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.”

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

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.

Ghosts of 2012: fisheries funding is unfinished business for the new Congress

As members of the 113th Congress are sworn in today, they face inboxes overflowing with business left unfinished by the 112th. Two of the biggest outstanding items — the Sandy relief package and resolution of the budget sequestration extended in the ‘fiscal cliff’ agreement — have serious implications for our nation’s fisheries.

Let’s look first at the Sandy debacle. The frustration expressed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie yesterday is shared by fishermen around the country who have suffered harm as a result of natural disasters hitting specific fisheries upon which their livelihoods depend. That’s because the Sandy relief package is the vehicle through which such funding, if it’s to be provided at all, will be appropriated. As FishHQ readers know, the package that passed the Senate in December included $150 million in critical fisheries disaster funding. However, the outgoing House, despite promises from its leadership to the contrary, failed to schedule a vote.

The good news is that Speaker Boehner has now re-committed to getting this done, and has slated House floor time for tomorrow and January 15. But even if a relief package ultimately does pass, there’s no guarantee that fisheries disaster funding will survive. As we noted recently, some have misguidedly attacked fishery disaster funding as ‘pork’, and a concerted effort to strip the funding was mounted in the Senate — and can be expected in the House.

And then there’s sequestration. Yep, you’re right, that was supposed to be settled in any fiscal cliff deal. But the best New Year’s Eve negotiators could do was defer across-the-board spending cuts by two months. As we’ve noted before, if sequestration were to take effect it would spell serious trouble for the information infrastructure upon which modern fisheries management depends. Specifically, it could rip 8.2 percent out of the ‘Operations, Research and Facilities’ (ORF) account of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, imposing further austerity on the ‘wet side’ of NOAA, with both the health of our fisheries and the prevalence of fishing opportunities destined to suffer.

Everyone in Washington has a theory about how the sequestration drama will play out. But amidst all the punditry and political games, it’s vital that we don’t lose sight of what the on-the-water impacts of across-the-board cuts would mean.

On sequestration, and fisheries disaster funding, the 113th Congress has plenty of work to do.

Frankenfish

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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.

Word to the wise: salmon ain’t pork

The tragically epic proportions of Superstorm Sandy remain fresh in the nation’s memory — and its painful impacts are still being felt by many in the region. Congress is inching towards passing a disaster assistance package that can provide some measure of relief. That’s welcome news for all those who suffered in Sandy’s path — including the region’s fishermen.

Last month we urged Congress to act during its lame duck session, to provide funding for fisheries disasters that have been officially declared — not only in states impacted by Sandy, but also certain fisheries in New England, Mississippi and Alaska where a formal disaster declaration has been made by the Secretary of Commerce.

With the Sandy disaster package being prepared, our friends in Congress stepped up and successfully included $150 million in funding to help those devastated by these disasters. In response, a number of media outlets and commentators have condemned such spending, labeling it as ‘pork’.

Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) has been a champion for fishermen and coastal communities affected by fisheries disasters.

Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) has been among those lawmakers who have championed the cause of fishermen and coastal communities devastated by fisheries disasters.

Well. Let’s be very clear about one thing: the fishermen and coastal communities who are struggling to survive in the face of these disasters desperately need our help. Fisheries disaster declarations are no arbitrary process: they are made in accordance with statute, specifically the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Among the many hoops that must be cleared to satisfy the National Marine Fisheries Service Disaster Assistance Policy, the causes of any claimed disaster must be beyond the control of fishery managers to mitigate through conservation and management measures. In other words, economic hardship precipitated by overfishing or other poor management practices are not grounds to make a claim.

Sure, let’s have a debate about fiscal responsibility and the deficit. It’s only proper that lawmakers and interest groups scrutinize government spending and debate the difficult tradeoffs that must be made between revenue and expenditure. But to target emergency funding for fishermen and coastal communities who through no fault of their own find their livelihoods jeopardized, and to characterize it as some kind of new “bridge to nowhere”, is deeply insulting.

Just like Sandy’s victims, these folks deserve our compassion, not contempt. We’ll continue to work with our friends on Capitol Hill, and do everything possible to ensure they receive some measure of relief.

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.