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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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.