Seafood Market Saturated With Illegal Fish, Especially In Chinese Imports, Study Says

By Ben Wolford on April 23, 2014 4:05 PM EDT

Between a fifth and a third of edible seafood imported to the United States is caught illegally. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Between a fifth and a third of edible seafood imported to the United States is caught illegally. (Photo: Shutterstock)

If you've ever eaten seafood, there's a decent chance you've contributed to the global ecological menace of overfishing.

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In a major new study to quantify the problem of illegal and unreported fishing, a team of scientists in the United States and Canada reported this week that between 20 and 32 percent of wild-caught seafood imported to the U.S. is illegal. That means it was caught without the authority of some regulatory body to ensure that marine animal populations are sustainable. "Eighty-five percent of all commercial stocks are now fished up to their biological limits or beyond," the authors wrote in the journal Marine Policy.

The findings suggest that safeguards put in place by the international community are not working. There's even a new word for violations of the United Nations framework: fishery crime. The worst part of all this may be that consumers have no way of knowing whether the fish they're eating is illegal or even where it came from. It could be from Chinese waters, Indonesia, or even, disturbingly, domestic catch exported to China and then re-imported to the United States.

"It's quite clear that most consumers don't have an idea what's coming into the supply," co-author Tony J. Pitcher told The Washington Post. He said this is the first study to estimate how much of the world's illegal catch enters the U.S. unnoticed by federal inspectors. "We thought a well-governed country like the U.S., with tighter controls, would be better," he told the newspaper.

The study did not look at unregulated fishing, fishing by U.S. vessels, or imports of sea animals for other uses, like cat food or industrial products. Otherwise, the percentage could be much higher. Americans consume more seafood — about 15 lbs. per year — than any country but China, and import about 90 percent of it, according to the study. Most of our seafood imports come from, in order: China, Thailand, Indonesia, Ecuador, and Canada.

Illegal fishing is pervasive in these countries. As much as 45 percent of the pollock imports from China are illegal or unreported. As much as 40 percent of tuna imports from Thailand, America's main provider of canned tuna, is illegal or unreported. "Of the 30 country-product combinations investigated for the study, tuna from Thailand had the highest estimated volume of illegal and unreported sourced fish," the authors wrote.

What's to be done? For consumers, there's really nothing you can do except eat local or don't eat seafood. "Without routine transparency of fishing practices and traceability of seafood products, it is nearly impossible for concerned consumers or responsible businesses to avoid commerce in illegal products," according to the study. The only solution it seems is policy reform. The United States is one of the biggest importers and a major market for the sale of seafood, valued at about $16.5 billion. The authors recommend greater enforcement of existing laws and added measures to check for chain-of-supply documentation at U.S. ports. If the U.S. did something about it, the impact would likely ripple through the industry. 

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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