The Thin Blue Line: border crossing and illegal fish

130107 #traceability Coast Guard photo (1)

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.

Frankenfish

frankenfish

Frankenstein’s monster was not really a monster at all. In truth he was a misunderstood creation ill-equipped by his creator to function in the world.  Cobbled together in a workshop by a mad scientist heedless of the full consequences, he caused all sorts of problems when accidentally set loose out in the world. Critics of genetically engineered salmon, widely dubbed “Frankenfish”, aren’t trying to beat up on poor monster fish. But they are fearful of the consequences this “creation” could have in the ecological world.

Right before the holidays, the Food and Drug Administration approved plans for a salmon farming operation (located in Canada and Panama) to import genetically modified salmon into the US. As these plans snake through approvals from other federal agencies and public comment, we need to make sure that we’re seeing the forest for the trees.  The idea of genetically engineered fish is a bit terrifying for all the wrong reasons.  The real monster here is not a half-salmon half-shark with sea urchin spines sewn on the dorsal fin (that would be awesomely terrifying, though).  The real monster is the possible disruption of the already fragile and taxed marine ecosystem with some “new” species.

Even without genetic dabbling, this happens all too often in the form of invasive species.  Lionfish introduced in South Florida in the 1990s have displaced reef fish across parts of the US, damaging fisheries and imperiling native fish species. Lionfish aren’t genetically engineered (although they kind of look made-up), they are just exotics.  They’ve still caused significant problems in the invaded ecosystems though, which in turn have posed major fisheries management challenges for those whose livelihoods depended on functioning marine ecosystems.

Needless to say, we would like to try to prevent these fish-astrophes by being cautious, and by not risking introduction of exotic species into ecosystems not prepared for them. Genetically engineered salmon is specifically being altered in order to grow nearly twice as quickly as natural salmon; a quality built for a profit driven market, but not for a balanced marine ecosystem. If fast-growing salmon with bits of ocean pout DNA were to escape, there are justifiable fears they would wreak environmental havoc upon wild populations.

This is one reason why the current approval is being criticized: for being too myopic and failing to think through the scenarios of escapement — and the ecological damage that Frankenfish could wreak.  Current studies have focused on the consequences of genetic alteration, not necessarily the consequences of species introduction. Although it is claimed the particular genetically modified fish in question is safe because they’re all females and all triploid (having 3 copies of its DNA instead of the usual 2), the promised resulting sterility as not universal, and not without unstudied risks. I’m not one who says we shouldn’t pursue this kind of aquaculture under any circumstances, but we do need to carefully analyze the potential impacts. So far, the FDA has fallen short of this kind of robust analysis.

In “Frankenstein”, Dr. Frankenstein laments that “but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”  If only the good doctor had been required to do a NEPA analysis, he could have avoided all the tragedy that followed.

You can comment on the decision, asking for a full environmental impact statement to be undertaken that fully analyzes the ecological risks of the introduction of these Frankenfish into the marine ecosystem. The comment deadline is February 25, 2013.

Christmas at the Caribbean Council meeting this week. Have a Christmas rum punch, on me.

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Christmas is the BEST time to be in the Virgin Islands.  There’s a local Christmas song that says “I’d rather be dead than miss Christmas in Christiansted.” and I agree in principal, if not in the details.  The Caribbean Fishery Management Council meets today and tomorrow in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands.  They won’t be in Christiansted, but the Frenchman’s Reef hotel in St. Thomas is not too shabby.  Not only did I attend these meetings for years, I am a Cruzan from St. Croix, St. Thomas’ nearby neighbor island.  When we talk about US fisheries, the Caribbean is often disregarded.  They even refer to themselves as the red headed step-child of the US but I think that the exchange should be greater.  Mainlanders can learn as much as they can teach in terms of fisheries management in the islands.  In the interest of shining a light on this region every once in a while, I wanted to give a brief overview here.  There’s a ton of bad news in Caribbean fisheries, which I’ll get to, but first the good news.  The good news is that there are fishermen, scientists and local government officials dedicated to sustainable fisheries and willing to do whatever it takes.  That’s a powerful force.  There is a local fisherman’s group, the St. Thomas Fisherman’s Association which conducts its own scientific research, plans its own trap reduction programs, and asks for closed areas.  Scientists at NOAA have also been applying themselves to the region, thinking outside the box and inventing new ways to assess these fisheries.  These are all great things, stupendous things, things that can make a real difference.

Caribbean fisheries will need all of this passion and dedication because the situation isn’t pretty.  The marine environment in the Caribbean has been called an “ecotastrophe”.  Climate change, growing populations and poor building practices have led to dying and dead coral reefs while decades of overfishing has collapsed many predator fish populations.  Until the last 10 years, fishermen reported fish by the gear used to capture them, mostly “pot fish”.  As you can imagine, a data sheet that lists 2,000 pounds of pot fish is not terribly helpful for species-by-species management.  Also MRFSS and MRIP do not even operate in the Virgin Islands, so recreational fishing is a black hole of information.  The photo below is one I took on a port sampling trip in St. Croix a couple of years ago.  This is a commercial catch coming in to the pier in Fredericksted.  You can see some juvenille goatfish, a blue tang, cowfish, a French grunt, rock hind, and lots of young stoplight parrotfish.   There were also butterfly fish and gray angelfish in this haul. The groupers and snappers of three decades ago are rare now. It’s disheartening.  When I was a kid jumping off that pier in Fredericksted and hanging hooks with hotdogs over the edge, we caught snappers, groupers and sharks.  I have watched since the mid-eighties as the reefs and fish populations around St. Croix have changed, and then disappeared.  ImageIt’s difficult sometimes to sit in the Caribbean Council meeting and argue for a 5,000 pound annual catch limit or recreational accountability measures with a straight face.  So I am thinking of all of the Caribbean council members today, struggling toward happy hour.  There are two lessons I have learned in stark relief from Caribbean fisheries.  The first is that “good” science is completely relative, and management is possible no matter how terrible you perceive your science to be.  The other is harder.  It’s that there are tons of other factors wreaking havoc in our oceans, but we can’t use “fault” as an excuse to manage less well.  We have to keep adapting.

When most people look out over the crystal clear waters in the VI, they exhale, relaxing.  I hold my breath, waiting, afraid that my muse, my childhood playground, and the resource that sustains my island home will be gone the next time I look.  The Caribbean council doesn’t make it easy to keep up with what they’re doing, but I make an effort to keep up, and I’m always here if you want to know more.  The only thing I like talking about more than fisheries is the Virgin Islands, so you might not want to get me started on the two things combined.

The Usual Suspects

121213 Sushi #traceability

Original photo credit: flickr user avlxyz CC BY 2.0

What: “White tuna”, “wild-caught salmon”, and “red snapper”

Where: New York City

How: New York City is the latest metropolitan area found to have a high incidence of seafood mislabeling.

The Story: Oceana continues its series of recent investigations into seafood fraud by testing samples from New York area restaurants and markets. As with Los Angeles and Boston, it may be hard to find correctly marketed seafood in the Big Apple; 39 percent of the 142 samples tested were mislabeled. Large, national chain retailers had the lowest incidence of seafood fraud at 12 percent, while 40 percent of samples tested from smaller, independent retailers were mislabeled.

Researchers found that all of the 16 sushi restaurants included in the study had mislabeled seafood. The most common culprit at sushi bars is marketing the infamous, gastric upset-inducing escolar as “white tuna”, a label that the FDA has established as only appropriate for canned albacore tuna. Language barriers may be the cause of some of these instances of mislabeling, says Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana and an author of the study. “The bottom line is that if you go to a sushi bar, it’s a good idea to ask questions because sushi is an art form. They’re very proud of the fish they serve. So there’s no harm in asking, ‘Well, what is that?'”

Other examples of mislabeling found in the city include farmed Atlantic salmon being sold as wild-caught Pacific salmon, and thirteen different species of fish inaccurately being marketed as red snapper. One fish subbed in for red snapper is tilefish, a fish that the FDA has warned contains high amounts of mercury, and so shouldn’t be consumed by children and pregnant or nursing women. “It’s unacceptable that New York seafood lovers are being duped more than one-third of the time when purchasing certain types of fish,” says Warner.

What We Can Do: With a complex supply chain and various motives for not labeling seafood correctly, finding the source of seafood fraud in the industry is difficult. As long as we continue without a reliable system of seafood traceability in our country, seafood fraud is likely to remain a problem. Until then, ask questions about your seafood. “If vendors don’t know that their customers are demanding this kind of information, they’re going to get away with it forever,” Warner stated.

Menhaden showdown is almost upon us

menhaden ad

It’s time for a menhaden showdown.

Tomorrow the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board meets in Baltimore to make a decision on an amendment to the Fishery Management Plan for menhaden. The decisions made tomorrow could substantially impact not just the menhaden fishery, but the health of the entire Atlantic, which is, frankly, desperately in need of something good right now.

If you’ve spent any time in the fisheries world at all, you probably know the basics about menhaden: small oily forage fish, most humans find it kind of gross, but fish, seabirds and other marine critters love it. We two legged critters mostly grind it up into fish oil, fish meal and fertilizer, or use it as bait.

Like many issues in fisheries though, it gets much more complicated when you dig into the management issues. And menhaden has a very long history of complicated management to keep track of. Alison Fairbrother of the Public Trust Project has gone where few journalists have gone before and actually paid very close, regular attention to both the workings of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and Omega Protein, the company that profits from menhaden to the extent that they have spent years trying to influence its management. This project has resulted in some really fascinating articles on the politicization of science in the management of the fishery, as well as this handy Atlantic menhaden management timeline that succinctly lays out the management of menhaden over the years, starting in 1981 when the Commission first took charge of what I would guess to be their most headache inducing fish. The timeline is a fascinating retrospective of what I would bill an agency very reluctant to take proactive management measures to save a fish that mattered to a lot of people. The fact that they finally did was thanks to the hard work of vocal anglers and community activists up and down the Atlantic coast.

Of course not everyone sees this as a good thing. Omega Protein, the company that reaps significant private gain from this poorly managed public fishery has lobbied tirelessly against additional restraints on fishing menhaden. In the lead up to tomorrow’s decision they have made efforts to characterize the issue not as one of private profit, but of jobs and culture. Their argument as I read it boils down to ‘we should be able to keep exploiting menhaden because we’ve always done so and the culture of our coast is based on it’ and ‘we employ a lot of people’.

Regular readers of this blog will know that we here at FishHQ firmly believe that the management of fisheries is indeed a social question, and impacts of management decisions on fishing families and coastal communities should very much be considered before making them. Tradition is a strong force, and there’s no doubt that Reedville, Virginia where the only menhaden processing plant left on the East Coast is located, has a complicated history with the fishery. But that is not, in and of itself, a good reason to allow for unsustainable fishing of menhaden. In fact, I’d call it rather ironic that the company wants to rest on the laurels of a fishing tradition while consistently undermining the very ecosystem that supports that fishery by sucking massive amounts of fish out of it every year to be reduced into industrial products, many of which are shipped overseas, far from the nutrient base that created them.

With the Commission considering cuts of as much as 50% of the annual harvest, Omega Protein has attempted to make this seem like an issue of job loss— that public sore spot so salient that scores of issues that have nothing to do with jobs suddenly become “a jobs question”. Unfortunately for the beleaguered Omega Protein, painting this as a jobs question raises questions about these supposedly sacrosanct jobs. The Public Trust Project’s Alison Fairbrother points to information that suggests that good quality jobs are perhaps no more at the top of Omega Protein’s agenda than is basing their business off of truly science based management though. In spite of support from the local union for Omega Protein on this issue, the article raises some important questions about the jobs Omega Protein is offering, and some practices they employ. Her article is worth reading in full.

This is not to say that those employed by Omega Protein would not potentially weather hardship in the case that cuts are made; they very well might, and we should acknowledge that, and feel empathy for them. Job loss is scary, especially in these uncertain economic times, and I don’t wish it on anybody. However, while those employees may experience pain that we do not wish upon them, the responsibility for this is does not fall upon the Commission, whose role it is to manage a public fishery for sustainable use for all the coasts’ peoples, or the advocates who are speaking up for a fishery management approach that doesn’t unhinge the very ecosystems upon which so many of them depend.

The choice to build a company beholden to private shareholders upon a public resource was Omega Protein’s, and regardless of how many hardships this choice may now be revealed to cause, they have no more right to exploit this resource than anyone else.

Because among all the rhetoric of jobs and community, if you listen hard enough, they will own up to their true interest: said Omega Protein spokesperson Ben Landry in the Daily Press, “We have shareholders and our duty is to maximize the resources that they’ve provided us.”

Finally, some straight talk. This is what their record bears out too—they are in this for the profit, as a private shareholder-beholden company, and any other moral standing they try to throw into the path of good management should be taken not as “the main issue” but as the distraction that it is.

It’s been a long fight for rules that will hopefully lead to sound management of Atlantic menhaden, and tomorrow’s showdown should be worth the wait. The Commission is meeting at Best Western Plus Hotel and Conference Center, Chesapeake Room, 5625 O’Donnell Street, Baltimore, Maryland starting at 8:30 a.m. and menhaden is slotted to take up most of the day’s agenda, which you can review here. If you’re in the area, I highly encourage you to attend; word on the street is that there will be a sizeable turnout. If you can’t make it but want to follow along, you can tune in via webinar.

New to menhaden but want to get caught up fast? If you’re looking for a basic primer, here are a few:

For a just the facts ma’am approach, check out the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation’s menhaden fact sheet.

For an advocacy perspective, Menhaden Defenders is the coalition leading the charge.

For a thorough look at the politics of menhaden science and management, The Public Trust Project has a number of articles worth reading, including the above mentioned menhaden timeline.

If you’re a really fast reader and want to seriously dig in, Bruce Franklin’s The Most Important Fish in the Sea is well worth the read.

In the land of cod, not all is as it should be

original photo credit: NOAA

Original photo credit: NOAA

What: Atlantic cod vs. Pacific cod

Where: Boston, Massachusetts

How: Many restaurants and markets in the Boston area are mislabeling seafood (still), but some are blaming the supply chain for their mislabeled menu items.

The Story: The Boston Globe conducted an investigation into seafood sold at Boston area restaurants and markets for the second year in a row, visiting many of the restaurants they tested last year in their award-winning investigation into seafood mislabeling. Even after being called out for mislabeling in last year, many of the restaurants tested this time around were repeat offenders. Out of the 76 samples taken, 58 were found to be mislabeled. In most cases, less expensive fish is being substituted for more costly species, and much of the substitution that takes place uses imported fish.

In several examples, fish being marketed as locally caught Atlantic cod was actually previously-frozen Pacific cod, which many people find less appetizing, and which sells for half the price. Some of the retailers blamed their seafood supplier for the mislabeling, and sent the Globe’s reporters hunting down the murky seafood supply chain looking for answers–and responsibility. Some restaurants did take the results seriously and promised to change their practices and menus, whereas others got defensive. The restaurant manager at Ken’s Steak House was quoted saying, “We’re too busy to deal with such silliness.”

Seafood mislabeling is far from silly, no matter how busy the staff at Boston restaurants may be. As the Globe’s report suggested, mislabeling may stem from different motivations, from trying to maximize profit, wanting to be seen providing a constant supply of hard-to-get seafood, or in response to customer preferences for “local” catch. But lying about where that fish was caught isn’t just a rip off for consumers; it distorts reality for seafood consumers, who might be unaware that their local favorite is in dire straits if it keeps showing up in today’s specials. We shouldn’t be surprised that it may be hard to find fresh Atlantic cod on the East Coast;  Atlantic cod has been overfished for generations, and changing ocean conditions further hamper population growth. Fishermen are dealing with difficult cuts in their quotas, and consumers should know about it.

What We Can Do: With all of the seafood fraud happening in the US and around the world today, the Globe raises a good question: who is to blame? In the end, a poorly regulated seafood industry is the real culprit. Fishermen, retailers, and consumers would all benefit from seafood traceability, which would bring much needed transparency to the seafood supply chain so we can stop pointing fingers, and get back to eating our delicious, well labeled fish.

The name game: seafood mislabeling

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Original photo credit: Christopher Mace

What: Red snapper or Pacific Ocean perch…who knows?

Where: Los Angeles County, California

How: A recent investigation has revealed widespread violations of seafood labeling requirements in LA County.

The Story: The Seafood Task Force, a collaboration among the LA County Department of Public Health, California Department of Health, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, examined seafood from restaurants and markets in the LA area. Some samples were sent for genetic testing to determine the species. Of the 103 samples of seafood, 74 were found to be mislabeled.

The most common violation was the failure to represent the country of origin. When country of origin information was included, it was frequently misrepresented. Another common violation was selling a product labeled as one species, but substituted with a less expensive and sometimes less desirable species. Examples include:

  • Pacific Ocean perch (Pacific rockfish), tilapia, silk snapper, sea bream, and pollock sold as red snapper
  • Fluke (summer flounder) sold as halibut
  • Imitation crab, abalone, and octopus sold as the real product
  • Crawfish sold as lobster

In a couple of cases, escolar was being sold as “white tuna,” a species of fish that does not exist.  Escolar is also called the “ex-lax” of fish by some in the industry because large amounts of it can cause severe gastrointestinal upset, a fact which many consumers are not aware of. Not that they could have avoided it had they tried…

Seafood mislabeling can be costly; and guess who’s paying for it? You may be paying $14.99 per pound for what you think is red snapper, but getting Pacific Ocean perch, which has a value of less than half, at just $6.99 per pound.  Indeed, none of the “red snapper” samples tested by the Seafood Task Force were actually red snapper.  Seafood mislabeling can also be dangerous. Consumers with seafood allergies and pregnant women may have trouble avoiding certain fish and shellfish if they don’t know what is really on their plate.

Don’t feel bad about getting snookered though; it’s easy to be fooled into thinking you as a consumer are purchasing one species of fish when you’re actually getting a totally unrelated species. As seen below in an image provided by Oceana, once a fish is filleted it can be very difficult to distinguish. Can you tell the difference between the properly labeled fillet and the imposter?

Original image credit: Oceana
Correct answers are : 1. Fish on the left is escolar or oilfish. 2. Left is Nile perch. 3. Right is mako shark. 4. Right is rockfish. 5. Left is farmed Atlantic salmon.

What We Can Do: To solve this problem, we need a reliable system of seafood traceability. Not only are consumers being duped, but retailers are as well.  Since the mislabeling can start at the very beginning of the supply chain, with the fishermen and fishing companies, retailers may also be unaware that their product is not what it seems.  We all deserve to know what we are eating, and those in the industry that participate in legal, sustainable fisheries ought to have recognition.