A Pillar of Seafood Security is Traceability (and its future isn’t bright)

Guest written by Jason Scorse, Director of the Center for the Blue Economy at Middlebury Institute of International Studies

The seafood sustainability movement has laudable aims: namely, developing certification schemes for an industry riddled with supply chain and labor problems. A majority of the world’s fish stocks are currently fished at unsustainable rates to the detriment of marine ecosystems. Moreover, the business is overrun with human security issues such as slavery. In order to achieve momentum for the seafood sustainability enterprise, the industry must work towards traceability.

Fish, unlike other of animal products like chicken and beef, are hard for customers to identify. How many consumers can differentiate a fillet sourced from a specific type of fish, across a wide variety of species? The answer is very few. The name game only gets more complicated considering the same species is called different things in different parts of the world. And, as food moves through the supply chain, finally arriving in markets or on restaurant tables, it’s nearly impossible to identify a product’s origin beyond the label it’s given.

In reality, unsavory seafood brokers routinely sell counterfeit products to capitalize on higher market prices. Unsustainable species are sold as sustainable ones, while lower value species are marked as higher value species. This fraudulent misrepresentation, which affects up to 50 percent of all seafood sold in the United States, undermines the very premise of sustainability.

The Obama Administration recognized this problem and, in cooperation with the Departments of State and Commerce, launched an ambitious traceability program in 2015, called the Presidential Task Force on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud. The goal of the task force was to prepare recommendations for the new administration to ensure that all seafood entering the U.S. meets verifiable traceability requirements in the not-too-distant future.

However, this week the Trump Administration announced its budget priorities, which call for increases in military spending, along with cuts to the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department. Combined with climate change denialism and hostility toward environmental conservation, it is likely that the traceability guidelines will be ignored by the new administration.

If not the Office of the President, who will step up to fill this regulatory gap? Since traceability is complex, expensive, and fraught with competing stakeholders who have different incentives and don’t always agree upon strict sustainability guidelines, the answer is unclear. Without tough punishment, including jail time and hefty fines for those who traffic in fraudulent fish, improved traceability will remain beyond reach. A strong and committed executive can lead the charge in advocating for such penalties, but Congress also has a role to play. Legislative action could bring attention to the issue, as was the case with the recently passed law on wildlife trafficking, and promote new regulations to the seafood industry.

A lack of traceability not only poses a significant threat to the sustainability of fisheries and the global seafood industry, but it also threatens U.S. national and global security. Illegal fishing directly or indirectly benefits criminal networks. Without traceability and enforcement frameworks, the international community is at risk for greater instability. Furthermore, as local livelihoods are decimated by unsustainable fishing practices, the probability that fishermen will turn to crime to provide for their families could increase.

The bottom line is that global seafood markets follow a complex supply chain that is often opaque and plagued with multiple layers of fraud and abuse. The end of executive efforts to ensure traceability and long-term sustainability — and the increased security and stability that accompanies it — only stands to perpetuate crime, corruption, and unsustainable fishing. Until the federal government places a premium on traceability, consumers should be aware that not all of the seafood marked as sustainable truly meets that criteria.

The views and opinions expressed on the Natural Security Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Stimson Center.