Seafood fraud made the news this week when MKG Provisions, a seafood company in Miami, was sentenced in a U.S. Federal Court for labeling farmed salmon from Chile as a “product of Scotland”. The company will be obliged to pay a USD 50 000 fine.
This case highlights the endemic challenge of falsely and mislabeled seafood. Between 25 and 70 percent of seafood products in Canada are “mislabeled due to counterfeiting somewhere along the supply chain”. We are not an aberration from the norm in this regard: on average, 30 percent of seafood products are mislabeled globally. Why so high? As fish markets have globalized so too have the supply chains for fish products, resulting in a “notoriously opaque” system in which weak governance provides a hospitable environment for seafood fraud.
Beyond being a consumer rights issue – if you buy salmon you probably want to know that you are receiving salmon – seafood mislabeling poses challenges for sustainability. An important piece of this puzzle is what’s called “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing” (IUU fishing, for short). IUU fishing is a global governance problem: weak governance systems in some countries, as well as fishing in largely ungoverned international waters, make it exceedingly difficult to regulate sustainable fish stocks.
A recent study estimated the amount of illegal and unreported seafood being produced in 10 top fish producing countries. The good news is that Canada had the lowest proportion of IUU fishing: under 7% of fish caught in Canada is estimated to be illegal or unreported, compared with upwards of one third of total catch in China, Thailand, and Indonesia. The bad news, of course, is that Canada imports a lot of seafood from countries with much worse records. So there is a good chance that the fish you eat is contributing to the depletion of global fish stocks (and maybe even slavery or forced labor).
Eco-labels with traceability standards offer a partial solution to this problem, although seafood mislabeling still happens under such schemes (but it happens a lot less). Of course, private regulation has its limits – accordingly, government-mandated traceability requirements will play an important role as well. For a good summary of traceability standards in the seafood industry, see this report. Finally, better tools are needed. DNA testing has generated research attention since it poses a potential solution to the deficiencies of current traceability best practices. For instance, the MSC published a report on the subject in March.
When purchasing sustainable products most people rely on eco-labels: images posted on packaging that indicate that the producer of that item has adhered to a given set of criteria on the environmental impact of production. Not all eco-labels are alike, however, so it is important to ensure that the one you go by uses third party certification and has rigorous standards.
When purchasing sustainable seafood there may be several different eco-labels available to you, but the one that is largest and most well-known is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC now accounts for about 10% of global wild caught seafood (as compared to aquaculture/farmed fish) but this proportion is often much higher in developed countries, where the demand for certified fish is higher. In Canada, for example, 67% of domestic wild catch seafood is MSC certified.
In addition to being the most widely used eco-label, MSC is also well-known for its rigorous standards (although it has been criticized for focusing too narrowly on the sustainability of fish stocks instead of the overall environmental impact of fisheries and the fish supply chain, as well as for having a process that is too burdensome for small fisheries and fisheries in developing countries). If you are looking for sustainably caught seafood, the MSC is probably your best bet: it is the most likely to actually be available in stores near you and has standards that are reasonably stringent and evaluated impartially, based on evidence.
The MSC is noteworthy today because it just released its annual report documenting the eco-label's fifteenth year since the first fishery was MSC certified. Some of the highlights from the annual report are included below.
The Highlights of MSC's Annual Report
UPTAKE: THE MSC CONTINUES TO GROW
- MSC certified 40 new fisheries -- which is pretty good when you consider that a total of 256 fisheries are MSC certified, in 36 countries. There are 34 500 businesses that sell MSC certified products (which came from those certified fisheries) to consumers in 97 countries.
- MSC added the first certified fisheries in China and India. Although most MSC certified fisheries exist in developing countries, the MSC emphasized the strides that it has taken to improve accessibility to developing country fisheries. A total of 19 developing country fisheries are certified, with a further 11 in assessment.
- IKEA committed to sell only MSC certified seafood in all of its stores globally. MSC has previously grown the eco-label by securing similar pledges, for example from Unilever and Walmart.
- For some species, MSC certification is now the norm: for example, nearly half of whitefish (i.e. cod, haddock, pollock) and just over half of wild-caught salmon is MSC certified.
CANADIAN FISHERIES ARE IMPROVING ON SUSTAINABILITY
- Lobster certification grew a lot this year, largely because key lobster fisheries in Canada became certified -- 97% of Canadian Atlantic lobster is now MSC certified!
- MSC also highlighted the strides that the fisheries of the North Atlantic and the Arctic have taken since the 1992 collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery in Newfoundland. Now these fisheries are "world leaders in sustainability and good management", according to MSC.
- Overall, 73% of Canadian fisheries (by value) are engaged in the MSC process.
MSC UPDATED ITS FISHERIES STANDARD THIS YEAR
- This year MSC completed its review process of the Fisheries Standard after two years of consultations with experts, NGOs and other actors.
- Based on the new Standard, the cumulative impacts that fisheries have on non-target species must be taken into account during fishery assessments. So, if a fishery that catches fish A is sustainable for fish A but creates adverse effects for the population of fish B, that is now something that is taken into account.
- The Standard introduces new measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems like cold water coral.
- There is now a clearer MSC policy against forced labor: companies that have been successfully prosecuted for forced labor violations cannot be MSC certified. This was a response to rising public concern about forced labour in the seafood industry, based on US government reporting and media attention on the issue.
AN MSC CONSUMER SURVEY FOUND ENCOURAGING RESULTS ON CONSUMER DEMAND FOR SUSTAINABLE SEAFOOD
- MSC surveyed 9000 seafood buyers from 15 countries across Europe, Asia, Australasia and North America.
- 41% of respondents look for sustainably sourced fish products, up from 36% in 2010.
- 33% recognize the MSC label, up from 25% in 2010.
MSC WANTS YOU TO TAKE #FISHFACE SELFIES
Well, they did, anyway. MSC was part of a campaign led by the World Wildlife Fund UK to celebrate Earth Hour 2015 through #fishface selfies. A brief search of the hashtag now suggests that it is no longer primarily associated with environmental solidarity, however....
MSC GETS MOST OF ITS MONEY FROM LICENSING THE LOGO AND SPENDS MOST OF ITS MONEY ON POLICY, EDUCATION, AND OUTREACH
- 75% of MSC revenue came from licensing the eco-label, while most of the rest emanated from donations
- Expenditures were split in roughly even proportion between three activities: policy and maintaining the Standard; education and awareness; and fisheries servicing and outreach.
Contrary to the popular idiom there may not in fact be plenty of fish in the sea. Indeed, overfishing is threatening fish stocks worldwide. Meanwhile, industrial fishing can cause wider ecological damage and forced labour on fishing vessels is an endemic challenge. This week, I discuss two key ethical issues to do with the seafood industry.
But first, here are some basic facts about the fishing and seafood industry:
The seafood industry is large, and growing, as humans are eating more fish each year. You might be surprised to learn that per capita annual fish consumption has increased from 9.9kg in the 1960s to 19.2kg in 2012. And the average Canadian eats slightly more than this, at 23.1kg.In addition to capturing spectacular worldwide demand, fish is a global industry because it is a highly traded commodity: approximately 200 countries export fish and fishery products.
This is how the supply chain for fishing typically works:
- Fish and shellfish (A) living in open waters or (B) raised via aquaculture in ponds, tanks or bounded coastal waters are harvested.
- They are packed and transported to processing facilities.
- Processors convert the fish to consumer products (i.e. canned, frozen, filets, smoked). In some cases processing takes multiple steps while in other fish are transported live.
- Wholesalers receive the processed or unprocessed fish and distribute the product to retailers and restaurants.
- You buy/eat it.
There are two core ethical issues that you might wish to consider when purchasing seafood – sustainability and human rights – both of which are linked to the problem of illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. These are complicated topics, but I have tried to explain the gist in the sections below.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of sustainability with regards to seafood; 85% of global fish stocks overfished. “Overfishing” refers to a situation when more fish are caught than can be replaced through natural reproduction. It has several causes, including rising demand (we are eating more fish), new technology (makes catching lots of fish easier), and governance gaps (IUU fishing). A study of catch data published in the journal Science in 2006 predicted that if fishing rates continue at the same rate, all the world's fisheries will have collapsed by 2048. The problem of overfishing is so bad that some have argued for giving the oceans their own seat at the United Nations.
The global ocean plays a central role in supporting life on Earth. Oceans cover 3/4 of the planet and contain 80% of all life. Overfishing affects the entire ocean ecosystem. For example, the population of large predatory fish has dropped by an estimated 90% since the industrialization of fisheries in the 1950s.
Overfishing is bad for workers as well as the environment: because fish stocks have been declining, vessels must take longer and longer voyages to find fish, meaning that workers are stuck aboard for long periods of time; declining stocks also make fish processing an increasingly precarious job. You might recall the collapse of the Newfoundland Grand Banks cod fishery in the 1990s: this put between 50 000 and 40 000 people out of work. Fishing is central to the livelihood and food security of an estimated 200 million people. Sustainable fishing matters for the environment, for animals, and for people.
In addition to overfishing, sustainability also concerns the broader environmental impact of fishing processes. For example, if gear is lost during the fishing process or if fishing entails destructive processes, such as the use of dynamite and poisons, this can cause more widespread ecosystem damage. Additionally, some farming processes can cause harm through the spread of farm waste, chemicals, disease and parasites.
Thailand is the third largest exporter of seafood in the world (the country’s seafood industry is worth $7.3 billion USD annually); it is also notorious for crewing fishing boats with slaves trafficked from Burma and Cambodia. A form of bonded labour is typical: in this scenario, trafficked fishermen are sold to fishing boat owners and then must work to pay off a given price (the ka hua). In addition to being enslaved, workers on such ships are exposed to overwork, violence, torture, and even executions at sea. Each year the U.S. State Department produces its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. In 2014, that report downgraded Thailand to a Tier 3 ranking due to a lack of improvements. The report revealed that the Thai government ignored instances of human trafficking and even sought to punish those attempting to bring these abuses to light.
Thailand is often used as an example of human trafficking in the fishing industry because of the size of its fishing industry and inaction on the part of its government (regulation of the Thai fishing industry is woefully inadequate).
Nonetheless, this is a problem that exists worldwide. While Southeast Asia is the biggest problem region for slavery on fishing vessels, this is a global phenomenon. Human trafficking is endemic in the fishing industry. Some fishing operations in at least 51 countries crew their ships with slave labour.
To give you an idea of the scope of the human trafficking problem in the fishing industry, I created a table that shows how each of the 10 biggest fish exporting countries (as of 2010) were rated in the 2015 TIP report. Tier 1 countries are those that comply fully with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA), while Tiers 2, 2 Watch List, and 3 are all for out of compliance countries but vary according to the level of effort that a country is putting into stopping human trafficking. As you can see, three of the top 5 fish exporting countries does not comply with the TVPA.
Canadian fish and seafood imports generally match the global trend. The top five countries of origin for our fish and seafood imports are: the U.S. (36.7%), Thailand (14.9%), China (14.6%), Chile (5.1%) and Vietnam (4.6%).
The problem of forced labour on fishing vessels is extremely difficult to tackle, as it is linked to illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing (IUU fishing also goes hand in hand with overfishing).
IUU fishing is a huge problem: it is estimated that IUU fishing accounts for 30% of all fishing activity worldwide. Structural loopholes in international maritime law, specifically on the high seas, allow for IUU fishing to proliferate. Outside of a country’s exclusive economic zone (on the “high seas”, which cover 64% of the surface area of the ocean) ships are governed by the laws of the country in which that vessel is registered (the “flag country”). Often, fishing vessels are registered in countries with no meaningful link to their operations. IUU fishing occurs in primarily on the high seas and poorly regulated national waters. For example, along the coastline of sub-Saharan Africa forced labour is a problem on European and Asian fishing vessels in poorly regulated waters.
IUU fishing is a big problem, one that drives overfishing and labour abuses on fishing vessels. As such, it is worth considering how you can avoid being complicit in these ethical challenges. Next week, I’ll explain seafood eco-labeling and offer some practical advice for you when shopping for fish.