Today’s seafood can travel a long path from the boat to the dinner plate. During the many exchanges from fishermen to processor, processor to importer, importer to wholesaler, and wholesaler to restaurant, many opportunities arise for seafood to lose its identity. Mislabeling allows for threatened species to be sold as those that are more sustainable, expensive varieties to be replaced with cheaper alternatives, and safer fish to be substituted with those that can cause illness. To address these issues, a Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud set in motion an initiative to improve the transparency in the seafood supply through improved documentation and traceability.
Last week the task force released its list of “at-risk” seafood species for public comment. The Administration is intending to phase in new documentation and traceability requirements. This is a promising first step, but the initial plans would only account for a fraction of the more than 1,800 species of seafood sold in the U.S. Oceana is advocating that new requirements need to be comprehensive to cover all seafood sold in the U.S. Additionally, the first phase may only have the information follow the seafood to the first point of sale in the U.S. While Oceana applauds the administration’s efforts, more must be done to close our markets to illegal products and prevent seafood fraud and mislabeling within the U.S.
Last Wednesday, the Protecting Honest Fishermen Act of 2015 was introduced the U.S. House of Representatives. This bill would ensure that the regulations being developed by the Administration would extend to all seafood species and include full-chain traceability and consumer labeling. As its name suggests, in addition to protecting consumers and the oceans, the bipartisan bill would help honest fishermen and businesses who are already upholding the laws, yet are struggling to compete with illegal products entering the U.S. market.
Oceana has conducted the most current and comprehensive review of seafood fraud literature to date. Fraud was found in every study in every continent except Antarctica. The problem is global, local, and pervasive. Without requiring traceability for all species sold in the United States, mislabeling and seafood fraud would continue, and possibly worsen for the species that would not fall within purview of the administration’s proposed target species. Also, the scope of the proposed tracing requirements is inadequate. With an increasingly complex and opaque seafood supply chain, species substitution can occur at any many points. Since it is difficult to identify if fraud is occurring on the boat, during processing, at the wholesale level, at the retail counter or somewhere along the way, it is imperative that information about seafood follow the product throughout the supply chain.
For instance, federal law enforcement is currently investigating an alleged case of seafood fraud in Newport News Virginia. Investigators found evidence that a company had been repackaging crab from Vietnam and selling it as the more lucrative Atlantic blue crab. Due to its limited scope, the Task Force’s proposed traceability program would have no effect on fraud cases like this one, that occur after the first point of sale in the U.S.