House bill renews fight against seafood fraud; wins accolades from US fishermen

In some good news from Capitol Hill today, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) re-introduced critical legislation aimed at combating rampant seafood mislabeling and moving us towards a traceability system for seafood bought and sold in the United States. He was joined by a bipartisan group of original cosponsors: Walter Jones (R-NC), John Tierney (D-MA), Bill Keating (D-MA), Lois Capps (D-CA) and Jo Bonner (R-AL). Below is our statement commending the new legislation.

Washington, DC—American fishermen lose money every day as a result of mislabeled seafood, but Congress is renewing its efforts to change that. In a bold step towards creating a national seafood traceability system that could combat rampant seafood mislabeling, a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers today re-introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act.

The House legislation, of which Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) is the lead sponsor, has the potential to lay the groundwork for a national seafood traceability system in the United States. It comes in the wake of yet another round of revelations about the extent of seafood mislabeling. A study released by advocacy group Oceana last month found that one-third of 1215 samples analyzed nationwide were mislabeled according to US Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

Matt Tinning, Executive Director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, said today: “Seafood fraud hurts fishermen around the country, from Boston to the Bering Sea. In the face of overwhelming evidence about the scale of the problem, our government must act with urgency. Thankfully, some leaders in Congress have got the memo; today’s bill takes a stand for America’s fishermen.”

Tom Dempsey, Policy Director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association in Chatham, MA agrees. “More than ever, consumers are looking to support sustainable American fisheries. But, without transparency in the supply chain, it’s nearly impossible to make that kind of informed decision. Whether it’s horse meat sold as beef or some cheap seafood substitute touted as quality American product, we can’t tolerate fraud when it comes to our food. It’s unfair and unsafe. The SAFE Seafood Act can move us towards a level playing field that America’s commercial fishermen need and consumers deserve.”

Shockingly, Oceana’s study found just seven of 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were correctly labeled, with tests identifying the remaining 113 samples as another fish. Those findings have been greeted with dismay by commercial red snapper fishermen.

“It’s frustrating as hell”, said Donny Waters, a co-founder of Gulf Coast Professional Fishermen, who fishes primarily for red snapper out of Pensacola, FL. “I work hard every day to bring a quality product to American consumers. It’s been shocking to discover how often seafood lovers around the country are victims of a bait and switch. They deserve far better—and so do I.”

Patience: good for more than just waiting for the fish to bite

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Whether or not you agree with the New York Times’ Mark Bittman that we need to fundamentally re-make the American food system (full disclosure: I do), his recent column has a piece of advice that we in the fisheries world could also take to heart: have patience.

Mr. Bittman gives nod to something I have often felt, as an observer (and at times participant) of fisheries, food systems, and movements that are working to move them towards sustainability: frustration at the magnitude of the challenges we face, and fear that we’ll never quite get there.

It’s pretty obvious that frustration and fear are running deep for many people in the fisheries community these days. It may stem from different places, but ultimately it brings us to the same point. With fishery disaster declarations all over the country, increasingly firm catch limits being implemented, and some of the weirdest weather we’ve ever seen heralding climactic shifts both on land and water, fishermen have every reason to fear for their livelihoods—a basic human fear that most all of us can relate to. Where is your next meal coming from? How are you going to afford to send your child to school? Or simply pay your rent or mortgage?

On the other side, environmentalists and community activists are on the front lines of observing the consequences of our often over-zealous use of natural resources. It would be hard to see the damage that we’ve done and not feel fear for the future; and frustration about the inability of policy makers to protect against those very real fears. This fear is slightly more abstract, but no less real or valid: the fear of destroying something that once seemed boundless, and having to explain to our children and our children’s children why there are no more fish. It’s epitomized in Mark Kurlansky’s rather bleak, but powerful book World Without Fish, which chronicles three generations of a family of marine scientists and their fishermen friends, who go from catching groundfish to herring to eels, to jellyfish as everything else disappears. The final panel in the graphic novel section of the book shows a small child asking, “Mommy, what’s a fish?”

But Mark Bittman asks us to step back from our fears for a minute. He points out that the scale of the movement must match the magnitude of the problem. Building movements of such magnitude takes time. And to do work that may unfold over a long period of time—past our lifetimes perhaps—takes extraordinary patience.

It’s easy to look back and say, the environmental movement has been going strong for 40 years; how much more patient do we need to be? In fact, you could make a case that in the United States we’ve had a thriving environmental movement for more than 100 years, when conservation became an issue of national consideration in the 1890s. But you’d be missing out on the nuance of what these movements were working towards, and what we now need to achieve. In fact, the history of the push for conservation and environmental protection is long and complicated, and fraught with inner conflicts. That’s a story for another post, but the take away for right now is that the goals of the movement have not always been unified, or clear.

Our current work of shifting towards more sustainable patterns of living in everything we do—including fishing—certainly stems from the ideas and policies that these movements set in motion. But in many ways our current challenge is different. Our current challenge is to take the understanding that we must do something differently, and put it into motion, against an opposition of the status quo (who would understandably just prefer that we would all just go away and let them fish as much as they want to, thanks), against the wishes of less pragmatic idealists (who think we ought to just stop fishing period) and against the odds of a system that is built to resist change.

Ideas about managing our resources in such a way that we do not destroy either the resource or the human activity it supports have been with us for some time. Usually they were lone voices speaking up against the grain, such as an early visitor to the Bering Islands named Jakovlev, as described in Callum Roberts’ The Unnatural History of Sea. Jakovlev reportedly petitioned the authorities to restrict the take of the sea cow, which had proven to be a gastronomic boon for the traders of Kamchatka.

Of course he was unsuccessful and the sea cow is now extinct. But increasingly, those lone voices picked up speed, and increased to a pitch that became harder and harder to ignore. Now, I would argue, they’re pretty commonplace. Even the most radical anti-conservation voices adopt rhetoric claiming to support conservation. And while this might make it a bit harder to pick out the authentic conservationists from the crowd, it means that the idea that conservation and sustainable use of natural resources is essential has won. Nobody is arguing for overfishing anymore, and that’s a powerful thing.

We would be mistaken to think that the rhetorical win is the end game though. For years, fishermen and conservationists have been worrying about declines in fish stocks, and with good cause. US waters have been heavily fished for generations, and in most regions, they’re worse for the wear. New England is the poster child for overfishing, with its once iconic fisheries having given way to now equally iconic fisheries collapses. And yet even the most vocal critic of current fisheries laws and management would probably acknowledge the need to conserve the resource, for the preservation of the fishing industry and the hope of a future one. Unfortunately, years of chronic overfishing are being met with rapidly changing climactic and environmental conditions that could thwart even our best intentions for managing a resource that not only puts food on the world’s tables, but defines a regional way of life. These problems run deep, and they are complex. And as frustrating as it may sound, they can only be addressed with a deep breath, a sense of perspective, and, à la Mr. Bittman, patience.

It’s been less than 40 years since the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 passed—the grandfather of our current Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. And it’s been just over 5 years since this law was reauthorized, with significant changes in the tools that it directed managers to use to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks. There are a lot of opinions out there about how the law is going. Some of the members of our community love it, and tout its successes. They point to the highest number of rebuilt fisheries in a year ever (2011), and the slowly declining number of stocks that have to be declared subject to overfishing. Others bash its extensive bureaucratic reach, and bemoan its overreliance on a body of science that is far from conclusive. And most of the rest sit somewhere in the middle.

With reauthorization of the law on the horizon, and enormous challenges to fisheries continuing to emerge (illegal and pirate fishing, seafood fraud, ocean acidification and temperature rise, fisheries disasters) along with the age old question of how many fish we can sustainably catch, it’s essential that we have patience—both with the time that it will take to solve these problems, and with each other. It’s the only way forward, and there’s no use in trying to go back.

Uncle Sam – keeping a seafood traceability list, and checking it twice

Uncle Sam, however, seems to be much more of a pushover than old Saint Nick ever was.  Getting on the naughty list for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing requires monumental stupidity, and really all you have to do is say please to get back on the nice list.  I don’t know about you, but at my house Santa’s naughty list is long and it’s a semi-permanent designation.

NOAA released its naughty list last week.  Ten countries who have engaged in illegal fishing practices, shark finning, or the bycatch of protected resources.   OK, let’s dish.  This is the fun part.  They are: Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Italy, Mexico, Panama, the Republic of Korea, Spain, Tanzania, and Venezuela.  These “naughty nations” violated rules ranging from banned drift-nets, to quota violations, to discarding plastic trash at sea.

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There are some promising stories stuck in this report.  Columbia, in an attempt to regain a positive citation (and continue to be able to export fish to the US) revoked several commercial fishing licenses and kept those boats at dock.  They get a big wah-wah for landing on the list again this year for separate violations.  There are also some predictably overwhelming pieces.  Ecuador, for example, boasts a laundry list of vessels and illegal activities with very little in the way of planned corrections.  In a case like this, the US Government will work with Ecuador to correct the problems, or they will have to export their catches elsewhere.

In some ways this fight seems hopeless.  The Earth’s ocean is a huge place, and the violations listed in these reports are likely the tip of the ice-continent of illegal fishing.  But, if these reports can increase the compliance of other countries with fishing laws even a little bit, there will be benefits to our domestic fishermen and to everyone who buys seafood in the US.   As the second largest importer of seafood on Earth, leveraging that power for sustainable fisheries and a healthy ocean seems like the least we can be doing.  The next step is a full traceability program so that we will know what our seafood is and where it came from.  Until then, let’s choose domestic seafood when we can.  If you’ve been buying all of your fish from Ghana, this is a good opportunity to reform your ways.  You never know, Santa may be checking his list against Uncle Sam’s, and you’ll end up with a stocking full of Tanzanian mussels.

House to disaster-hit fishermen: you’re on your own

Today the House of Representatives will take long-awaited action to assist victims of Superstorm Sandy. But shamefully, disaster-hit fishermen will receive little or no respite.

We’ve been tracking and promoting efforts to secure fisheries disaster funding here at FishHQ for some months. Readers know the Sandy legislation that passed the Senate included $150 million for those devastated by fisheries disasters. Potential beneficiaries include fishermen in New York and New Jersey who’s livelihoods have been destroyed by Sandy. They also include those devastated by analogous disasters in Alaska, Mississippi and New England — all formally recognized by the Secretary of Commerce, and all caused by factors entirely outside fishermen’s control.

A package crafted by House leadership, however, excluded fisheries disaster funding. And last night, the House Rules Committee chose to allow just 13 of 94 amendments that had been filed by Members to be offered on the House floor. Among those excluded: amendments from Massachusetts and New Jersey lawmakers that sought to reinstate fisheries disaster funding. A substantial amendment package that will be offered by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) — to add an additional $33 billion in funds, bringing the total package close to the Senate level — includes just $5 million in fisheries disaster funding, and limits beneficiaries to those suffering Sandy-related losses.

The House’s failure to provide disaster assistance to fishermen in desperate need is outrageous; and unfortunately, the odds of overcoming their intransigence through any Senate or Conference action do not look good.

Victims of Sandy need help now – but they’re not the only ones

It’s no surprise to those of us who watch fisheries issues closely here in Washington that fisheries have gotten pulled into the political fisticuffs over a hurricane Sandy aid package. The uninitiated casual observer might easily wonder what’s fisheries got to do with Washington, and what’s Washington got to do with fisheries? As Sera has pointed out in the past, the ties are intricate and long-standing.

It’s unfortunate that funding fisheries disasters is being used to make a political point deriding Washington’s love of “pork”; a claim that, as Matt has pointed out, is grossly inaccurate. Those who are claiming that providing federal funding for fisheries as part of an aid package directly meant to help victims of Hurricane Sandy (that’s Sandy, not Isaac, or wildfires, or droughts or…) are frankly missing the forest for the trees.

There’s no question that Hurricane Sandy was the biggest disaster of 2012. It was literally a freak of nature, and it caused widespread damage the like of which we’ve rarely, if ever, seen. As such, the demand for aid was met with little questioning; with such a wide range of impact, politicians from up and down the east coast were met with little resistance when they asked for help. Nor should they have been.

But just because Sandy was the biggest disaster, and the most riveting to watch unfold on TV, doesn’t mean that other communities across the country suffered any less when disaster struck them. Unnoted by the national media, communities in Alaska suffered from disappearing salmon runs. In the Yukon River, a fishery generally valued at $1.5 million produced revenue of $0. This is a fishery that supports not only commercial and sports fishermen, whose businesses suffered from the disappearing fish, but subsistence fishermen, who suffer from the lack of food. As Alaska Senator Mark Begich tweeted in response to criticisms against “pork”, “This is about food & survival, and it’s serious.”

Equally serious is the condition of the New England groundfish fishery, where disappearing cod is leading to deep quota cuts. The exact reason for the fishery’s decline is unclear, but fishermen had been fishing according to science based catch limits, and pretty much all signs point to environmental causes, including changes in the ocean that are linked to climate change. Again, not a disaster noted by the national media, but that doesn’t mean the suffering of those affected by it isn’t all too real. In the words of Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey in the Martha’s Vineyard Times, “this economic disaster is New England’s underwater equivalent of a drought, where the drops in stocks of fish are causing serious economic harm to fishing businesses, their families, and their communities. These people need help.”

A third disaster was declared in the Mississippi oyster and blue crab fisheries thanks to extreme droughts the year before. And when Hurricane Sandy hit, the Department of Commerce quickly granted fisheries disaster status to New York and New Jersey. It was the fourth, and certainly the biggest disaster. But do the people who suffered from it deserve aid any more than those who were already suffering?

The arguments of those who are insisting that this aid package is about Sandy and Sandy only have offered no good arguments as to why aid should be granted to the sufferers of one disaster, but not another. If the standard news cycle is any indication, Americans have short attention spans that are held by flashy things just until the next showy story comes around, be it a worthy topic like a natural disaster or gun control, or a lesser one, like the Bieb just being the Bieb.

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In an editorial this week USA Today declared that states asking for funding that had nothing to do with Sandy should put their outstretched hands back in their pockets. And while beating the drum for federal spending cuts damn the consequences is certainly in-line with the mood in Washington, it ignores the fact that nature on steroids is in many ways a result of another area in which we’re pretty out of control—fossil fuel consumption. As long as the government is subsidizing the activities that are leading to the unhinging of nature for the benefit of one part of the American public, spending a meager $150 million to help some of the American’s whose lives are in upheaval as a result of these policies is the least they can do, whether that upheaval came in the showiest storm of the season or not.

In the joined voices of the Senators from New York and New Jersey, who are facing the challenges of rebuilding from a disaster first hand, “All disaster victims have a right to expect their government to help them rebuild, whether they live in Florida, Louisiana, North Dakota, New York or New Jersey.”

Or Alaska. Or Mississippi. Or Massachusetts. Just sayin’.

Good Seafood Fraud?

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China helps to fuel the international demand for shark fins; and fishermen, in order to meet this demand, illegally kill and waste sharks all over the world every day.  A recent Chinese shark fin scandal, though, has the world saying “meh.”  

The Global Times reports that these fake shark fins on the market are made of gelatin and algin.  “The contents of real shark fins and fake ones made with gelatin are almost the same, and the textures are also the same. Also they will do no harm to humans if they are made with food standard gelatin and algin,” said Gao.  In fact, Gao expands, fake shark fins are better for you because they’re not loaded with heavy metals.  

Could this seafood fraud be good for Chinese seafood lovers and the oceans?  Our crack team will keep you up to date.

The Thin Blue Line: border crossing and illegal fish

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Original image credit: United States Coast Guard

What: Blacktip, bonnethead, and bull sharks

Where: Four miles south of the Texas coast

How: Last month, a US Coast Guard ship from South Padre Island came across an illegal, five-mile long gillnet full of dead sharks 17 miles north of the US-Mexico border. Among the casualties were 225 blacktip, 109 bonnethead, and 11 bull sharks.  No arrests were made since the boat that set the net was not found.

The Story: “Gill nets indiscriminately kill any fish or marine mammal it snares across miles of ocean, often leaving much of the catch spoiled by the time it is hauled in,” said Coast Guard Commander Daniel Deptula. Because of their destructive impact on fish, turtles and marine mammals, gillnets have been banned in Texas state waters since 1981; however, the Coast Guard recovered 49 miles of them in 2012 and the numbers are on the rise. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reports that incidents of pirate fishing with gillnets off the coast have doubled since 2011. “The seizures are far past any other year in my 16-year career,” said Sgt. James Dunks said.

The Coast Guard reports that the illegal nets come from Mexican fisherman crossing into the US’s Exclusive Economic Zone to fish because the Mexican fish stocks are so depleted. “Well you get too many people fishing for the same thing, they’re not catching as much, so they’re going to search new territory to try to find more fish,” Dunks said. The growing fear is that pirate fishing by gillnets will cause our Gulf of Mexico fish stocks to resemble those of our neighbor to the south. The Coast Guard believes that the sharks were destined to be finned, a practice where only the fins are cut off the fish to be sold while the rest of the carcass is tossed back into the sea.

What We Can Do: A reliable system of seafood traceability would help consumers to avoid pirate fish and put pressure on fishermen and fishing companies worldwide to supply legal, sustainable seafood for US tables. Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing (IUU) doesn’t just happen in remote corners of the Pacific; it happens here at home and affects YOUR fish. For now, support local fishermen that are involved in positive fishing practices by doing your homework and asking questions about your favorite seafood.

UPDATE: In a separate incident, a Mexican fishing boat captain has just plead guilty to charges of failing to “heave to” after ramming a US Coast Guard ship that caught the boat fishing illegally in Texas waters; the captain performed the maneuvers in an effort to flee and escape prosecution.