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Something's Fishy About That Red Snapper

Preventing seafood fraud won’t be easy, but a new law has potential to stop fish poaching and laundering, which involves mislabeling fish in restaurants.

High-seas fish poaching is more than just a matter of sneaking marine life out of a restricted corner of the ocean; it’s an organized industrial crime that can strip coastal fishing grounds bare and deny even subsistence livelihoods to local fishermen. Foreign ships poaching in African waters, for example, have been a problem for years in Africa, east and west, and the crime fuels piracy, as well as illegal immigration.

“The high seas today are like the American Wild West of the 19th century,” said the Pew Environment Group in 2011, “only the bandits are huge factory fishing vessels, and there is no sheriff in town.”

A European Union regulation against “fish laundering” could help, though. And, in 2011, the EU and the U.S. jointly agreed to battle the problem. Marine conservationists hope the U.S. will pass similar bills pending in Congress.

Americans might associate fish laundering with tricks on a menu — a plate of cheap rockfish palmed off as pricey red snapper. A recent Boston Globe investigation found “widespread” mislabeling in local restaurants; and Oceana, an international conservation group, reports that the rate of red snapper fraud on U.S. menus hovers between 77 and 90 percent.

But fish can be laundered long before it reaches the kitchen. To dodge catch limits off Senegal, for example, a Spanish trawler on the high seas can “trans-ship” its harvest to a factory ship that mixes licit with illicit meat. Or, whole containers of fish can be mislabeled after a ship lands in a “port of convenience,” where corrupt dockworkers or inspection officials help disguise the cargo’s provenance. Preventing these practices, environmentalists say, is the only way to oversee the volume of seafood taken from troubled parts of the world.

The Jan-Feb 2012

This article appears in our Jan-Feb 2012 issue under the title "Fish: Poached and Laundered." To see a schedule of when more articles from this issue will appear on, please visit the
Jan-Feb 2012 magazine page.


It means keeping honest track of the fish. The EU’s new regulation imposes tight document checks for ships calling at European harbors, to give port inspectors an idea of where the ships have sailed. It also requires a European blacklist for vessels and nations that tolerate illegal fleets. Above all, it gives “port-state” powers to EU members: before 2010, a trawler owned by a Spanish firm could dodge Spanish law by flying a “flag of convenience” licensed from a far-off government — say, Belize — with looser fishing legislation. Now, that Spanish trawler also can be punished in Spain — that is, by the state where it comes to port.

“The regulation as a piece of law is potentially very good,” said Steve Trent, executive director of the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation. “It has most of the provisions that are needed to make a real difference in the real world.”

Trent argues that a few examples of solid enforcement would scare fishing firms into compliance. But after two years, he says, EU officials haven’t prosecuted a single high-profile case of fish laundering.

“We recently worked with the European Commission to facilitate seizure of around 4 million pounds of fish [in the Canary Islands] ... but for a number of reasons, it didn’t then move towards prosecuting a case,” he said. “We’ve got to make the risks involved in illegal fishing, and then laundering that fish onto the European marketplace, outweigh the potential benefit.”

The U.S., meanwhile, has a “fragmented and feeble” structure to prevent fraud, according to Oceana. “Although over 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported,” the group reports, “the FDA inspects only 2 percent of this imported seafood for health and safety risks, and a minuscule .001 percent for seafood fraud.”

One bill before the Senate, the Commercial Seafood Consumer Protection Act, would bring U.S. law closer to Europe’s by boosting inspection at American ports. It would also let Washington pressure foreign countries known to tolerate illegal vessels. A second bill, the International Fisheries Stewardship and Enforcement Act, would tighten U.S. port restrictions on known illegal vessels.

The goal, says Trent, is for everyone from port inspectors to shoppers to have a reasonable idea of what sort of fish is moving past their noses. “With transparency,” says Trent, “and with some understanding of what’s going on out at sea — where it really is a different world — you can have robust regulation, which can close the doors of the consumer market on illegal fishing.”

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