Last week, our government took a huge step forward in stopping seafood fraud and illegal fishing. President Obama's Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud delivered its recommendations for stopping this international problem that harms consumers and our oceans.
President Obama announced the task force in June at the global Our Ocean conference, hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry. There, he directed federal agencies to work together for six months to develop recommendations to combat seafood fraud and illegal fishing.
Seafood fraud refers to any number of ways that seafood is misrepresented, including mislabeling or substituting one fish for another. This bait and switch can happen at each step of the supply chain -- at the restaurant, the distributor, or the processing and packaging facility. It can also occur deliberately, when high-quality fish is exchanged for a less desirable, cheaper, or more readily available species.
Seafood fraud isn't just a labeling problem -- it directly threatens human health, as consumers may unknowingly eat a fish species riddled with contaminants, toxins, or allergens. Fraud also hinders consumers' ability to make informed and sustainable seafood purchases by disguising the true impact of overfishing.
Seafood fraud also harms fisheries and fishermen -- when seafood is not well labeled or tracked, it makes it easier to launder illegally caught seafood products into the U.S. market.
The government task force recommends starting with a risk-based traceability program to track seafood and keep illegally-caught or mislabeled seafood from entering the marketplace. While this is a start, Oceana believes that we need comprehensive, full chain traceability requirements for all seafood sold in the U.S. to track seafood from boat to plate. The task force also recommended measures to strengthen enforcement, as well as international actions to fight global IUU and expand partnerships among state and local governments, industry, and NGOs.
Since 2011, Oceana has worked to stop seafood fraud and ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled. In October, Andrew wrote about Oceana's new study on America's favorite seafood, shrimp, and found that it was misrepresented in 30 percent of the 143 products tested. But seafood fraud isn't limited to shrimp: "In a similar 2013 study, Oceana found that 33 percent of the more than 1,200 fin fish samples it tested nationwide were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines."
The problems of seafood fraud and illegal fishing go hand in hand. In a literature review conducted earlier this year, Oceana compiled over 100 seafood fraud studies from every continent except Antarctica to create a global map of seafood fraud. Every study that looked for seafood fraud found it.
Comprehensive, mandatory, full-chain traceability, better cooperation among federal agencies, and improved enforcement are three main objectives that Oceana has campaigned for in the past few years, and are also ones that Oceana advocated for in our task force recommendations submitted this fall.
Though these recommendations are a historic move in tackling such a large issue, there is still much work to be done. Recently, an investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that the federal government had cut some of its enforcement officers, leading to a decline in the number of seafood fraud cases, but not necessarily for lack of fraud, but lack of resources to do investigations.
These recommendations are a strong start to keep illegally caught fish from entering the U.S. market and to stop seafood fraud, but we need to transition from risk-based traceability to comprehensive, full-chain traceability, including providing more information to seafood consumers as soon as possible. Without a comprehensive approach, consumers, seafood businesses, fishermen and the oceans will still be at risk from seafood fraud and illegal fishing. The President needs to implement these recommendations to the fullest extent to protect consumers, fishermen, seafood businesses, and our oceans.