Conservation & Science

Seafood traceability: A different kind of fish tracking

You may have heard of electronic tagging — technology that lets scientists track the movement of animals. Experts at Monterey Bay Aquarium and our partner institutions have used electronic tags to track sea otters along the California coast, as well as white sharks and bluefin tunas on their meandering marine migrations.

Now we’re cheering another kind of fish tracking: the kind that happens after they’re caught. Following the movement of seafood through the supply chain, a practice known as traceability, is key to ensuring fish products sold in the U.S. are sustainable and legal.

The Obama Administration just released a proposed rule that details how a traceability system may work to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. It would also help reduce seafood fraud, which happens when consumers are misled about the identity or source of the seafood products they buy.

The Coast Guard Cutter Rush escorts suspected IUU vessel. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

In 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama got the ball rolling on a federal effort to fight IUU fishing on a global scale. The newly announced seafood traceability program would make it easier for regulators to electronically track seafood coming into the United States — and keep illegal fish products out.

Margaret Spring, the Aquarium’s Vice President of Conservation & Science and Chief Conservation Officer, welcomed the release of the proposed rule.

“IUU fishing threatens ocean health and food security, and harms coastal economies and communities,” she said. “If designed correctly, the new traceability program could create needed transparency within the complex international seafood supply chain, reduce the risk of illegal products entering U.S. commerce and advance the sustainable seafood movement.”

A 2011 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization assessment found that 25 percent of 600 fish stocks monitored worldwide are overexploited, which can lead to population collapse. Another 52 percent are “fully exploited,” meaning any increase in fishing pressure could reduce their numbers to unsustainable levels.

These numbers matter as nations work together to conserve marine life in international waters. IUU fishing undermines those cooperative efforts, threatening the long-term sustainability of commercially important fisheries like crab, tuna and shrimp. One estimate puts the cost of IUU fishing to legitimate fishing fleets and to governments at $10 billion to $23.5 billion per year.

Click here to read Margaret’s full statement about the proposed rule.

And for some big-picture inspiration about why it matters:

Featured photo: Traceability will give consumers more confidence that the fish they’re buying was legally harvested. Photo courtesy NOAA Fisheries.

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