White House Moves to Keep Fake Fish Off Your Dinner Plate

New recommendations call for satellite tracking of all fishing vessels and DNA testing to identify protected species.

(Photo: Larry Washburn/Getty Images)

Dec 17, 2014· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The less reputable elements of the fishing industry have some pretty fishy practices.

According to a study released earlier this year, between 20 percent and 32 percent of the wild-caught seafood imported into the United States is illegal in one way or another. That activity can have devastating impacts on fish populations. It also leads to fraud against consumers, who are often sold look-alike species instead of the real thing, such as Russian crab in place of Alaskan crab. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that the global losses from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing total somewhere between $10 billion and $23 billion every year.

But now fish and other ocean species have a new ally: President Obama. This week, a White House task force released a series of 15 recommendations designed to curb this black-market and pirate fishing trade by working with state, national, and international partners. The recommendations include satellite tracking of fishing vessels to make sure they don't enter protected waters; passing legislation to implement the 2009 Agreement on Port State Measures, an international treaty designed to give countries more controls over fishing vessels from other nations; establishing best practices for monitoring and documenting catches; creating ways to track fish from the time they're caught to when they're sold at grocery stores; and increasing support for forensic analysis of fish specimens.

Conservation groups praised the task force's recommendations.

"They are very robust," said Karen Sack, senior director of international oceans for The Pew Charitable Trusts. "They bring together the collective power of the U.S. government in an approach that applies both to U.S. waters and fishing done beyond U.S. borders."

She praised the task force for including a wide range of federal agencies in the approach, ranging from the departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Justice and Homeland Security. "If it's just left up to fisheries enforcement, we'll never be able to deal with the problem," she said. Fisheries inspections and fraud cases have plunged this year following NOAA budget cuts.

"We have made tremendous strides in combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud, and the task force's recommendations will build on these successes and serve as an important tool as we strive to level the playing field for legitimate fishermen," NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan said in a statement.

Other conservation groups also voiced their support for the recommendations. "Our planet's oceans and the sustainable future of our fisheries depend" on ending this illegal trade," said Michele Kuruc, vice president of policy for the World Wildlife Fund.

The Marine Conservation Institute estimated that controlling unregulated international fishing could bring 55,000 fishing and fish-processing jobs to the U.S., plus another 40,000 supply jobs.

Sack said the task force serves an equally important role in increasing public consciousness of this problem.

"It's not an issue that has gained a lot of awareness," she said. "We often have images in our heads of the friendly fisherman on a small boat wearing an orange or yellow slicker braving the waves."

Instead, many fishing vessels are what she called "floating factories," where great quantities of fish are caught, carved up, and frozen before they can be inspected. That makes it impossible for customs officials to identify fish species or where they originated. "The whole supply chain becomes a problem because the product just becomes a filleted fish or a breaded fish stick somewhere along the way," she said.

A 30-day public-comment period on these recommendations will open on Dec. 18, after which they may be signed into effect by President Obama.