The global problem of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing negatively impacts ocean health, fish populations, honest fishermen, and seafood businesses alike. Recent estimates suggest that IUU fishing contributes to between $10 and $23 billion in economic losses annually and makes up about 20 to 32 percent of the global catch. It also threatens about 260 million jobs around the world that depend on marine fisheries. Furthermore, the complex path that seafood travels from bait to plate presents many opportunities for illegally caught fish to enter into the U.S. market and for seafood fraud to occur. Seafood fraud includes any number of dishonest practices like species substitution, short-weighting (claiming a product weighs more than it does), and false labeling to avoid tariffs. Oceana research found that approximately one-third of the more than 1,400 seafood samples tested in our studies were mislabeled.
Senator Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) recently led Congressional letters to President Obama in support of the proposed seafood traceability initiative, the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which was outlined in a proposed rule earlier this year. The traceability program, as recommended by the President’s Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud, would help block illegally caught and fraudulently labeled seafood from entering the U.S. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explained, IUU fishing and seafood fraud “undermine the sustainability of U.S. and global seafood stocks and negatively impact general ecosystem health. At the same time, IUU fishing and fraudulent seafood products distort legal markets and unfairly compete with the products of law-abiding fishers and seafood industries globally.”
The United States is one of the world’s largest importers of seafood, yet has minimal requirements for the seafood that crosses our borders. The proposed Seafood Import Monitoring Program would significantly empower the government to better protect both American consumers and honest fishermen by requiring imported seafood at risk of illegal fishing and seafood fraud to be traced from boat to U.S. border. Key information like where, when, and how seafood was caught would allow officials to verify the seafood was from a legal fishery.
Seafood fraud erodes consumer confidence and costs law-abiding businesses dearly. It also threatens public health since consumers may unknowingly eat substituted fish with high levels of mercury or mislabeled fish full of toxins. In addition to the negative economic impacts of seafood fraud, pirate fishing exacerbates these economic losses by ignoring conservation and management practices, resulting in smaller catches for honest fishermen and a slower recovery for depleted stocks. Thankfully, the information collected through the NMFS traceability program would help authorities determine whether seafood products were legally acquired. Therefore, Oceana applauds congressional leaders for signing this important letter urging President Obama to strengthen and expand the proposed NMFS seafood traceability initiative.
While the proposed traceability program is a step in the right direction, it still would not completely solve the problem of pirate fishing and seafood fraud. Instead, traceability requirements must apply to all seafood, not just a few at-risk species, and must follow the products from the fishing boat or farm all the way to the consumer. Seafood fraud can happen at any point along the seafood supply chain, to any of the multitude of popular seafood choices, thus requiring a strong tracking program that covers all fish species from boat to plate. Full chain traceability would help ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled.