Good Seafood Fraud?


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.

New England Fishery Management Council to meet next week: herring, and groundfish and scallops, oh my!

After a Monday spent reflecting on the sacrifices made by our armed forces, the New England Fishery Management Council will don its own battle gear for its November 13-15th meeting in Newburyport, MA.  There are a couple of items on the agenda I want to draw your attention to:

  1. Herring!  We’ve spent some time recently at FishHQ talking about menhaden, but they aren’t the only forage fish in the sea.  Final additions to the herring catch limits options will come forward.  Should the management of these forage fish be more conservative? If so, how do we determine the allowable catch level?  The final vote on these limits is scheduled for January, 2013.
  2. Groundfish Framework 48.  If that doesn’t raise your blood pressure, you haven’t been paying enough attention to New England fishery management.  Framework 48 will set allowable catch levels for cod, yellowtail flounder, and many of the most infamous fish in the NE.  Watch for tussles over groundfish closed areas.  The Council is considering allowing fishing in areas that have been closed for decades in order to alleviate short-term financial hardship.

Like a good Council should, the NE Council makes it possible for anyone interested to listen in from home.  Even better councils archive those recordings, btw.  If you haven’t attended a Council meeting, and think you’re ballsy enough to handle it, I encourage everyone to do it at least once.  Yes, you’ll feel nauseated the whole time, but you’ll get a unique peek into the bizarre system we have chosen to manage our ocean’s public resources.  Nowhere is the axiom more true that rules are made by those who show up.  So show up!

And the moral is…it’s time for a different kind of fish story

Hey, wanna talk about government and moral values? Oh, no, hey, come back…it’ll be fun, seriously.

We spend most of our time here on FishHQ talking about fisheries, fishermen, and occasionally the fish themselves. In the few weeks since we launched, we’ve celebrated some successes (billfish, record US catch) and highlighted obstacles to healthy wild ocean fisheries (tar balls, politicians). We’ve also pulled back a little from the day-to-day and explored a little what this is really about (hint: it’s not just the fish…).

In the wider world, beyond all the simplistic rhetoric on the campaign trail, some Americans are moving beyond the stale ‘big government vs. small government’ questions, and considering what the spectrum of effective government activity really is. Very few of those conversations are about fish; but that doesn’t mean we fish wonks shouldn’t pay attention. Because questions about the legitimate reach of government go to the heart of how we manage our fisheries and, by extension, what our coastal communities look like. These are conversations about equality, rights, authority, freedom, justice and what we as members of this society are entitled to. In short, what the hell the Founding Fathers meant by ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

Although we may not think about fisheries management in these terms very often, our underlying assumptions about what our society should look like shade the much more mundane, specific questions of who has the right to fish how much and where. Environmentalists and fishermen are held up as being at odds with each other so much that it’s become a stereotype. But really fishermen are part of a long history of conservation in the US—both as sportsmen in the early days and later as commercial fishermen who realized that they would fish themselves right out of business if they didn’t put some limits in place. As one of our fishing members pointed out to me when I first started working at the Network: “most of us understand the need for some regulation. It’s like playing football: it wouldn’t be very fun if there were no rules and everyone was just running all over the place randomly with no clue what to do. The rules make the game.” (Exception to this rule: Calvinball).

It’s an important time for fisheries. We’ve finally implemented science-based catch limits for all federally managed fisheries, which Congress required us to do when they reauthorized the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2006. More fisheries were declared rebuilt in 2011 than in any other single year since we started counting, and we are finally winning the fight against overfishing. But there are also a lot of valid concerns about our fisheries—both about how they’re being managed, and other external factors that will affect them such as ocean acidification and pollution. To be sure, we have some tough conversations ahead. But the underlying principles upon which those conversations are based matters.

In his groundbreaking work on morality and political values, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt lays out core moral pillars upon which most of our political beliefs are grounded. He then points out how our political beliefs are an amalgamation of where we stand on these moral pillars. His work is well worth delving into, but the conclusion he reaches again and again is that we all share values across a moral spectrum, and that policy decisions that make sense flow from dialogues that acknowledge these common moral pillars. Such decisions are superior to ones reached when one side out-argues the other.

Of course, attempts to out-argue—or out-scream—your opponents are ubiquitous in fisheries. And for some extremists, opposition to any kind of regulation is most easily couched in simplistic terms that reference a “right to fish”. In one sense, this line of engagement speaks to widespread angler opinions: access to fishing is one of their primary concerns. But the funny thing is, when asked to rank the factors that could influence fishing access, the majority of anglers cited residential and commercial development of coastal areas as the top threat to access, not excessive regulation. Other concerns are poor management of access, disability access, and poor signage. Hardly the work of an international conspiracy, as some at fringe groups would have you believe. Portraying it as such is fear mongering, and it’s taking us in the wrong direction.

The truth is, we can talk about access or competing ocean uses without playing to people’s fears. Indeed, the more you consider the values underlying the perspectives of anglers and environmentalists, the more you start tapping into the deeply held positive values that, as Professor Haidt points out, we largely share. Stakeholders of all stripes can relate to the equity dimensions of access to local fishing spots. And the desire for inter-generational equity—the idea that future generations should be able to enjoy a world with healthy wild ocean fisheries—is universal. Surveys show that anglers value time spent fishing as a way to connect with family and friends—something we can all relate to. Other fishermen enjoy the sport for the chance to enjoy the sanctity of nature, tapping into our spiritual human needs. After all, a profound respect for nature—both its beauty and its functionality, is what led many environmentalists and fishermen to their respective professions in the first place. We might come to this respect from different places; but once we’re there it’s a much better starting point for a conversation on how we manage it than a face-off of two mobs.

Our values and convictions are deeply held, and hard to put aside—whether we’re debating education, health-care, the economy, or fisheries. And sometimes they will conflict. But being able to step outside the stereotypes and hear each other where it counts is essential if we’re to move forward to a prosperous fishing future—instead of back. Also, I bet it will result in some really good fishing.

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.

Will you be eating pirate booty when you enjoy your next seafood meal?


of the seafood we eat in the United States is imported. The chances that your most recent seafood meal came from a domestic fisherman have for years been vanishingly small; but they shrank even further in 2011 according to new numbers released by NOAA this week.

As Matt pointed out in an earlier post, serving up a high percentage of imported seafood to American consumers isn’t inherently problematic: we have a global seafood marketplace, and American fishermen often have a chance to export their product to foreign nations as well as to compete in the domestic market.

But here’s the problem: the global seafood marketplace has a long way to go before it’s filling those of us who care about healthy oceans and productive fisheries with much confidence. Exhibit A for the squeamishness: by some estimates more than 20% of fish caught globally are the product of illegal, unregulated and unreported catch (what we fish nerds refer to as IUU but what is increasingly referred to as pirate fishing).

This is part of an increasing divergence between the health of domestic fish populations on the one hand and global fisheries on the other — a divergence that is not sufficiently understood by the public and the popular media. In the United States, our fisheries are rebounding. Yes, there are still very significant challenges, as the recent fisheries disaster declarations made depressingly clear. But the report card released by NOAA this week is just the latest evidence that in many fisheries stocks are rebuilding, catch is up, and ex-vessel prices are putting more money in the pockets of fishermen — and by extension the coastal communities where they work. This isn’t a uniform trend, but it’s happening in many fisheries and it’s a huge success story.

Global fisheries, by contrast, remain in crisis. Too much fishing on the high seas occurs without the kind of enforceable regulatory safeguards that are essential. And too many vessels are fishing in foreign-country EEZs where basic safeguards are not in place. That is the context in which pirate fishing is occurring — with devastating impact in waters around the globe. By some estimates, as much as 22% of world fisheries production comes from these illegal sources, inflicting global losses of as much as $24 billion annually. And here’s the kicker: when seafood is imported into the United States, we have almost no way of knowing what it is, where it comes from, and whether it’s legally caught.

When you take a long, hard look at this set of facts, it’s impossible to feel entirely comfortable with that 91 percent figure. We as a nation are doing increasingly well managing our fisheries, and American consumers and retailers are making more and more sustainable choices. But we need to do better when it comes to policing seafood imports. In short, we need to work urgently to stand up a seafood traceability system in the United States so we know where our next seafood meal is coming from.

And until we do, even the most sustainability-conscious consumer often won’t know for sure that they’re not sitting down to a tasty dish of pirate booty with a side of organic greens.

Original photo credit NOAA

Join us on facebook: you complete me

Fisheries management… It’s endlessly complicated. We use more acronyms than NASA, and counting fish is like counting trees, only you can’t see them… and they move.  I have a Master’s degree in the subject and have worked in fisheries for 10 years and I’m still occasionally baffled.

The original intent of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (1976) was that fishermen would manage the nation’s fisheries.  Instead, fisheries management is now a career in and of itself.  I have met many of you super-fishers out there who manage to make a living on the water and still attend council meetings, and I don’t know how you do it.  I’ve seen career fishermen studying up on dome-shaped selectivity curves, and I salute you.  It’s much easier for me to spend all of my spare time fishing than for you to spend your spare time in Marriott conference rooms listening to Robert’s rules of order.

I am new here at FishHQ and I am dedicated to working with you.  I want to hear your opinions, understand your issues, and find areas where we can work together to find solutions to the problems we face.  We may not always agree on every issue, but I want to provide fishermen with the tools that they need to participate fully and constructively in the management of our fisheries.  To that end, I have set up a facebook page and I invite every fisherman and stakeholder to join the conversation.  Share your news with us or weigh in on a current event.  Challenge the current thinking, or of course, invite me to go fishing!

Please join us on our facebook page and let’s keep in touch.