The National Marine Fisheries Service today released its annual statistical report card, providing, in their words, a “snapshot documenting fishing’s importance to the nation”. We’re reviewing the full report today, and those who like to dive into the fisheries weeds as much as we do can find the PDF version on the Fisheries Service website.
NOAA’s press statement, released in conjunction with the report, made clear their top-line takeaway: “US seafood landings reach 17-year high in 2011″, it announced. And it certainly is true that landings and ex-vessel prices are up in a number of fisheries — a direct consequence of the science-based management reforms that have been implemented over the last two decades.
Another top-line number? The percentage of seafood consumed here that was imported jumped by five percentage points to 91 percent. (If you’re wondering, the three top imports in 2011 were shrimp, canned tuna, and tilapia fillets.)
What a staggering number for an ocean nation with a rich fishing heritage.
Is this a problem? With more than nine out of every ten mouthfuls of seafood we swallow being shipped to us from abroad, should we be alarmed? Should we be more aggressively searching for ways to turn the tide?
Two qualifiers on today’s number. First, it goes both ways. The seafood sector is a global market, and plenty of fish landed by US vessels are sold to markets oversees. I was fortunate enough to go dogfishing out of Chatham, MA a few months back. Dogfish is a sustainable American fishery — and essentially 100 percent for the export market. Second, as NOAA is quick to note, a portion of the seafood that is imported into the United States is also, in fact, caught here: it’s simply exported overseas for processing and then re-imported back to us.
Still, there’s a huge cloud hanging over the US import market. While US fisheries are increasingly stable, global fisheries are a decidedly mixed bag. Many are chronically overfished, and by some estimates more than 20 percent of fish landings globally are the catch of pirate fishers. This illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing presents a massive threat to ocean health. And here’s the uncomfortable truth: until we take more concrete steps as a nation to bring traceability to our seafood supply chain, American retailers and consumers are unwittingly fueling demand for this product.
Increasingly, American retailers are seeking to adopt responsible buying practices and US consumers by the millions are opting for sustainable choices. Their efforts are making an enormous difference. But until we as a nation do better on seafood traceability, we’ll be left to wonder where that fish really came from. For a country committed to ending overfishing and building a prosperous fishing future, we can and must do better.