Today, we have machines that can verify the DNA of a seafood species before it reaches consumers or scan a QR code for information beyond “country of origin” at the grocery store. But, even amid these technological advancements, consumers who want to know the sources of their seafood are often left in the dark — or lied to.
In North America, one-third of the seafood that arrives at retail outlets and on restaurant plates is mislabeled, according to the advocacy group Oceana’s still-relevant 2013 study of seafood fraud.
Evidence of seafood fraud and mislabeling — and piecemeal efforts to combat it — have been mounting ever since. But what does that mean for the Chesapeake Bay’s seafood industry? While fishermen here and along U.S. coasts have the advantage of being endorsed as “local,” competing with cheaper international imitations remains a struggle. And what if the efforts to combat imposters of, say, Maryland blue crab meat result in additional layers of regulation both here, and where the impostors come from?
“We don’t want to hamstring the homeboys with more accountability and [steps] we need to take, and increase our costs even more,” said Jack Brooks, part owner of The J. M. Clayton Co. in Cambridge, MD. “We can overregulate local guys and make it impossible for us to comply and compete.”
These are among the concerns that local fishermen express when the subject of “seafood traceability” comes up, as it does increasingly. Though the idea of tracing the fish on your plate back to the boat that first landed it sounds good, the process of doing so is rife with complications.
“People often talk about traceability as a technology problem, and it is. But it is also a people problem,” said Cheryl Dahle, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Future of Fish, at an event the nonprofit hosted in Washington, DC, in September. “The technology is already there, but there is a lot of cultural resistance in the seafood supply chain.”
In some parts of the United States, that cultural resistance exists because fishermen have been catching fish a certain way for generations. Adding another layer of paperwork or an iPhone application that logs their boat’s location is tantamount to changing their way of life.
Take those same requirements to the international level and the obstacles to traceability multiply to encompass language barriers and entire fisheries built on the backs of slave labor. Internationally, as much as 26 million tons of seafood is caught and sold illegally every year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service. Some reports indicate 85 percent of all commercial stocks are now fished up to or beyond their biological limits.
These are some of the reasons President Obama created a Task Force on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud in June 2014. To narrow its focus, the task force is first tackling fraud among the most “at risk” species such as salmon and blue crabs. It released a 15-point action plan in March that outlines the steps its members should take internationally and on domestic shores.
“The amount of seafood coming into the U.S. — it’s much more difficult for us as a federal government to have oversight and control over it,” said Russell Smith, deputy assistant secretary for NOAA International Fisheries and a member of the task force, at the Future of Fish event. “That’s not to say all of that seafood is bad, but knowing what’s sustainable and what’s not, what it represents itself as and what it’s not, that’s a challenge.”
Congress helped the task force accomplish a key goal at the end of October by passing a bill to increase enforcements against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the nation. The bill, which the president is expected to sign, contained key legislation needed for the United States to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement that requires member countries to block their ports to ships known or believed to have illegal products on board. So far, 14 of the 25 countries needed to enact the agreement have signed on as part of an international effort to discourage illegal fishing and its impacts on both the environment and mistreated workers.
The U.S. task force’s initial report states that seafood fraud includes everything from visually enhancing seafood, such as treating tuna steaks with carbon monoxide to maintain their color, to adding water to increase the weight of catches and substituting one fish species for another.
“We should have seafood in the future. If we’re going to do that, we have to work together to sustainably harvest it,” Smith said of the task force’s efforts.
Consumers wanting to support sustainable or locally harvested seafood also have reason to wonder whether they’re being deceived, even if they live in the same watershed as that seafood.
“We found it challenging to have consumers support local when what they’re getting is mislabeled,” said Beth Lowell, director of Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign. “We looked at traceability as a way to connect the dots.”
In April, Oceana released an unsettling report about the Chesapeake Bay’s iconic blue crabs that found they were mislabeled on menus in the region almost 40 percent of the time. A lab in Florida tested the DNA of crab cake samples sent from the Chesapeake region to determine whether they contained blue crab, (Callinectes sapidus), and, if not, which species were used instead.
The fraud rate they discovered of 38 percent is a conservative estimate, Oceana said, because the DNA testing couldn’t confirm if the geographical origin of the blue crab was Maryland or the Chesapeake Bay. The same species of blue crabs is also caught as far north as Canada and south as Argentina.
Rather than responding by requiring local crab houses to trace each container of crab meat back to a specific boat or fishermen, as has been suggested, J. M. Clayton’s Brooks said regulators should focus on improving testing technology.
If tests could determine whether the crabmeat is from the waters of the Chesapeake or Venezuela, for example, Brooks said, “that could be very helpful.”
Tracing crabmeat to a specific boat would be difficult for packing houses like his where crabs landing on the dock are aggregated into larger batches and then picked once there’s a certain volume, rather than bushel by bushel.
While some organizations are fixed on improving traceability, others see the need for the laws already on the books to be better enforced.
Earlier this year, members of Congress including Sen. Barbara Mikulski from Maryland, wrote in a letter that the president’s task force doesn’t go far enough to prevent “dishonest people” who import and repackage foreign crab meat as domestic.
Casey’s Seafood Inc. in Newport News, VA, is under federal investigation for allegations that the company did just that. DNA tests of several of the company’s products contained mixtures of Atlantic blue crab and cheaper alternatives native to foreign areas, though all were labeled as “product of the USA,” according to news reports.
Oceana’s Lowell said that’s one of the problems with a mostly voluntary system of traceability: Only “the good guys” participate.
“We feel that we need to have a baseline requirement that all seafood has to meet to have access to the market,” Lowell said at the Future of Fish event.
Some local seafood distributors are taking the initiative to make their supply chains more transparent as they see more customers demanding it.
Steve Vilnit, marketing director at JJ McDonnell & Co. and formerly at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said his biggest customer, Wegmans Food Markets, has inspired a new wave of traceability programs for the distributor. The store often wants to know how, where and by whom a fish was caught and whether it has any sustainability certifications — because customers will ask those questions, too.
“Twenty years ago, it was, ‘Here is a box of dead fish.’ Now we employ five people full time [as buyers with a strong focus on] traceability,” said Vilnit, who sees the value in providing more information. “Now, it gives me a story to tell. It pushes the value of that fish up, even though we haven’t done anything more than give them more information about the product.”