Seafood Fraud May Be an Even Bigger Problem Than You Thought

Rachel Tepper Paley
April 22, 2014

Photo credit: StockFood/Riess Studio

Do you know where your fish comes from? A new study suggests that up to 32 percent of all seafood imported in the United States is caught illegally, which, if true, would mean that sustainability efforts are being torpedoed right under the noses of government inspectors.

"We thought a well-governed country like the U.S., with tighter controls, would be better [at preventing the import of illegal catch]," co-author Tony Pitcher recently told The Washington Post. The Post notes that the study, which will be published later this year in the journal Marine Policy, reveals that inspectors “are not required to ask for documentation that shows a bounty’s origin,” and are instead more concerned with sniffing out seafood that could sicken consumers. “It’s quite clear that most consumers don’t have an idea what’s coming into the supply,” Pitcher said.

But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates the National Marine Fisheries Service, calls foul: “Any study like this depends on data-poor statistics,” NOAA public affairs director Connie Barclay told us via email. “So, the accuracy of the claim that 20 percent to 32 percent of wild caught U.S. seafood imports are linked to [illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing] fishing is unverifiable.”

Indeed, the researchers acknowledged that not all of the fisheries included had enough data for them to analyze. It notes that in those cases, data was supplemented by “interviews with industry experts and government officials to provide a more robust estimate of the [illegal and unreported] catches for the products concerned.”

Regardless, Barclay stressed that “NOAA is doing a lot to combat [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing and the import of these products into the U.S. market.”

Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, is reluctant to dismiss the study as readily as Barclay.

“It doesn’t matter if [the amount of illegally caught seafood is] one percent or 100 percent—if any of it is being poached, we need to get to the bottom of it,” he told us. Vilnit noted that the import of illegally caught seafood is a part of a broader problem with traceability; last winter alone, his department caught a dozen different poachers harvesting oysters from protected Maryland sanctuaries. It’s instances like these that contribute to oyster fraud and other types of seafood fraud, he said.

"We don’t even have traceability from the fisheries on the Chesapeake Bay to the restaurants in Washington D.C.," Vilnit lamented. "How are we going to [precisely] track Chilean sea bass coming into the U.S.?"

The question of seafood sustainability must begin with traceability, he said, adding that steeper penalties for those who break the law are a necessity. Consider tuna, for instance. According to the study, tuna is one of the most common illegally caught imports. It’s also among the most-consumed seafood products in the U.S, and an international appetite for it has led to dangerous overfishing with tuna stocks in the Northern Pacific Ocean dropping by up to 96 percent last year.

"Tuna can be harvested sustainably, it’s possible," Vilnit said. "But it’s like elephant tusks and ivory. The fines are too small and the payoff [for the poachers] is too big.” 

The issues outlined in the study are definite cause for concern, he continued. “It puts all of our sustainability efforts severely behind,” he said. Without serious government action, seafood sustainability activists may just be spinning their wheels.