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editorial | Illegal seafood

Fish need a paper trail

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LET THE conscientious seafood buyer beware. First came news, via a 2011 Globe investigation, that restaurants and markets were frequently misrepresenting the fish they sold to consumers. Now comes word that, even when labeled properly, imported seafood may not have been caught legally. A new study in the journal Marine Policy found that between 20 percent and 32 percent of wild-caught seafood imported to the United States came from illegal and unreported catches — violations of international rules meant to preserve the viability of endangered fisheries. The study, headed by fisheries researchers at the University of British Columbia, highlights the murkiness of the entire supply chain for seafood, which it called “one of the most complex and opaque of all natural commodities.” Only through building more traceability into that chain can consumers know what they’re eating.

The problem spans the globe: Illegal catches included tuna from Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam; Russian salmon and pollock processed in China; crabs from Indonesia and the Philippines; shrimp from Ecuador and Mexico; and octopus from India. America’s part in the opaque system is porous border management, under which officials inspect only about 2 percent of fish shipments — primarily for health and safety violations — and spare enforcement of the 1900 Lacey Act meant to prevent the trade of illegally procured fish, wildlife, and plants. In a telephone interview, study co-author Tony Pitcher said he was surprised at the results. “We thought it would be less than 10 percent. You have good laws, and have signed on to some high seas treaties. But they’re obviously not being used.” In its conclusions, the study suggests that a beefing up of federal inspections and catch documentation, such as demanding the use of barcodes to identify the supply chain of a particular fish, could help.

Tighter US scrutiny would be globally significant. The United States is the world’s second-leading consumer of seafood, after China. Fish consumption has plunged many fisheries into crisis, and Americans must take a lead role in reversing the damage.

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