Before landing at your local seafood counter, a salmon caught in Alaska may have traveled 4,000 miles to a processing plant in China and changed hands dozens of times on its journey. Seafood supply chains are often complex and opaque, making it easy for illegally caught or mislabeled fish to sneak onto a consumer’s plate. But pioneering seafood businesses in North America and beyond are implementing boat-to-plate traceability for their products — and finding that it’s good for both their customers and their bottom lines.
Traceability allows a growing number of retailers and wholesalers to know exactly where their seafood comes from and who caught it. Electronic QR codes, physical tags and other tools help in that effort. Though the U.S. is second only to China and Indonesia in the amount of wild fish we catch by weight, over 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported. With an estimated 20 to 32 percent of all imported fish caught illegally, traceability offers one option to tell good from bad when it comes to seafood.
A new report from Oceana highlights testimonials from businesses including fishermen, wholesalers, retailers and restaurateurs about the feasibility of implementing such tracing technology. “People are interested in where their food’s coming from,” said Jeremy Sewell, Chef at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston. “It’s not a trend; it’s just an evolution of eating in America.”
Businesses are able to justify higher prices with compelling stories. “Once a customer sees the amount of work that goes into a product, they are willing to pay more for it,” said Steve Vilnit, director of fisheries marketing at Maryland-based seafood company J.J. McDonnell. “Instead of being just another commodity item, [the fish] is now something they can hold up on a pedestal.”
Large grocery retailers, like Wegmans and Whole Foods, have responded to their customers’ requests by only sourcing traceable seafood. And according to David Wagner, director of seafood merchandising at Wegmans, customers don’t just want to know where their seafood comes from, they demand to know.
Full-chain traceability would help buyers know that they’re getting what they pay for — and that their seafood is less likely to come with a side of environmental issues or human rights abuses. Last year, for instance, an Oceana report found that up to 48 percent of Maryland blue crab samples were actually swimming crab taken from over-harvested, poorly regulated fisheries in Asia. And a 2015 investigative report by the Associated Press revealed that major American grocery stores and restaurant chains were unknowingly selling shrimp processed by slaves in Thailand.
“I don’t want to be [assisting] in human trafficking and I don’t want to be assisting people who are overharvesting, or harvesting fish in the wrong areas,” said MJ Gimbar, chief fishmonger at Black Restaurant Group in Washington, DC. “I think traceability helps me as a buyer and it also helps the customer.”
In February, the U.S. government proposed new requirements for seafood traceability. However, these rules only apply to 13 “at-risk” species or species groups, and do not extend traceability beyond the first point of entry into the U.S. market. With over 1,800 species of seafood known or thought to be sold in the United States, this leaves the majority of American seafood unguarded.
Oceana works to ensure that all seafood sold in the United States is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled. Learn more about our efforts to combat seafood fraud, or read traceability success stories from fishers, wholesalers and restaurateurs.