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.

Want more profiles, news and handy tidbits to impress your friends at parties? Sign up for weekly e-mails from FishHQ. We promise to keep it fresh.

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.

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

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

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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