Full disclosure: I co-wrote and co-produced both the Oceana report and video
The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in interest about where food comes from, and how it is sourced. Many consumers are especially concerned about seafood, in light of mounting reports of overfishing, fraudulent labeling, harmful aquaculture practices and human rights abuses. Oceana released reports highlighting mislabeling of seafood nationwide, especially for crab, shrimp and salmon. The Associated Press exposed the use of slave labor on fishing vessels as well as the miserable conditions of shrimp peelers in Thailand. New York Times journalist, Ian Urbina, did some incredible reporting on illegal fishing and slave labor in his “Outlaw Ocean” series. The overfishing and excess bycatch of non-target species that results from illegal fishing practices like these threaten many fisheries worldwide.
As paralyzing as these problems may seem, they are solvable. Well-managed fisheries that utilize quotas, bycatch limits and habitat protection have seen fish stocks recover. But how can you know if know if your fish is caught or farmed responsibly? Should the burden of unearthing this information be left on the consumer? If most people knew the stories of the fish they were being offered, they would be empowered to make informed and conscientious choices. But to do that, they need to be given information about what fish they are eating, and where and how that fish was caught. And, that information needs to follow the seafood from the boat or farm to the dinner plate. In other words, we need full-chain traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S.
Since its launch, Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign has been urging the Obama administration to adopt requirements for full supply chain traceability for all seafood. Making sure consumers know where their food comes from is a common-sense policy, and one that is widely supported throughout the seafood industry. The few opponents to this idea aren’t exactly the most impartial voices, as MJ Gimbar, fish monger at Black Restaurant Group in Washington DC told me:
“If someone is having issues with traceability, most of the time they’re doing something wrong they shouldn’t be doing. I don’t think anyone in the industry should be against traceability because it levels the playing field. I think if you’re doing the right things you should want to show that. If you’re doing the wrong things, you probably don’t want to show that, and that’s not the people we want to be doing business with anyway.”
Oceana spoke with people throughout the seafood industry who are already using traceability and experiencing success and benefits to their businesses, not burdens. The result of these conversations can be found in Oceana’s report out this week: Fish Stories: Success and Value in Seafood Traceability.
Transparency and accountability are things that people want and are willing to pay for. The stories in the video above demonstrate that being a trustworthy and dependable source of food is actually good for business. However, until the playing field is level across the industry, as Gimbar put it, there will still be room for bad actors who are willing to undercut honest fishermen and businesses who are playing by the rules.
This is where the Obama administration’s new rules come in. The proposed rule only requires traceability for a select group of species, and only up to the first point of sale in the U.S., even though there’s plenty of evidence of seafood fraud occurring after fish enter the U.S. By extending that requirement to cover all seafood sold in the U.S., and requiring it to be traced from the boat to the dinner plate, we could help verify that all seafood is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled. And imagine what that would do for consumers, and for the seafood business. John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability at ProFish wholesalers in Washington DC put it this way:
“I heard recently that only 16 percent of Americans are comfortable buying seafood, taking it home and eating it, which is a travesty. You look at Europe and Asia, and there’s so much more fish being eaten in those countries . . . We want to open up the doors so people trust seafood, so they’re more comfortable taking it home and eating it, ordering it in restaurants. . . this traceable movement is a great step towards getting more Americans to eat more seafood.”
Seafood can be intimidating, but it has the potential to be an abundant, healthy, sustainable source of nourishment for generations to come. That will require not only proper stewardship of our ocean resources, but also establishing transparency and accountability, which in turn will inspire peace of mind among consumers. From all of the seafood traceability pioneers we spoke to, we heard the same thing: Traceability builds trust, and trust is good for business.
And this is one instance in which what’s good for business can potentially be good for the oceans.