Seafood fraud is a serious problem with very real environmental, economic, social and even public health consequences. Seafood fraud includes instances in which lower-value species are sold as higher-value varieties, farmed products are mislabeled as wild-caught, or black market fish are sold as legally-caught seafood. Mislabeling can contribute to the continued depletion of struggling fisheries, threaten marine wildlife already facing extinction and further stress the oceans. Seafood fraud likely results in billions of dollars in economic losses, and can mask health risks carried by some types of seafood.
In 2014, President Obama established the Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud to address these issues. In 2015, the Task Force released its final recommendations including seafood traceability. The proposed rule outlining the Seafood Import Monitoring Program would require key information to follow 13 “at-risk” seafood types from the fishing boat to the U.S. border. While this is a valuable first step to improve transparency in the seafood supply chain, the proposed rule falls short of effectively and comprehensively preventing seafood fraud. This is because fraud does not stop at the U.S. border, nor does it only involve the 13 “at-risk” seafood types covered by the proposed rule.
In a report out today, Oceana analyzed scientific studies, government documents and news reports since 2001 that described examples of seafood fraud in the United States. In one case, seven companies located in three states were convicted and fined more than $12 million for a conspiracy that involved mislabeling 10 million pounds of imported Asian catfish as more expensive domestic catches to defraud customers and avoid tariffs. Another ongoing federal investigation alleges that one of New England’s most prominent seafood businessmen had been altering his records and mislabeling seafood for 30 years, allowing him to hide roughly $154 million. These cases and others described in Oceana’s report highlight the gaps in the proposed traceability rule.
Indeed, Oceana found that of the 27 legal cases where seafood was found or suspected to be mislabeled since 2001, 77 percent involved seafood fraud that occurred within the U.S. – beyond the reach of the proposed traceability rule. Seventy-four percent of the 50 types of seafood identified as mislabeled in the U.S. (from Oceana’s studies and others) will not be covered, and the rule does nothing to trace the imposter fish that are often substituted in mislabeling (e.g. escolar sold as “white tuna” or Asian catfish sold as “grouper”).
“The proposed traceability program presents a historic opportunity to begin the process of tracing seafood in the U.S., but only if there’s a clear plan toward expanding to all species and extending traceability throughout the entire supply chain, from boat to plate,” said Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana. “Consumers have a right to basic information about their seafood, including the species name, and how and where it was caught or farmed. Without strengthening the rule, fraudsters will continue to cheat consumers, undermine responsible and hardworking U.S. fishermen and businesses, and damage efforts to ensure the long-term productivity of our oceans for future generations.”
The rule, as proposed, leaves gaps for fraud to continue undetected, but the federal government has the opportunity to design a traceability program that ensures all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled. The Obama administration should include a timeline to incorporate all seafood into the traceability rule, and also ensure that traceability requirements extend from the moment a fish is caught or farmed, all the way to the end consumer. If the gaps in the proposed rule are closed, then all Americans can feel more confident about their seafood decisions.