This post originally appeared in Scientific American Food Matters on July 22, 2015
What’s in a name? In the case of fish, quite a lot, actually. Ocean conservation organization Oceana (my employer) released a report this week detailing why we need to revisit how we name our seafood. Take grouper, for example: the Food and Drug Administration’s Seafood List identifies “grouper” as the acceptable market name for 64 different species of fish. So when you go to the store and buy a “grouper” fillet, do you know if it’s the more sustainable black grouper? Or is it the Nassau grouper, which is listed as endangered by the IUCN? Under current rules, it could be either.
Seafood names are understandably confusing when you consider the immense diversity of foods that we eat from the ocean. At face value, it makes sense to simplify things by taking a whole bunch of different species and varieties of fish that share some taxonomic properties and GROUP them (ha!) into one name, like “grouper.”
But to ignore the inherent complexity of how seafood reaches our plates is to ignore a host of problems, and the grouper example above is just one of many that plague our seafood supply chain. Pirate fishermen illegally enter protected waters and threaten delicate ecosystems. Workers in places like Thailand are kidnapped and forced into slave labor on fishing boats. Bottom dredges rip up seafloor habitats, destroying important fishery nurseries. Bycatch, the killing of non-targeted animals like dolphins and sea turtles, is rampant. Consumers and honest businesses alike are victims of mislabeling and economic fraud, when cheaper species are misrepresented as more expensive fish. While the U.S. has some of the best-managed fisheries in the world, American fishermen who play be the rules are undercut by unscrupulous actors elsewhere. Fraud, mislabeling, and even legal but vague labeling, pose risks to consumer health, as the presence of mercury and other toxins are not easily avoided without knowing the true identity of the fish. This same fraud obscures the extinction risk many species of fish face. Finally, overfishing jeopardizes the continued abundance of the ocean—many countries and companies are literally fishing themselves out of the seafood business, leaving little behind for future generations.
These problems are solvable, but not unless we can establish effective, supply-chain-wide traceability of all seafood. Fish travel far, pass through many hands, and undergo a variety of transformations, as they are caught or harvested, processed, frozen, packaged, shipped, sold, cooked and eaten. Throughout this journey the identity of the species that are in any given crab cake, fish stick, or fillet, can easily be lost. The global nature of the seafood trade deepens the complexity, as products traverse multiple companies, governments, and regulatory schemes. Accurate traceability, then, requires a universally recognized name that follows all seafood from the water to the dinner plate. Or, as Oceana’s Seafood Fraud Campaign Director Beth Lowell says: “One name, for one fish—from bait to plate.”
Last year the president established a task force to combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud. The Task Force released recommendations that included traceability requirements that would initiate at the end of 2016. But these requirements would only be in effect for a select group of at-risk species, and only be required from the boat to the first point of sale into the United States.
Currently the F.D.A. lists species-specific common names, but only requires that the "acceptable market name" be provided to consumers. Under these rules 56 different species of fish can be called simply: "snapper." Oceana urges the administration to require adoption of the Latin scientific species-specific names for documentation and traceability purposes, and to expand traceability requirements to include all seafood throughout the entire supply chain. The Latin scientific name is universally recognized regardless of language or region. Of course, that's great for invoices and tracing documents, but if a Latin name was all that was provided on consumer labels, people would be confused. Oceana recommends that in addition to the acceptable market name, a species-specific name–either the common or scientific name–be included on consumer labels.
If a major seafood importer like the U.S. joined the European Union in requiring all imports to be accompanied by a species-specific name, then most seafood producers would have to comply to gain access to those markets. If consumers had access to a species-specific name for all seafood, they could make decisions informed by their preferences for more sustainable, socially conscious, and/or healthier choices.
Seafood is special. It’s the last wild food eaten on a global scale. Wild seafood requires no arable land, fresh water, nor fertilizer to cultivate. The very first life on earth came from the water, and today the sea is still an incredible biomass factory. Nourished by the sun, the oceans churn out tons upon tons of tiny plants that get eaten by billions of tiny beasties that get eaten by bigger critters, which get eaten by bigger ones, and so on until masses of food are hauled onto boats for our benefit. The ocean’s bounty is diverse, renewable, and generous, and we just have to go out and get it.
Such a treasure needs to be properly cared for. In the long term, unless we begin to responsibly manage it, we face the risk of losing this incredible resource. In the short term, we are already seeing the effects of poor stewardship. Just because you don’t know which fish is which, one day you could eat a “grouper” sandwich without even realizing it was one of the last of its kind in the sea.
That sounds dramatic, I know. But there’s a way to help make sure that it never happens, and in the grand scheme of things, it’d be pretty easy: Just properly name the damn thing.
Images and video by the author.