By Alfred ‘Bubba’ Cook
Nobody likes to support criminal activity or contribute to a system that creates inherent unfairness that is morally reprehensible.
However, each of us could be doing so, unknowingly, when we purchase seafood that is potentially illegal because it is not fully traceable from the point it comes on board the fishing vessel to the moment that you eat it – a progression of seafood product traceability known colloquially by the euphemisms “bait to plate” or “boat to throat.”
The costs of illegal fishing are significant, with the value of pirate fish products estimated at between USD$10-23.5 billion annually, representing a major loss of income to coastal countries and communities.
While the vast majority of seafood producers tend to play by the rules, most seafood products are not subject to rigorous and robust traceability schemes, meaning that their authenticity and legality are not checked throughout their journey through the supply chain. This leads to unscrupulous suppliers feeding illegal seafood products into the supply chain to profit off of those who are acting legally. Illegal seafood might include endangered species, undersized fish, fish harvested out of season or within closed areas, or fish harvested without licenses or authority. Once illegal fish is mixed with legal fish, there is virtually no way to distinguish the two absent some form of traceable and auditable documentation.
Dishonest seafood suppliers can also fraudulently label cheap substitutes as higher value products to take advantage of consumers, such as labeling farm-raised tilapia as much higher value wild caught red snapper. In the United States alone, recent estimates suggest that up to one-third of all seafood products are fraudulently mislabeled according to Oceana that conducted one of the largest seafood fraud investigations in the world to date, collecting more than 1,200 samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states to determine if they were honestly labeled. Fraudulently labeled seafood can be just as damaging as illegally harvested seafood, including allowing overfished or endangered fish species to continue to be sold and depriving legitimate fishermen of deserved profits through direct competition. Moreover, seafood fraud deceives consumers into paying much more than they should for a less valuable product.
Unfortunately, seafood supply chains are complex and often very non-transparent, making it challenging to identify points where illegal or fraudulently labeled fish may be entering the supply chain. Thus, entry of illegal or fraudulent seafood products could occur at several points ranging from the boat, the processing plant, the retail counter, or at other points along the supply chain.
Some fishing companies, such as those in the Fiji Tuna Boat Owners Association (FTBOA), are taking prudent steps to improve transparency and traceability through adoption of independent electronic traceability schemes and chain of custody requirements for vessels and processing facilities as part of their Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. Additionally, retailers and consumers are starting to demand that their seafood is both legal and what it claims to be. However, a substantial gap remains with respect to sea transport.
The WWF Shipping and Sustainability Overview define sea transport or transoceanic shipping as a global industry responsible for the transportation of approximately 90 percent of world trade. Much of the world’s seafood is transported by transoceanic shipping in some form at some point in its product life, either as a raw product headed to China or Thailand for processing or as a processed product headed to wholesale or retail market somewhere around the globe. One estimate indicates that a single can of tuna might travel over 19000 kilometers before reaching your dinner table, which inevitably involves transoceanic shipping as part of that journey. Given the heavy reliance of the seafood industry on transoceanic shipping to move products, it is imperative that the shipping industry adopt measures to ensure that no seafood, that cannot be fully tracked and auditable to its origin, makes it into one of its containers if it wishes to ensure that it does not facilitate the entry of illegal seafood products into the supply chain.
Maersk Group, one of the largest global shipping companies, has identified seafood as a high risk commodity and made commitments not to carry Illegal, Unregulated, or Unreported (IUU) seafood. Maersk acknowledges that the tuna business is one of the most profitable commodities in the container business and a niche market that they dominate.
With a single Bluefin tuna fetching prices in excess of USD$750,000 it’s no surprise that there might be concerns surrounding the legality of a fish given the profitable incentive to cheat. However, Maersk also acknowledges the difficulty in making determinations of legality, absent a well-defined and consistent documentation standard. While they are working to improve their cargo acceptance rules and strengthen their internal due diligence, a better system of ensuring the traceability of seafood throughout the supply chain is necessary to ensure that Maersk and other proactive companies do not unwittingly accept illegal or otherwise deliberately mislabeled fish. This requires action from the seafood industry itself.
The seafood industry, as a whole, must adopt comprehensive and consistent traceability standards on a global scale. Comprehensive seafood traceability, or tracking seafood products from “bait to plate,” would not only prevent illegal fish from entering the supply chain, but would also significantly reduce seafood fraud while providing retailers and consumers with more information about what they are buying, which can only be good for the legal operators and bad for the illegal operators. Moreover, the technology to fully trace seafood is currently available and economically feasible with bar codes, QR codes, electronic business standards, global data synchronization, and radio frequency identification (RFID) to mention just a few of the well-tested technologies.
The fact that a number of fisheries around the world have already voluntarily achieved full traceability is testament to its possibility and practicality. It’s time for the seafood industry and shipping industry to join efforts to solve the problem of illegal fishing by joining forces to ensure complete traceability of the world’s seafood supply.