Seafood Origin Scrutinized Under Proposed U.S. Rules

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When you pay for prime dining at a seafood restaurant, do you know what you’re really getting?  How do you know that crab, swordfish or shark was legally and sustainably harvested?  What if that red snapper isn’t really snapper after all?

A proposed new set of rules would make it harder for seafood gained through illicit means to end up in United States commerce.

The National Ocean Council Committee to Combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud proposed a new U.S. seafood traceability program this month.  The committee spans the U.S. Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several other federal agencies all working together on this global problem.

When seafood is not accurately traced, it leaves room for food-safety questions, sustainability challenges and even fraud. “This proposed rule is a critical first step in our efforts to create a comprehensive traceability program designed to prevent products from illegal and fraudulent fishing entering U.S. commerce,” said Catherine Novelli, U.S. under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment.

A 2013 report by the conservation group Oceana drew attention to the seafood fraud problem by finding that a third of seafood samples it tested were mislabeled.  At that time, red snapper, for instance, was discovered to be frequently mislabeled when it was really another fish.

The new rules would require detailed information about the origin of seafood products harvested abroad and chain-of-custody information. Similar details about the origin of food are already required of seafood considered to be domestic.  According to government statistics, U.S. fisheries alone land some $5.5 billion in seafood each year.  So, the potential for mislabeling and fraud could significantly impact the market for the more scrupulous seafood producers.

Officials are looking at whether some third-party reporting programs could satisfy some of the reporting requirements under the proposed new rules.  There is still room for revision in the rule-making process, they said.

The list of aquatic species considered at risk and to be identified through the new program include these considered to be most vulnerable:

  • Abalone
  • Atlantic cod
  • Blue crab
  • Dolphinfish
  • Grouper
  • King crab (red)
  • Pacific cod
  • Red snapper
  • Sea cucumber
  • Sharks
  • Shrimp
  • Swordfish
  • Albacore tuna
  • Bigeye tuna
  • Skipjack tuna
  • Yellowfin tuna

The proposed rules follow on the heels of a proposed action-plan last year by the Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud. The task force identified these key concerns about seafood entering the United States:

  • Enforcement capability
  • Species misrepresentation
  • Catch document scheme
  • History of fishing violations
  • Complexity of the chain of custody and processing
  • Mislabeling or other misrepresentation
  • Human health risks

Citizens and businesses organized loosely via the Oceana organization previously urged the president and Congress to address the need to trace seafood and prevent fraud in this industry.  Oceana promotes policies to protect the oceans and make fishing more sustainable.  It also encourages the purchase of fish products that are least likely to harm the sustainability of the oceans.

These proposed rules would also help the United States cooperate more fully with international trading partners in ensuring a robust seafood trade.  According to the White House, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing can mean a loss of between $10 billion and $23 billion in global revenue each year.

NOAA is asking for input from the seafood industry, conservationists, and all those involved in domestic and international trade as the rules are finalized.

A public 60-day comment period will remain open on this new rule until April 5, and the public can participate via a series of webinars hosted by NOAA Fisheries and the State Department in February and March.  Detailed information is available at this government website.

Image credit: Flickr/John Tornow

Anne Brock

Anne Brock is a University of Missouri journalism alumna and television news producer. She blogs at FlourSackMama.com about simple living and greener approaches to life for everyday families. She also freelances as a social media consultant and content creator.