What's in a Name: Why the Controversial Alaskan Pollock Can Teach Us A Lot about Sustainable Seafood Labeling - Oceana USA
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June 1, 2015

What’s in a Name: Why the Controversial Alaskan Pollock Can Teach Us A Lot about Sustainable Seafood Labeling

For more than a year, Senators Murkowski (R-AK) and Cantwell (D-WA), along with the entire Alaska and Washington delegations, have been pressuring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change the acceptable market name of ‘Alaskan pollock’ to simply ‘pollock’.  As regulations stand right now, ‘Alaskan pollock’ refers to the popular whitefish species, walleye pollock (Gadus chalcogrammus), often found in fish sticks.  But the name does not necessarily mean that the fish was caught in Alaskan waters, or even by American fishermen.  

[[{“fid”:”85160″,”view_mode”:”wysiwyg_image_align_left”,”fields”:{“format”:”wysiwyg_image_align_left”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_blog_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”Trawl catch of pollock in Alaska.”,”field_blog_image_credit[und][0][value]”:”(Photo: David Csepp, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC/Auke Bay Lab. (NOAA Photo Library: fish0192) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, http://bit.ly/1FQciiW)”},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“height”:666,”width”:500,”class”:”media-element file-wysiwyg-image-align-left”}}]] Fish have a nasty habit of ignoring national and state boundaries, and the Alaskan pollock is no exception.  A native of icy arctic waters, the Alaskan pollock is caught and sold by American, Russian, Japanese and Korean fishermen alike. This ambiguity rankles Senators Murkowski and Cantwell, who argue the name Alaskan pollock is misleading, since it implies the fish comes from Alaska. Senator Cantwell points out that mistakenly buying Russian-caught pollock is particularly concerning because the American consumer may be unknowingly supporting fisheries that are less sustainable and fraught with “labor issues” (here referencing the recent sinking of a Russian pollock boat that resulted in the death of at least 65 crew members). 

At Oceana, we agree consumers have a right to know where their seafood comes from and how it’s caught, but changing the name of ‘Alaskan pollock’ to ‘pollock’ does not get to the root of the seafood labeling problem. As if the ‘Alaskan pollock’ vs. ‘pollock’ debate wasn’t confusing enough, the FDA Seafood List already designates two other species of fish, Pollachius pollachius and Pollachius virens, as ‘pollock’. This means a product labeled for sale as pollock in the U.S. could be one of three different species of fish! Rather than changing the acceptable market name, it makes more sense to provide consumers with more information such as the scientific name of the species and where the fish was caught.

Ultimately, the arguments that Senators Murkowski and Cantwell are making are good ones. Ethically conscious consumers have the right to buy fish that comes from sustainably managed fisheries that treat their workers well. But if that’s really the ultimate goal, then this problem extends far beyond pollock.  Changing the acceptable market name of this one species might help out the fishermen in the Pacific Northwest, but it doesn’t put a stop to the intentional and illegal mislabeling of seafood sold in the United States. In recent reports, Oceana has found that one-third of over 1,200 fish samples tested were mislabeled, thirty percent of shrimp were misrepresented and thirty-eight percent of crab cakes were mislabeled.

Of course we want to support Alaskan fishermen and sustainable fisheries, but don’t we owe the same consideration to Louisiana shrimpers, or New England fishermen?  If you’re paying top dollar for Maryland blue crab, shouldn’t it actually be Maryland blue crab?  And if you get a craving for sushi, don’t you want to be sure that the tuna in your spicy roll is actually tuna, and not, say, the oily imposter and enemy to digestive tracts known as escolar?   

Until we require greater traceability and improved consumer labeling for all seafood sold in the U.S., we can never really be sure we’re getting what we’ve paid for. The Alaskan pollock debacle is just the tip of the iceberg.