California Tackles Illegal U.S. Seafood Imports

Apr 11 2014, 4:52pm CDT | by

California Tackles Illegal U.S. Seafood Imports
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

Would it worry you to know the fish on your plate isn’t what you think it is or where you think it’s from?

Considering the U.S. imports 91% of its seafood in a system that makes it easy for businesses to get away with unknowingly selling customers mislabeled fish, maybe it should.

A new study published in the journal Marine Policy shows that up to one-third of wild-caught seafood imported into the U.S. comes from illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU). The illegal imports are worth between $1.3 and $2.1 billion in a $16 billion market. The study was sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund.

California already has its Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law in place, but the lack of transparency, accountability and a proper tracking system makes it difficult to know where seafood is really coming from.

The report found that about 90% of seafood exported by the U.S. to China is either re-processed and exported by China to other countries or re-processed back to the U.S. In 2009, around 97% of China’s total imports of whitefish, salmon and tuna were sourced from ten countries, with 57% of it coming from Russia.

A study in 2013 by nonprofit ocean protection group Oceana revealed that in 120 samples labeled red snapper, 28 different species of fish were found, including 17 that weren’t even in the snapper family. The study prompted the California Senate Health Committee to approve a bill Wednesday that would make it illegal for any person to knowingly sell mislabeled seafood.

Still, the mixing of illegal fish products into supply chains when processed muddies the situation.

“We have a complex global industry where a significant percent of the product is coming from the system illegally that we can’t figure out how to keep out,” said David Schorr, senior manager of the WWF’s Transparent Seas Project.

Schorr said the U.S. needs to figure out how to trace fish the way it traces a lot of other products like an order, which uses barcodes.

“We need to use that kind of technology to start tracing fish because it’s not just a risk to consumers, but it can hurt business brands,” said Schorr.

In California, some restaurants and businesses are already tackling the problem in sustainable seafood reform. Arctic char, for example, is rated as the best choice alternative for farmed salmon, according to Shawn Cronin, business outreach manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. Cronin has been working on expanding the program, starting with inbound requests in California but hopes to establish a nationwide program.

Among 120 restaurants that participate in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, 75% are based in California. Other participating businesses include Whole Foods Market, Safeway and Wal-Mart.

Not only would a global initiative to track seafood protect at-risk species, a movement for sustainable seafood consumption would thwart risks of consuming certain species of fish with unhealthy levels of mercury and severe allergic reactions.


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