If something smells fishy the next time you step up to the seafood counter or sit down for sushi, it may not be the catch of the day. An estimated 33 percent of seafood sold in the United States is incorrectly labeled by type of fish, catch method or provenance, according to a recent report by conservation group Oceana. So that ahi tuna roll you ordered might actually be escolar, a cheaper substitute known as the ‘ex-lax fish’ for its digestive effects, and the wild-caught shrimp at the grocery store could have in fact been farm-raised in Thailand.
This is not a new problem—there have been documented cases going back to at least the 1930s when canneries tried to pass off mackerel for pricier salmon. But now, with the falling price of computing power and tech-enabled tracking devices starting to change traceability methods, technology is fast-becoming an unlikely hero in the traditional world of seafood.
The seafood industry’s notoriously opaque supply chains mean that exactly how, and how often, fish mislabeling occurs is not precisely known. In Oceana’s two-year test of 1,200 fish samples in 21 states, one-third were found to be fraudently labeled. While the organization admits the report was never meant to be a scientific survey and the actual scale of the problem is not perfectly understood, it is clear that there are plenty of opportunities for mislabeling to occur on seafood’s journey from the water to your plate.
“There are 101 different root causes for this,” said Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager at Oceana, and no one is sure which parts of the supply chain are the most likely points for mislabeling to occur. “But what it comes down to is trying to find value for the fish,” he said. Distributors, fishmongers or others that handle the fish along the supply chain might be trying to get a higher price for a low-valued fish, sell an overfished species or sell one that is out of season.
Besides ripping off consumers, seafood fraud has serious implications for fisheries conservation. In an ideal world, “Fisheries management accounts for all the fish that come out of the ocean to make sure that we are not going over the quotas and not overfishing,” said Brogan. “If we can’t ensure that fish is honestly labeled, then the foundation of fisheries management is threatened.”
Brogan calls traceability—the ability to accurately track any piece of seafood back to its point of catch—an “essential element” of fisheries management today. He emphasizes that traceability advocates are not asking fishermen to collect any new information. Regulators already require any seafood caught or sold in the U.S. to provide documentation of where, when and how it was caught. But that information is still often filed on paper forms, and there is no way of knowing if it will follow the right piece of seafood through the supply chain. “It’s more of a data management and handling issue,” said Brogan.
That’s the problem Canadian-based Ecotrust, a conservation nonprofit, set out to solve in 2009 when it was approached by a group of Vancouver Island fishermen to develop a traceability mechanism for their haul. Part of their motivation was to more easily meet international regulations. Even though British Columbia has some of the strictest catch regulations (some fishermen even have video cameras on board to verify catch methods), there was no way to accurately and easily track their fish once it left the dock. But the fishermen also wanted to start treating their catch less like a commodity and more like a branded product that they could actively market.
ThisFish is the organization born out of that collaboration. Along with Gulf Seafood Trace—funded by disaster recovery grants in the wake of the BP Gulf oil spill—Red’s Best in Boston, and others, the organization is part of a growing trend of tech-based approaches to solving seafood traceability.
ThisFish works by allowing seafood harvesters use an online platform to upload similar information required by regulators (species and location of catch), along with their own personal story and photos. Each catch gets a unique code, which can either be placed on the box of each shipment of fish, or physically attached to each animal. Lobsters, for example, get an individual tag on their claws; some products receive a scannable QR code. The code follows the product through all touchpoints in the supply chain, and finally reaches the consumer, who can either scan or enter the code online to get the story behind the fish and even connect directly with individual fish harvesters.
The physical tag and the simple coding system help prevent mislabeling and create trust and transparency along the supply chain. Fishermen can see a financial payback as well. ThisFish has seen anecdotal evidence that consumers are willing to pay a small premium for the assurance of knowing where their fish came from and who caught it.
Eric Enno Tamm, team leader at ThisFish, also approaches the issue from a consumer standpoint. “If you can trace your FedEx package, if you can trace your merino wool, your coffee, your chocolate,” he asks, “then why can’t you trace your seafood?”
While the company, which charges fishermen a fee for the service, got its start working with small, artisanal fishermen, it does not exclusively host seafood that has high sustainability marks (though it does provide sustainability ratings to users). Instead, it focuses on empowering consumers with information. It designed its platform to be flexible and scalable to work with any kind of fishermen, from the small to the industrial level.
“The real philosophy of ThisFish is that we want to help consumers make more informed decisions about what to buy,” says Tamm. “We don’t want to tell consumers what to buy, we just want to provide credible information in a clear, visual way.”
ThisFish has found that while there is often a strong focus on the sustainability rating of a fish, “buy local” may be just as strong a rallying cry for consumers. In a survey of 300 ThisFish users, 89 percent said they were motivated to trace their fish because they wanted to know where it was caught. By comparison, checking eco-certification and sustainability ratings was cited by about 25 percent of respondents.
For Tamm, the real power of traceability is that it can address any type of consumer concern: “Traceability is not just a one-trick pony. It’s not just about sustainability, it’s not just about local, it’s not just about the quality of your food.” Traceability can help improve all of these things, he says.
While Tamm sees transparency-focused entrepreneurs entering the seafood industry as a promising force for change, consumer demand will also play a big role. “Over time consumer expectations will start to rise,” he says, “and people will...just have the expectation that ‘if I'm going to buy this product, I deserve to know how and where it was produced.’”
For now, a little extra effort at the restaurant or grocery store can help protect you against seafood fraud. Gib Brogan of Oceana advises consumers to buy from places they trust and ask questions about the species type and where and when it was caught. Anyone selling seafood should at least know those basics, he says. Above all, use a shopper's common sense: "If a deal is too good to be true, it probably is."
Image courtesy of ThisFish
Lauren is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. She has covered a wide array of geographies and topics, from economic and business developments in the Arabian Gulf, to arts and culture in Turkey, to social enterprise and the microfinance sector in Southeast Asia. She's also worked on the business side of things, with two years experience in strategy and marketing at a large renewable energy firm. Keep in touch: @laurenzanolli and firstname.lastname@example.org.