to know if the stories we are getting about our fish are accurate is through traceability. Full-chain, electronic traceability for all seafood helps level the playing field for fishermen and businesses playing by the rules, while also providing a safe and honest product and protecting ocean ecosystems. In its upcoming rule on preventing seafood fraud and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the Obama administration should include a timeline to extend traceability requirements to all species throughout the entire seafood supply chain. To learn more please read our full report at oceana.org/FishStories