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Track seafood supply to eliminate fraud [Commentary]

At the State Department's "Our Ocean" conference last week, President Barack Obama announced new plans to tackle seafood fraud and illegal fishing. Increased transparency and traceability of the seafood supply chain is a critical next step in sustaining fisheries management progress in the U.S. and abroad. Failure to fully address these problems will continue to undercut the progress that the U.S. and other nations have made to end overfishing and rebuild depleted fish stocks.

According to a new study of the top U.S. seafood imports, an estimated 20 to 32 percent of the wild-caught seafood crossing our borders was found to have originated from illegal sources. Other recent research has found that up to 33 percent of seafood samples tested in the U.S. were mislabeled, substituting one species of fish for another. The inability to distinguish between legally and illegally caught fish undermines progress being made both in the U.S. and abroad, puts law-abiding fishermen and consumers at great disadvantage in the marketplace, is a key driver of global overfishing and jeopardizes the health of marine ecosystems.

Fortunately, there are solutions. Together, our government agencies can work to remedy this problem. Tracking where, when and how our seafood was caught and ensuring this basic information follows the fish through each step of the supply chain helps eliminate seafood fraud and the pirate fishing it can disguise. This "boat to plate" traceability will hold all members of the seafood industry to the same standard, and coupled with better enforcement and import controls, will help discourage illegal activity. With traceability, consumers have more information about where their fish came from, honest fishermen and businesses are not undercut by unfair competition, and we close our markets to seafood products from pirate fishing, which threatens the long-term stability of ocean ecosystems.

We applaud the president's announcement and look forward to working closely with the administration to help address this problem. It is now the official policy of the United States to combat illegal fishing and seafood fraud to ensure that all seafood is legally caught and accurately labeled. The President's efforts include establishing a task force that will engage stakeholders, federal agencies and other experts to develop recommendations.

This interactive stakeholder process should build upon the best practices in the seafood industry as well as existing requirements that U.S. fishermen already follow. Industry advances, such as existing traceability programs like Gulf Seafood Trace and Gulf Wild in the Gulf of Mexico and the Maryland-based True Blue program for blue crabs, can inform this process to help devise rules that provide consumers with more information about the seafood they purchase while also verifying the product in the supply chain. We also hope this process will be informed by efforts in the European Union and other regions that have had success in combating pirate fishing.

There is already a wealth of information, both in the U.S. and abroad, about how to make traceability successful, closing our markets to illegally caught fish and breaking the unintended link between U.S. dollars and pirate fishing. As one of the largest importers of wild-caught seafood, the U.S. has a responsibility to end financial incentives for pirate fishermen by shutting our borders to illegally caught seafood and keeping illegal product out of our markets. Seafood traceability is a win-win for consumers, honest fishermen and businesses and our oceans.

The time to act is now. The outcomes of the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud should level the playing field for domestic fishermen, ensure that imports are held to the same standards and provide consumers with more information about their seafood. All seafood sold in the U.S. needs to be safe, legally caught and honestly labeled, and this initiative is the first step to making this a reality.

Eric Schwaab is chief conservation officer at National Aquarium and former head of the National Marine Fisheries Service at NOAA, and Michael Hirshfield is chief scientist and strategy officer at Oceana. Their emails are Eschwaab@aqua.org and mhirshfield@oceana.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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