Clearing the Sea

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The global fishing industry is one muddied in coastal waters. Is transparency anywhere in sight?
By: Megan O’Neill

The traceability of seafood from international waters to an American plate can be a web of confusion for many, and black market fishing—or what we should correctly refer to as illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing—muddies the waters. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal scientific agency and one of the most respected seafood sustainability organizations in the world, nearly 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported; much of that from China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Ecuador.

A greater understanding of where our seafood comes from is top-of-mind lately. There’s two demands here from consumers and chefs: a demand for sustainability—ideally that fish and shellfish are farmed or fished in such a way that each can maintain or increase production in the long term. And second, a demand for a more transparent look into the water—where is it coming from?

With that in mind, and because the entities engaging in IUU fishing circumvent conservation and management measures, avoid the operational costs associated with sustainable fishing practices, and possibly derive economic benefit from American fisheries, the Department of State and NOAA  announced an action plan for the implementation of recommendations to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud.

The recommendations were announced at the Seafood Expo North America earlier this year by a 19-agency presidential task force that was established by President Obama to create a comprehensive framework to protect the economic and environmental sustainability of U.S. and global fisheries. The task force, which created the action plan, includes a diverse group of members—Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Agency for International Development, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Defense and 15 others.

“Because more than 2.5 billion people depend upon fish for food and nutrition, IUU fishing practices threaten food security and sustainability and undermine efforts to reduce global hunger and malnutrition,” the report stated.

The action plan spells out each forceful step, 15 in total, that federal agencies will take in both domestic and international settings as the Obama administration works to support sustainable fisheries and keep the American fishing industry strong.

“It hurts businesses that do the right thing; it hurts consumers; and it hurts the resource,” says Sean O’Scannlain, founder and CEO of Fortune Fish, a gourmet seafood distributor. “But the most important part of understanding the issue is having the proper perspective in order to use resources wisely in combating it.” There’s already efforts in place that seek to address transparency challenges including port state measures, which help ensure illegally harvested wild-caught seafood does not enter international trade; as well as the FDA’s Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, which enforces capabilities against misbranded food.

For the task force, the 15-step action plan simply hopes to reinforce a commitment to a transparent seafood system. An increase in required information available on products is one of the four general themes of its plan.

Port state measures, free trade agreements, fishery subsidies, and best practices for data tracking are among the 15 recommendations, broad in scope, provided to the administration by the task force.  Others include expanded federal, state and local enforcement provisions and information sharing and traceability programs.

The traceability system attempts to give chefs and consumers purchasing seafood in the American market an increasing confidence in its sustainability. In the meantime, O’Scannlain suggests that Chefs looking for a more transparent route for their fish first look at what traceability program is in place with their supplier. Extra documentation might not be needed.

“Most often that tracking will be significant,” he says. “Chefs should have a conversation with their supplier before they unilaterally embrace the need for more documentation. Sometimes a conversation rather than an ultimatum can be eye opening.”

Most suppliers already have systems in place, which is why O’Scannlain believes creating new laws or initiatives for the sake of new laws or initiatives is not successfully addressing the issue. The task force’s recommendations are ambitious, certainly. But they do address the need to trace at-risk products. The plan eventually aims to trail every piece of seafood that enters U.S. commerce from where it is caught to where it lands in the United States. According to the report, implementation by September 2016 should trace all at-risk seafood (or products of particular concern) through data tracking.

American interest in the international seafood supply chain is certainly strengthening, especially after a yearlong investigation by the Associated Press surfaced a few months back.  The investigation brought to light modern day slave labor conditions in Indonesian fisheries. It’s a clouded seafood supply chain, and according to the AP, tainted seafood mixes in with other fish at a number of sites in Thailand, including processing plants. The thought is jarring, and although extreme, it proves the need for higher regulation and transparency in the fishing supply chain. It also requires chefs ask more questions.

At Fortune Fish, yes they seek to work with the most responsible international trading partners available, but they also know which questions to ask. “We vet our suppliers and have a stringent quality assurance and control program, but we are also members of the Better Seafood Board (BSB),” says O’Scannlain. “It’s the leading B-to-B anti-fraud group. If we have questions, we take those to the BSB. If a supplier isn’t a member of the BSB, the first question we ask is why not?”

And that’s the first question O’Scannlain suggests you offer to potential distributors and suppliers as well.

Questions can tackle transparency, but sustainability takes hard work on every end. The implementation of the Task Force’s concepts will begin with the integration of programs and data across the sustainability landscape. They’ll include increased federal agency collaboration and the development and phased implementation of a traceability program for species that might not be sustainably farmed.

“NOAA is one of the premier seafood sustainability organizations on the planet,” says O’Scannlain. “They manage stocks to their maximum sustainable yield. If an NOAA regulated product is on the market, it is sustainable.” If it were not, NOAA wouldn’t allow it to be harvested. They’ll also certify that it not only came from an approved establishment, i.e. no IUU fishing involved, but it’s also meeting the U.S. grade A standard.

He believes that sustainability, very simply, has to do with oversight. “Is someone watching the stock? Is someone managing the fleet? Are there responsible measures in place to make sure aquaculture is done right?” he asks.

Unlike many specialty, packaged products on the market, there’s no one specific seal or certification that makes it sustainable. “So is seafood sustainability realistic? Yes, absolutely,” he says. “But it’s not a state of panacea that we’re trying to get to, it’s the state of hard work we are in now and will always be in that will make and keep seafood sustainable.”

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