The Chesapeake Bay’s seafood industry is paying close attention to a report released in late March detailing how the Obama administration plans to reduce international seafood fraud — even if its impact on the local industry would be muted.
The Presidential Task Force on Combatting IUU (illegal, under-reported and unregulated) Fishing and Seafood Fraud released its action plan at an industry trade show in Boston. The report will be open to public comment and input from the industry in the coming months. The report lays out how the Obama administration could tighten regulations governing seafood imports, which often arrive mislabeled or carrying products that have been illegally fished or overfished.
Groups that have lobbied for stricter seafood regulations, such as conservation advocate Oceana, applauded parts of the report, noting that it represents the administration’s heightened commitment to oversight. The report indicates that initial changes will focus on species that are most prone to mislabeling. But, notably, the report indicates a broad shift in policy from risk-based to comprehensive full-chain traceability that “will increase the safety net for all consumers, fishermen and seafood businesses,” Oceana’s senior campaign director, Beth Lowell, said in a statement.
Oceana released a report in 2013 that found that 33 percent of more than 1,200 fish samples tested nationwide were mislabeled.
Industry groups, like the National Fisheries Institute, questioned how the regulations would be implemented and whether they could become too onerous for stateside fisheries trying to comply.
Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, was at the meeting and said the proposed changes won’t have an immediate impact on Bay fishermen and distributors, who already adhere to a higher level of transparency than other regions.
“In the Bay, this traceability is something that we’ve been pushing for a while. We think it’s good for the customers to know exactly where the product comes from,” said Vilnit, who in 2012 launched the state’s True Blue campaign, a voluntary program that certifies establishments serving Maryland blue crabmeat.
The program has nearly 200 restaurants, schools and other institutions participating, even as Maryland crabmeat has been harder to come by in recent seasons.
In the Bay, rockfish and oysters also come with identifiers that can lead a customer or restaurant back to the area from which they were harvested. Vilnit said the proposed regulations, if left unchanged, would have a greater effect on larger fisheries, like Atlantic salmon, than on the smaller fisheries in the Bay that have been chipping away at traceability for years.
“Our local fisheries are on a small enough scale that there already is that connection between fish and table,” he said.
Still, Maryland lawmakers did consider making that connection even stronger this year with a bill that would have required restaurants and grocery stores to label seafood by its country of origin. The bill, sponsored by Del. Eric Luedtke of Montgomery County, did not make it to a vote this session but could be considered in the future, according to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which lobbied on its behalf.
Vilnit added that any effort to improve traceability, labeling and enforcement — both nationally and internationally — helps to level the playing field for those who are already fishing by the rules stateside. Additional labeling would also help Chesapeake Bay species be more competitive, he said.
Read more facts about seafood labeling on the National Aquarium’s website: www.aqua.org/care/conservation-initiatives/seafood-labeling.
Read the full task force report at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/ia/iuu/noaa_taskforce_report_final.pdf.