Reading a recent study about illegal fish imported into the United States immediately conjures up the line from poet Sir Walter Scott: “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”
Global seafood supply chains have become so “notoriously opaque” and convoluted, according to an extensive study published in Marine Policy, “that consumers and vendors of fish are generally unaware of the role they play in buying and selling illegally caught products.”
Researches mined 180 information sources and conducted 41 interviews that focused on the top-ten seafood importing countries to the United States. Their findings are troubling: between 20 to 32 percent ($1.3 to 2.1 billion) of wild-caught seafood imported into the United States is estimated to be illegally harvested. That’s a huge volume considering that 90 percent of seafood eaten in the United States is imported.
“This study unfortunately confirms what we have long suspected – that seafood from pirate fishing is getting into our markets," said Oceana advocate Beckie Zisser in a statement. "Illegal fishing undercuts honest fishermen and seafood businesses that play by the rules, and the U.S. should not be incentivizing pirate fishers by creating a legal market for their products."
Some of the worst countries for illegal seafood are China, where the researchers estimate 45 to 70 percent of salmon and 30 to 45 percent of pollock is illegally caught, often from Russian fisheries. “Chinese re-processing of seafood products is staggering in its scale, highly complex in its patterns of sourcing, and characterized by lack of transparency and traceability,” states the report.
The report explores a number of case studies, including the global tuna fishery. Thailand is the largest exporter of tuna to the United States, and the researchers estimate 25 to 40 percent of it is illegal. Besides illegal imports, a seafood fraud survey by Oceana has found a high percentage of tuna is mislabeling in restaurants in the United States, especially sushi bars.
“Illegal and unreported fishing itself is hidden by its nature,” states the study. “Once taken from the water, illegal and unreported fish products enter a highly complex stream of commerce, involving diverse supply chains that may include trans-shipments at sea, landing and transit between countries for various stages of processing, and the division and combination of lots.”
Illegal fish is often mixed with legal fish and imported in large 20-tonne shipping containers. That makes it impossible to separate the good from the bad. It’s a tangled web indeed. Lax enforcement by customs inspectors and weak U.S. regulations don’t help the situation either.
The researchers point to the European Union’s requirement for “catch certificates” and traceability on all imported seafood as a possible solution.
Consumers, chefs and retailers could also demand greater transparency and traceability in the market as well. In fact, environmentalists and consumers successfully pressured industry to protect dolphins from deadly tuna fishing practices.
Buying local seafood from a trusted supplier with transparent business practices is also a solution. Of course, new traceability solutions like ThisFish also build trust in the supply chain for products from local and distant waters.
“Without routine transparency of fishing practices and traceability of seafood products,” the researchers conclude, “it is nearly impossible for concerned consumers or responsible businesses to avoid commerce in illegal products, unless they exclusively purchase seafood with chain-of-custody certification or from suppliers with highly reputable transparent purchasing practices.”
Titled “Estimates of illegal and unreported fish in seafood imports to the USA,” the study was published in the current edition of the journal Marine Policy.