Thursday, May 5, 2016


I’m lucky.

I live in a coastal town, I own an offshore-capable boat and I’m a decent enough angler that I can usually find a fish or two when I go out on the water.  That means that when I want to eat fish, I either have something just-caught and fresh sitting on ice, or have enough vacuum-packed memories of previous trips waiting for me in the freezer, so I don’t have to admit defeat and buy fish caught by someone else.

Most folks aren’t quite as fortunate.

They end up buying fish, either in stores or in restaurants.  And their luck doesn’t get too much better there, because labels can be deceptive, and what they think that they’re buying isn’t necessarily what they actually get.

Back in 2012, the conservation group Oceana conducted a study designed to quantify the level of marketing fraud inherent in the retail fish business.  What they discovered came as a shock to many people.  According to Oceana,

“Everywhere seafood is tested, fraud has been found.  In fact, Oceana and others have recently found shocking levels of mislabeling in the Boston (48 percent), Los Angeles (55 percent) and Miami (31 percent) areas.  Oceana also investigated seafood labeling in the  New York City area…Oceana found that 39 percent of the 142 seafood samples collected and DNA tested from grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues were mislabeled, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.”
The mislabeling ranged from a few occasions of merely using a colloquial name not approved by the FDA (e.g., calling tautog “blackfish,” the name that prevails along the waterfront in the New York City metropolitan area) to more egregious examples, such as using the misleading term “white tuna” when marketing escolar, a sort of snake mackerel that is frequently caught as bycatch by pelagic longliners and which, when eaten in any quantity, can cause folks to suffer sudden, unexpected, uncontrollable bouts of projectile diarrhea as orange as Donald Trump’s hair.

You’d probably want to know if you were buying something like that

The Oceana researchers also found a lot of more mundane dishonesty, where low-priced fish were held out to be more expensive varieties. 

Lesser fish sold as “red snapper” and “wild salmon” provided the most common examples of this sort of scam.  A variety of fish was sold as red snapper, ranging from Pacific rockfish, called “red snapper” in California, to less desirable species of Atlantic snappers to such things as farmed tilapia and various inexpensive bottom fish.  Ersatz “wild salmon” was some sort of farmed salmonid, generally either Atlantic salmon or rainbow trout.

Such dishonesty in labeling has consequences, both to the consumer, who might be getting a lower-quality and perhaps less than wholesome product, and to the resource itself, as mislabeling allows illegally-harvested seafood to be slipped into the chain of commerce.  Unscrupulous fishermen will often pass off a protected species as something else, just to be able to sell it, or find a way to get illegally-harvested fish into the market, where they will be indistinguishable from fish caught by honest harvesters.

Recent law enforcement actions in New York and Massachusetts provide examples of both problems.

On a larger scale, so called “IUU”—illegal, unreported and unregulated—harvests plague fisheries throughout the world.  Fish from dubious sources is “laundered” by unscrupulous dealers and, once integrated into the stream of commerce, is foisted upon an unsuspected public.

Thus, for reasons of both commerce and conservation, it makes sense to track shipments of fish from the ports where it’s landed to the shops and restaurants where it is sold at retail.

That’s why Ocean has followed up its earlier work with a new report.  Entitled “Fish Stories:  Success and Value in Seafood Traceability”, it notes that

“The first step in ensuring that seafood is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled, is traceability.  Traceability increases transparency and accountability in the seafood supply chain by ensuring that information such as how and where fish are caught or farmed follows the fish from boat to plate.”
The report goes on to describe a number of existing traceability programs, including one that I’ve seen in action, the “Gulf Wild” certification developed by the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholder’s Alliance.

Not too long ago, I stood on the dock at Katie’s Seafood Market in Galveston, Texas, watching commercial boats land their day’s catch of red snapper.  

As soon as the fish were delivered, each one was marked with a “Gulf Wild” tag, which bore a unique number and scannable QR code.  At any time of the day or night, a consumer who purchased any of those fish could enter the tag’s data into a computer and learn all of the pertinent details, including the species of fish, the captain and boat that landed it and the port where it was landed.

We can only surmise what things would be like if all fisheries were subject to a similar system.

Certainly, the antics of the “Codfather” up in New Bedford, who was recently arrested for allegedly shipping illegal New England groundfish, could not have occurred.  As described in the Boston Globe,

“He called all the fish haddock, even if they weren’t.  The dab fish.  The gray sole.
“If the fish inspectors weren’t watching when his boats came into the docks at New Bedford, according to the authorities, fish mogul Carlos Rafael labeled every species of the fish he caught as the cheaper, more common haddock—while secretly trading hundreds of pounds of more coveted species for bags of cash.
“The goal:  evade the federal quota on the more coveted fish.”
Closer to home, I can only think how such a catch-tracing system would benefit our local tautog population.  The fish used to be common on every rockpile, wreck and reef off Long Island; they supported a relatively small, yet active, recreational fishery, but had little commercial value.  Then, perhaps 35 years ago, live blackfish began being sold in urban ethnic markets; prices for live fish spiked, and spawned an active illicit fishery that quickly decimated the population.

Ever since, law enforcement has been fighting a largely unsuccessful battle to rein in the illegal tautog harvest.  Recently, the Atlantic States Marine FisheriesCommission has begun seriously considering a program that would requirefishermen to tag their tautog when caught.  Such tags, if made part of a broader traceability program, might well prove the critical first step to rebuilding the stock.

Traceability is an idea whose time has definitely come.  It has no downside for honest fishermen or fish dealers, and can provide some real benefits to both consumers and the resource itself.

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