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.”

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.

naughty

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.

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.

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.

Ray Toste says ‘it’s your fish’

Back in November I promised you a segment with more people and less fish, and today I’m delivering with a profile of life-long fisherman Ray Toste.

121207-Ray-Toste-with-crab-pots-cropped-for-web

Ray lives in Westport, Washington and taunts me mercilessly every time I talk to him by telling me all about the beautiful Pacific view he’s looking at RIGHT THAT VERY MOMENT. When not taunting land-locked West Coast ex-pats, Ray fishes out of Washington and Alaska, runs the Washington Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association, and serves as an advisor to the Marine Fish Conservation Network. He’s been fishing for salmon, shrimp and crabs since he was 19 and he’ll be the first to tell you that that was a long time ago. His three sons are all in the fishery.

Ray recently took time out of his schedule to pen an op ed on seafood traceability, and why it’s important from his perspective. The op ed ran in the Olympian last week and is well worth a read. In the opinion piece, Ray refers to a story that went around earlier this year, about a Louisiana restaurant that was claiming to sell salmon burgers made out of sports-caught wild Alaskan salmon. This raised heckles in Alaska because it’s highly illegal to sell sports-caught salmon. Turns out it was a false rumor; the burgers weren’t illegal, just mislabeled. And that’s not illegal—just misleading.

But even before Louisiana restaurateurs were running around claiming to be selling sports-caught wild Alaskan salmon, Ray was on the traceability bandwagon. He took a few minutes to talk to me about his history of championing smart fisheries management off the boat as well as on.

FishHQ: Ray, how long have you been seeing problems in seafood labeling?

Ray: A long time. I remember I was fishing in Puget Sound probably over ten years ago, and I went into a supermarket. They were labeling salmon they had for sale fresh, only it was completely out of season. I went to the manager and said, ‘this isn’t fresh’ and he tried to contradict me, he said ‘yes, it’s fresh’.

I told him, ‘that fish isn’t being caught anywhere in the world right now.’ Then he backed down and he said ‘well, it’s fresh frozen.’ And I said, ‘then you better say it’s fresh frozen!’
It was a big chain, and I happened to know someone in the corporate office and I called her up and complained. When I went back next day, they had labeled it Fresh Frozen.’ Making sure that people know that there is a difference is important.

I was also very involved back in the early days of farmed salmon with creating a distinction between farmed and wild caught salmon. The difference in the fish, in the quality, is enormous, but there was no labeling. I take some credit for starting the wild caught craze—me and some fishermen in Kenai Alaska started a Kenai Fishermen’s Cooperative to establish the difference between wild and farmed salmon—we founded Kenai Wild and it was the first wild salmon craze, but I don’t think we realized how big it would get.
Years later I was in Washington DC and I saw on a menu—I wish I could remember the restaurant, but I can’t—I saw Kenai Wild Alaskan salmon on the menu, and it blew me away! All that way, and there it was, Kenai Wild, a premium salmon. People got hooked.

FishHQ: As a fisherman, why do you think traceability is so important?

Ray: Traceability is not only good for fishermen, it’s good for consumers, and we need consumers who realize the value of their fisheries. Ultimately, I like to tell people, it’s not our fish, it’s yours—your natural heritage. Most Americans the only way they’re going to have access to these fish is through us. So we are the best stewards of it because it’s our business to bring it to you and because to overfish, or create problems, reflects on our income and the bottom line, and your natural heritage.

Another reason is quality. The quality of our product on the boats has really increased in the last 20 years; 20 years ago we didn’t refrigerate our salmon or ice or bleed anything. Now, as soon as it comes out of the water it goes onto ice or something even colder than where it came out of. It just makes it a better product. When you’re importing fish that isn’t labeled, you just don’t know what you’re getting. We may be importing seafood that is really well taken care of, but without the proper labeling and checking of it, we don’t know it. The solution is traceability.

Ray’s not alone in championing traceability—more and more fishermen are seeing it as a solution that protects the investment they have made in healthy wild ocean fisheries.

You can read more about Ray and the crabs he fishes for in fellow Network advisor Dr. Judith Weis’s book Walking Sideways, which we profiled here on FishHQ last month.

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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.

Is your tuna “laundered” to look squeaky clean?

Original photo credit: flickr user nilsrinaldi CC BY 2.0

What: Yellowfin and skipjack tuna

Where: International waters in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, known as the “Pacific Commons”

How: According to the Jakarta Globe, Greenpeace has filmed fishing vessels in the Pacific Commons engaged in large-scale, illegal transfers of tuna. Vessels registered in Indonesia  and the Philippines were spotted transferring tuna to a vessel registered to Cambodia. The Cambodian vessel’s hull, which is the size of a basketball court, was knee-deep in yellowfin and skipjack tuna that was probably headed for the canned tuna market. None of the four boats are authorized by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), who manages fishing rights for tuna in the area (bordered by red on the below map), to either fish or transfer fish in the Pacific Commons. The “fish laundering” occurred just outside Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and took place in an effort to hide where the tuna was actually caught and by which vessel.

Western and Central Pacific Ocean Convention Area (original image credit: NOAA)

The Story: Pirate fishing in the Western and Central Pacific is unfortunately a common occurrence. About 60% of the world’s tuna is caught in these waters, but few fishing vessels bother with licenses and it is estimated that almost half the fish are caught illegally. Of those vessels which do have licenses, many under-report their catch or falsify information about where the tuna was caught.

What We Can Do: John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA, advises, “In order for people to be confident that their canned tuna is legal, never mind sustainable, we need stronger traceability standards so retailers can track seafood from where it is caught all the way to the shelf.”

When “fresh” seafood isn’t so fresh

Original photo credit: flickr user timquijano CC BY 2.0

What: “Fresh” Atlantic mackerel…or is it? (Also, tuna, cod, and haddock)

Where: According to the London Times and reported by Global Food Mate, supermarkets in east London, United Kingdom, are selling mackerel and other fish labeled as fresh that may actually have been frozen for almost a year.

How: The London supermarket Stainsbury’s carried Atlantic mackerel that was being marketed as fresh, but the details didn’t add up. The Atlantic mackerel fishery lost its Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation in March of this year. The blue MSC label indicates that the fish sold comes from a sustainable fishery according to MSC’s set of standards. The mackerel at Stainsbury’s carried the MSC label, and therefore must have been caught prior to March. A small sign next to the iced mackerel indicated in fine print that it was “previously frozen”. Fillets from six other species, such as tuna, cod, and haddock, were labeled “may have been previously frozen,” but consumers were not given information as to how long.

The Story: Frozen seafood being sold as fresh seafood is also a problem here in the United States. Due to short seasons in some fisheries, fishing companies often freeze their catch in huge warehouses and sell it to retailers when there is demand. Retailers may then keep this fish frozen for weeks or months before it is thawed and sold to consumers. Fish from other countries may also travel quite a distance from the fishing grounds to our local supermarkets and dinner tables and must be frozen as it is transported. In fact, fish from overseas (especially Asia) is often treated with carbon monoxide, a gas that prevents the fish from discoloring as it ages and keeps it looking fresh once it is thawed. It is illegal in the European Union, Canada, Japan, and Singapore to sell fish treated with carbon monoxide, but perfectly acceptable here. Nothing against frozen fish; as long as consumers are not led to believe that it’s fresh.

What We Can Do: We need a system of seafood traceability that will tell us what fish we are eating, where it comes from, and when it was caught. Until then, educate yourself about local fishing seasons, and buy fresh, local seafood when available.

Even experienced chefs need traceability to help to avoid seafood fraud

What: Maryland crab….or is it?

Where: Crab purchased at the DC fish market was supposed to be Chesapeake blue crab from Maryland, but it was eventually ID’ed as Indonesian with the help of the consumer’s scientist friend.

How: Deceptive labeling that fooled even a seafood expert. Upon closer examination, the fine print clarified that it was IMPORTED by a Maryland company, but was not in fact Maryland crab.

The story: Barton Seaver is a National Geographic fellow and a chef with a passion for sustainable seafood. He not only cooks seafood really really well, he’s an advocate for sustainable fisheries and healthy coastal communities that provide us awesome things to eat. In short, he knows his fish.

And yet, as he blogged yesterday over at National Geographic, even renowned seafood chefs shopping for seafood at their local fish markets need clear and descriptive labels to avoid seafood fraud. It took the help of a crab scientist in Maryland to point out a small detail that proved this crab to be something other than the chef expected. Read the full story at National Geographic.

The solution: A system that protects seafood consumers and US fishermen who are working to create sustainable domestic fisheries by letting us know what, exactly, we’re buying and eating. #traceability

Recreational anglers should care about pirate fishing too

Sure, pirate fishing (illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing) hits US commercial fishermen right in the wallet, where it hurts. But it hits recreational fishermen right where it hurts too: fishing opportunities.

Here’s how.

Let’s take the Billfish Conservation Act as an example. Recreational and commercial fishermen in the US have taken responsibility for the health of billfish populations and created sustainable domestic fisheries. But billfish don’t stay in US waters, and pirate fishing around the world affects the populations here at home. The US is the number one importer of billfish from around the world, helping to create a huge market for these pirated fish. The Billfish Conservation Act — which, since our last post on the topic, cleared the Senate with strong bipartisan support — will do much to counter that when President Obama signs it into law.  But our efforts shouldn’t stop there. When vulnerable populations of recreationally important billfish, tuna, and reef and wreck species are exploited abroad and imported into the U.S. under false pretenses, it denies choice to consumers and opportunities to anglers.

By fighting against pirate fishing and for seafood traceability – knowing what our seafood is, where it comes from, and how it was caught — we can create sustainable and robust fisheries in the US and around the world.  As the second biggest seafood consuming country, we have tremendous power to do good with our purchases.  If pirate fishing and tracking seafood seem worlds away from your last weekend fishing trip, look closer. We all benefit from legislation that ends pirate fishing and seafood fraud.