Last week, a U.S. federal court struck a blow against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing operations when it ordered three men to pay $22.5 million in restitution for smuggling sea bass and rock lobster from South Africa, which is the largest monetary penalty ever given for this type of illegal activity.
Oceana has previously reported on the harmful impacts of IUU fishing, also known as pirate fishing, and how it can contribute to widespread seafood fraud. Pirate fishing is big business, with stolen product entering markets everyday around the world, caught by dishonest fishermen trying to undercut business costs and regulations. Pirate fishermen also often target the most vulnerable and depleted marine species, representing an immense threat to healthy ocean ecosystems.
According to global estimates, 20 percent of worldwide seafood is illegally caught, and this represents economic losses in the billions of dollars for responsible fishermen and seafood distributors. In the U.S. alone, more than 90 percent of the seafood we consume is imported, and less than 1 percent is inspected at the border for fraud. It is very likely many of us may have consumed illegal seafood in the past without our knowledge.
There is something we can do to help stop illegal product from entering our food supply, and that is to support traceability. Only by tracking a fish from the boat to the dinner plate can consumers really know their seafood is safe, legal and honestly labeled. If traceability is implemented, information like how, where and when a fish was caught will follow it the entire way down the supply chain, and it can prevent illegal fish from being laundered into our markets. Fortunately, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) recently introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE Seafood) Act, which would require traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S., and Oceana is calling on Congress to support this critical piece of legislation and move it forward.
While large fines like the one levied last week are great steps forward in the fight against pirate fishing, too often the profits from these illicit activities far outweigh the punishments. Traceability is the only way for consumers to obtain all of the information they need to make informed choices about the food they eat and to help protect our ocean resources.