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.

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.

DeMint resignation is a big deal for fish

The DC political world is atwitter today with news that Senator Jim DeMint will exit the Senate next month to lead the Heritage Foundation. This is a huge development — not only for political conservatives, but also for fish geeks.

Jim DeMint was in line to succeed Texan Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison as Ranking Member on the powerful Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Accordingly, he would have joined Alaska’s Mark Begich atop the panel with oversight of the Department of Commerce, including NOAA.

There was real disquiet among DC ocean types about what that would have meant: not because of Senator DeMint’s prominent fiscal and social conservatism, but because of his institutional tactics and approach to procedure. DeMint would have been the Senate’s first tea party chairman, and it was widely anticipated that he’d employ the same stonewalling tactics he’s used repeatedly since joining the Senate in his new role. Republican committee staff, most expected, would completely turn over. And a Senate committee with a long history of bipartisan action, many feared, would become ineffectual — potentially for the next six years.

With today’s announcement, that threat recedes. Although positions are not yet confirmed for next Congress, Senator John Thune (R-SD) is likely to be the new Ranking Member. He is a conservative Republican, but he’s no iconoclast. For those who want to see meaningful and functional oversight of NOAA in the years to come, The Heritage Foundation’s gain is also ours.

The name game: seafood mislabeling

121203-red-snapper-fraud-LA-county-600-px

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.

A status quo election? Not for fisheries

Since the moment polls started closing last night, DC types of all political persuasions have been wading obsessively through the Election Day returns. First and foremost, the angst was over whether preferred candidates had won. Beyond that, folks have been madly trying to read the tea leaves on how the political and public policy landscape has been altered. Confession time: I’ve been one of them.

In the coming days I’ll be sharing some of my conclusions with FishHQ readers who may be interested in what the election is likely to mean for fisheries. And a constant theme in those posts will be how significant the implications of this election have already been for the fisheries world — and how much is likely to change in its aftermath.

One popular refrain last night and this morning is that this was a status quo election, and at a superficial level that’s true: President Obama has won reelection; the Senate majority has been retained by the Democrats; and Republicans will continue to control the House. But to suggest a status quo outcome in any deeper sense would be, in my view, very wrong-headed. The reality is, when it comes to many of the most important dynamics that have shaped Washington over the last two years, this is another change election. And when it comes to fisheries specifically, a lot of key chess pieces are about to move.

I’ll be examining those changes in detail in subsequent posts. But here are some quick morning-after takeaways:

  • Although the occupant of the White House hasn’t changed, we’ll see very significant turnover in key executive branch personnel — including, in all likelihood, at the cabinet level (Commerce Secretary) and in agency leadership (NOAA Administrator).
  • Some of the most prominent and influential congressional voices on fisheries will be packing their bags after choosing to retire or suffering electoral defeat. Institutional knowledge on Capitol Hill is being lost, while opportunities to reshape the debate are being created.
  • The transformation of the New England congressional delegation to a one-party enclave is now largely complete. The triumph of Democrats over Republicans in critical House and Senate races will have significant implications for how fisheries politics plays out in this vital region.
  • With all sides focused on avoiding the fiscal cliff, and daunting federal budget realities looming, the resources that enable the information infrastructure upon which our fisheries management system relies are set to come under even greater pressure.

As you absorb the implications of last night’s results, we hope you’ll tune out the cable chatter from time to time, and instead tune in to FishHQ. We’ll strive to bring you the best insight and analysis on what it all means.

In Sandy’s wake: our satellite crisis

Along much of the East Coast, countless communities that fell in Sandy’s path are just beginning a long and painful process — of assessing the damage and starting to rebuild. Our hearts are with all of them. Yesterday we provided a wrap-up of some of the news reports that focused on fishing community impacts. Today, as President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie visit Atlantic City, the Jersey Coast anglers with whom we work are especially in our thoughts.

Beyond the immediate priority of responding to the ongoing disaster and doing everything possible to speed the process of recovery, it is appropriate in time to ponder the lessons we can learn from having endured an extreme weather event of this magnitude. One urgent lesson relates to our nation’s climate satellite capacity.

On October 26, before Sandy made landfall, the New York Times published a frightening article sounding the alarm on the looming climate satellite capacity gap. As existing polar satellites near the end of their lifespan, the launch date for their replacement has continually slipped. Responsible officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been left scrambling to find ways to avoid two years or more during which the accuracy of critical weather forecasting could be jeopardized. Another round of urgent restructuring of NOAA’s satellite program was ordered last month, but we’re now at a point where no easy choices remain. As the Times reports, an independent review team recently warned that we’re facing a capacity gap with the potential to “threaten life and property”, perhaps as early as 2015.

How did we reach this point? Clearly there is enough blame to go around. Austere federal budgets are blamed by some for the delays. But, according to independent reviews, a long history of program dysfunction is also at fault. For fishermen directly impacted by Sandy, the prospect of less accurate forecasting when future hurricanes strike will be a difficult pill to swallow. But a second source of concern should be the potential for satellite program challenges at NOAA to consume the agency, and jeopardize the effectiveness of NOAA’s “wet side” performance.

For many years, ocean advocates have been concerned that ballooning satellite costs could force funding cuts in ocean-related programs. Those concerns were realized in the FY13 funding request, and are now playing out on Capitol Hill. In this austere fiscal environment, efforts to squeeze additional funding to the satellite program from other parts of the agency are likely to continue. And that could well mean further curtailing federal investments that are vital to the health and productivity of our nation’s fisheries.

Addressing the enormous challenges facing the satellite program must be a national priority. And, critically, dedicated appropriations must be provided by Congress to get the job done. Otherwise, we face the prospect of a cash-strapped agency under enormous political pressure raiding entirely separate programs that happen to coexist under the NOAA umbrella. That could have dire consequences.

Sandy is the latest wakeup call for Congress and the administration to do whatever it takes to prevent or minimize the climate satellite gap. However, diverting precious pennies that are essential to the health of our ocean and the productivity of our nation’s fisheries won’t fix the mess, and could very well create another. For the fishermen, coastal communities and consumers who depend on healthy wild ocean fisheries — and for all Americans who rely on precise weather forecasting — urgently prioritizing and separately funding climate satellites is the only viable choice.

Fishermen weather the storm

Visualization of Hurricane Sandy’s widespread impact; credit: NOAA

Note: current updates are being made at the bottom of this post as we find them. Please add yours in the comments!

First and foremost, we hope all of you managed to stay safe during Hurricane Sandy, wherever it hit you, and whatever your moniker of choice ended up being. Bonus points if you stayed warm and dry. The fish can head to deep water, and the birds can fly on through, but those of us with neither fins nor feathers batten down the hatches, stock the cupboards and hunker down until the storm passes. Fishing news from this coast slowed to a near stop, although the news that was being made will affect us all for a good time to come.

In Rhode Island, fishermen prepared their boats as best they could. Some fishermen were determined to catch that last fish, warnings be damned. Sandy took to New Jersey late afternoon Monday, doing significant damage to coastal homes and businesses. Fishing piers up and down the coast were hit hard, with news that the Ocean City, Maryland fishing pier had been destroyed circulating as early as Monday mid-day. Impact reports are still rolling in, and there are ultimately too many stories to list here, but CBS News has a state by state impact report here.

Away from the front lines of the storm, debates are raging about where Frankenstorm came from, how it’s related to climate change and what other measures we could have taken to prepare for it (Paul Greenberg says: more oysters). One conversation of note is the renewed concern that’s circulating about gaps in the federal budget that would have funded the satellites that allow us to track this storm with such accuracy. We are already facing holes in satellite coverage as a result of austerity cuts to NOAA’s budget, and although the administration has tried to plug the hole by shifting funds from other programs (including fisheries), this is a major reminder of how appropriations—a process that often plays out as a closed-door, abstract game for the wonkiest of wonks—translates into real life impacts. We’ve worked very closely on NOAA’s budget here at the Network, and will come back to that soon. The takeaway right now is that this matters.

In other storm related fish news, fresh fish will likely be in short supply around the country thanks to the fact that 600 miles of coastline was being battered by unfishable conditions. If you’re in Chatham, you can go straight to the source though; the Cape Cod Hook and Line Fishermen’s Association still has power and plenty of oysters for their Meet the Fleet event. Now that’s how to beat cabin fever.

We’re also keeping an eye on scheduled meetings and events that have been disrupted by Sandy and have been postponed or canceled. Of particular note: the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission has postponed some menhaden hearings along the coast. Their press release is here, and the Herring Alliance has a helpful list of which meetings have been postponed or rescheduled.

Let us know if we’ve missed any important fishing related storm news in the comments—we’ll also update as we find more.

[Update 10/31/12 5:40 p.m.]

Richard Gaines gives a rundown of the storm’s impact on the fishing industry, but not without a few barbs out for the government. His sources speak largely of a static market for fish due to widespread transportation system shut-down.

Seafoodnews.com reports that the port of New York still does not have power. [subscription required]

This story points to raw and partially treated sewage that spilled into rivers and estuaries along the coast as a result of the storm. Virginia has suspended shellfish harvesting in the Chesapeake as a result.

And Climate Central has a great roundup of all the places the web is talking about Sandy.

[Update 11/1/12 12:40  pm]

A swordfish crew from New Bedford got swept up in Hurricane Sandy while at sea; they have made safe landing in Shelbourne, Nova Scotia. They are reported to be exhausted but alive. Significant damage was done to their boat.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources is calling the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the Chesapeake Bay “less than expected“.

The Savannah Morning news offers a forecast of how Sandy will affect local fishing in Georgia.

[Update 11/2/12 11:12  a.m.]

National Geographic has posted a write-up on the recovery of fishing communities after hurricanes, including a look at potential disaster declarations and their history in the Mid-Atlantic.

Asbury Park Press predicts that no one will be fishing the Jersey coastline anytime soon. Harbors are destroyed and it may take a while for fish to come back after the storm.

Long Island Newsday features similar devastation to the Long Island fishing community.

More on how Sandy is impacting seafood supply and demand, including low demand due to continued wide-spread power outages, and difficultly in the supply chain.

We have word from a longtime Network friend and New Jersey member that he and family are safe, although they suffered significant damage to their home of many years. Our hearts are with them and all the others coping with loss.

Fish stock assessments? NOAA has a new science advisor for that

Every fisheries management controversy looks different.

But a unifying factor in all too many of them is a disconnect between managers and stakeholders regarding the stock assessment process. Is the stock assessment model to be trusted? Are we making too little allowance for uncertainty — or too much? When is a new benchmark assessment required? On what basis should scarce stock assessment resources be allocated between fisheries?

A number the Magnuson-Stevens reform bills that have been introduced in the 112th Congress are motivated by perceived failings in the current interplay of stock assessments and fishery management plans. And some of the most difficult conversations about federal fisheries today — whether it be the daunting challenges facing Gulf of Maine cod or the management of rebounding Gulf of Mexico red snapper — hinge on stakeholders’ faith in the timeliness and accuracy of the stock assessment process.

This is the context for the National Marine Fisheries Services’s announcement yesterday that they have created a new position: Science Advisor for Stock Assessments. And to fill it, they’ve turned to an agency veteran: Dr. Rick Methot.

“I am thrilled and honored to be selected as the first NOAA Science Advisor for Stock Assessments,” Methot said in a statement yesterday. “Our regional stock assessment science programs are strong, but in need of a more cohesive national identity and public awareness.” Explaining his new brief, Methot continued: “I see my new role as one in which I will work with … our academic, NOAA, and other partners, to advance and to communicate the state of scientific stock assessments used to guide sustainable fisheries.”

That explanation describes a vital role. With the science-based fishery management mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act of 2006 resting so squarely on the efficacy of the stock assessment process, no effort should be spared in working to ensure its credibility. If fishermen and other stakeholders don’t trust and/or understand stock assessments relating to their fisheries, and the broader national and public policy context in which they’re being undertaken, the very foundations of our science-based fishery management system could be undermined. On the other hand, with many important fish stocks rebuilding, and progress to end overfishing in federal waters continuing, the opportunity exists to facilitate a more effective national approach to stock assessments from a position of strength.

NOAA’s full statement announcing Dr. Methot’s appointment is posted online. Commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, environmentalists and seafood lovers everywhere will be wishing him well in this important new role.

The report card is out

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.