Food by VICE

The Feds Are Finally Doing Something About America's Serious Seafood Fraud Problem

The new rules will require detailed tracking information to be kept on a number of priority species, from initial harvest to entry into US commerce, in hopes of maintaining a clear log of the source of any given fish.

by Gillie Houston
Dec 16 2016, 11:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Nicole Bratt

Chances are you've rarely stopped to think about the origin and authenticity of the tuna, salmon, or unagi lining your sushi roll before breaking out the chopsticks. But for those occupying the surprisingly shady world of international seafood trade, this information is essential in determining the value, quality, and legality of the protein piled in your poke bowl.

For years, lax laws on fish imports have allowed many illegally fished and fraudulently labeled species to slip through the cracks and make their way into consumers' California rolls. However, this week, the Obama administration announced new regulations in an effort to crack down on fishy industry behavior—pun intended.

In recent months, the administration faced added pressure to fortify seafood regulations by the nonprofit ocean advocates Oceana, after the organization issued a report revealing that one in five seafood samples in the world are fraudulent or mislabeled on some or all levels of the supply chain, from import to packaging to retail.

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The new rules, which will go into effect on January 1, 2018, will require detailed tracking information to be kept on a number of priority species, from initial harvest to entry into US commerce, in hopes of maintaining a clear log of the source and history of any given fish. These species, which have been identified as the most likely to be passed off fraudulently, include a variety of tunas, sharks, Atlantic cod, and swordfish.

To implement these additional oversights, the Department of Commerce will create the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, a governmental body tasked with keeping a keen eye out for any illegally obtained or mislabeled products. While the economic implications of stricter regulations are still unclear, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the current global economic impact of illegal and fraudulent fishing every year is easily in the billions.

In a statement from senior campaign director Beth Lowell, Oceana lauds the new regulations, calling the announcement "a groundbreaking step towards more transparency and traceability in the seafood supply chain." Lowell notes that "For the first time ever, some imported seafood will now be held to the same standards as domestically caught fish, helping to level the playing field for American fishermen and reducing the risk facing US consumers."

However, other seafood industry insiders oppose the stricter rules, calling into question the additional work and financial burdens they will be bring upon fisheries and merchants. National Fisheries Institute spokesperson Lynsee Fowler tells Bloomberg that the law "ignores nearly every single industry comment provided to the Task Force and will impose… reporting and compliance obligations ranging from costly to impossible."

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Still, long-time regulatory advocates believe the establishment of more stringent import oversight is essential to the wellbeing of the American seafood industry. As Lowell says, "Without full-chain traceability for all seafood, consumers will continue to be cheated, hardworking fisherman will continue to be undercut, and the long-term productivity of our oceans will continue to be in jeopardy."