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Can New Tracking Rules Stop Illegal Seafood From Entering the U.S.?

Regulations that took effect this month require detailed tracking of some imported fish. The program is welcomed by conservation groups and American fishers, but it is not clear is how well it will work.

Written by Alastair Bland Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A worker holds fresh red snapper from New Zealand that was delivered to Colorado.Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post

For decades, United States seafood importers, and the producers who supply them with billions of pounds of fish and shellfish each year, have enjoyed a domestic marketplace with minimal guarantees for consumers about the origins of their seafood or how it was caught or farmed.

That is now changing with a new set of regulations that went into effect January 1, which aims to reduce the amount of illegally produced or unmonitored seafood entering the U.S. market from overseas.

Called the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, the rule now requires importers to provide border inspectors with detailed information on a seafood product’s identity and how and where it was caught or farmed – more or less the same regulations that domestic suppliers have been following for years. Fifteen species and categories of fish and invertebrates – including five species of tuna, all sharks and groupers, Atlantic and Pacific cod and red snapper – will require key data from “the point of harvest to the point of entry into U.S. commerce,” according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

The European Union implemented a similar set of regulations in 2010, but given that the U.S. is the world’s largest seafood importer and that about a quarter of its wild-caught imports are estimated to be illegal or unreported catch, fish populations globally stand to benefit from the new rules. In a recent analysis published in the journal Ambio, two scientists predicted that the regulations “could be a transformative action on fisheries worldwide.”

Beth Lowell, senior director of Oceana’s illegal fishing and seafood fraud program, said the regulations should also reduce misidentification of seafood, which her group has confirmed to be rampant in the U.S. In a widely publicized 2014 study, Oceana’s DNA testing of seafood from restaurants and retailers found that about a third of seafood that testers sampled was falsely labeled. “Often it’s a lower-cost fish – you think you’re getting red snapper but it’s tilapia,” Lowell said.

A worker unloads a fresh catch of tuna for export to the U.S. and Japan at Muara Baru, Jakarta’s fish port. (ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

American fishers, too, are eager for the program to take hold, said Jason DeLaCruz, executive director of a fish tracking program called Gulf Wild. The Gulf Wild program tags fish with identification codes that allow consumers to trace their fish back to the person who caught or speared it. The codes expire after several weeks, DeLaCruz said, to prevent tags from being fraudulently attached to fish that may have been imported or illegally caught – something he says occurred in the early days of the program.

He explained that the same species of snapper and grouper that American vessels catch in the Gulf of Mexico are caught by Mexican boats fishing the same waters and are not tracked. Mexican fishers, DeLaCruz said, also receive a third or less of the money for their catch than American boats.

“My fishermen get paid a real living wage, and I deliver a better product, yet I still have to compete with those low prices,” DeLaCruz said. “I love the idea of everyone having to label their fish, and there’s no reason why importers shouldn’t either.”

Seafood importers and buyers agree that the cost of imported seafood could increase in the name of transparency and sustainability under the new program. The National Fisheries Institute and eight individual seafood companies filed a lawsuit last January, a month after the regulations were finalized in December 2016. In their suit, which was rejected by a Washington, D.C., district court in August, the plaintiffs said “harvest to import traceability would force seafood processors to adopt costly changes to the way in which seafood is processed, thereby significantly increasing the cost of seafood to the consumer.”

Regardless of costs, the regulations do have limitations. While Oceana’s polling has found that 83 percent of Americans support laws aimed at curbing seafood fraud, the program mandates that new data be given to regulators but does not require that consumers be provided with the same, according to the Ambio study. In other words, the program won’t necessarily lead to more informative seafood labels. In addition, much mislabeling occurs within U.S. borders, often in restaurants and markets, and the program may not affect that behavior.

The program’s effectiveness is also not guaranteed. The Ambio study, written by Loyola Marymount University researcher Demian A. Willete and University of California Santa Barbara’s Samantha H. Cheng, found that much will depend on “widespread compliance from exporting nations and a re-envisioning of existing approaches to monitoring and enforcement.” It noted that new technologies, including satellite data and DNA testing, could provide powerful monitoring options, but success will be linked to whether the seafood origin country has the capacity and willingness to detect forgeries and noncompliance. “At worst, for nations who import to the U.S. without the protection of established trade partnerships, mislabeling could actually increase in an effort not to lose a key market,” the researchers wrote.

For now, the program is kicking off with a phased-in enforcement period in which federal fisheries officers will go easy on violators for failure to comply with the program’s requirements. According to a statement from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this lenience is intended to avoid impeding day-to-day business of companies that have not adequately prepared for the changes since the rules were finalized. Kate Brogan, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email that “some importers have expressed a concern that they are not yet ready to comply.” Others, she added, are up to speed and ready to go. She said NMFS intends to transition toward firm enforcement “as soon as possible.”

Up next, the U.S. Senate, in a bill drafted in July, is considering adding the most popular seafood in the country – shrimp – to the program. Today, about 90 percent of shrimp is imported and much of it is farmed. The bill has prompted stiff resistance from importers and buyers like the National Restaurant Association, which warned of “supply and availability issues” in a December letter to Congress, should tracking requirements be added.

American shrimpers would welcome the rules, according to John Williams, executive director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance. He said he is not opposed to imported shrimp, since the domestic industry alone is incapable of meeting consumer demand. However, he said, “importing illegal seafood is a consumer issue, an antibiotics issue, a slave labor issue and we’re hopeful these regulations will solve all of these problems.”

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