In a perfect world, we’d all sustainably subsist on sprouts and insect protein that’s been processed into unthreatening little cubes. But this is far from a perfect world. Here, we eat flatulent ruminants that are helping to obliterate the ozone layer and trawling our garbage-filled waters into extinction.
As such, it’s not exactly news that we’ve overfished our oceans to far beyond their limits, as those little color-coded threat-level stickers at Whole Foods remind us like some kind of maritime Homeland Security Advisory System. But an ungodly amount of that fish is considered IUU: illegal, unreported, and unregulated. That means your tuna sandwich, your yellowfin crudo, and your prawn paella, too.
Richard Coniff at Yale Environment 360 writes that the IUU, or pirate seafood trade, is “as problematic as trafficking in elephant tusks, rhino horns, and tiger bones.” That’s no joke. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has estimated that 90 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, and a recent study published in Marine Policy found that nearly a third of that is of shady provenance.
Thailand is by far one of the biggest offenders: Up to 40 percent of the tuna it imports to the US is illegal or unreported. China’s no better, with 70 percent of its salmon imports and 45 percent of its pollock imports deemed IUU. The study also lists Indonesia, Ecuador, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Mexico, Chile, and even Canada in its top ten culprits.
You can be that asshole who demands to see proof of the country of origin and documentation of a catch’s legality, or you can develop a relationship with a local supplier who knows exactly where their fish comes from.
The problem has less to do with unscrupulous fishermen competing for dwindling catches in overfished waters than it does the vagaries of the complex global seafood supply chain. There can be dozens of intermediaries between small-scale or commercial fishing operations and the consumer’s plate, with brokers and traders and wholesalers all acting as middlemen. Because of a lack of monitoring and accountability at almost every stop along the way, illegally caught fish invariably winds up mixed in with legal catches as it moves through one or more intermediary countries.
This is the business of illegal fish laundering, and it’s worth up to $23.5 billion annually.
It’s the reason that up to a third of the fish served in restaurants and sold in grocery stores in this country are mislabeled, as nonprofit marine conservation group Oceana recently found. It’s not the fault of your itamae; the catches get incorrectly labeled when they’re jumbled up somewhere along the labyrinth of the supply chain. That complicates things for even the ethically minded consumers who base their purchases off of those colored sustainability ratings by the Marine Stewardship Council and the like.
Even our fish eat illegal fish. Many farmed shrimp in Thailand are raised on fish meal made of so-called “trash fish” that are often caught in protected waters and processed by Burmese migrant workers, who aren’t exactly legal themselves. Crooked labor practices add yet another layer to this terrine of marine inequity: Major tuna producers, including Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee, clean their fish in Thailand, where they’ve been accused of employing child labor.
Even our fish eat illegal fish.
The European Commission recently took a hard-line stance on IUU fishing by banning all seafood from Belize, Guinea, and Cambodia from entering the European Union, even though those small countries only represent a dent in all of the illegal catches exported to the EU. The Commission argued, however, that Belize and Cambodia aren’t doing enough to stop vessels from other countries from flying their flags as “flags of convenience” while fishing illegally in other parts of the world.
The United States hasn’t gone as far as a ban, but the Senate did approve in April four treaties designed to help American fishermen who are hurt by illegal fishing practices, which drive down their prices. The treaties intend to tighten access to ports, beef up inspections, and limit fishing in certain habitat areas.
To opt out of this cycle, consumers basically have two options: stop eating fish, or find out exactly where a given fish comes from. Stickers don’t mean anything if only a DNA test can identify a mislabeled fish. You can be that asshole who demands to see proof of the country of origin and documentation of a catch’s legality, or you can develop a relationship with a local supplier who knows exactly where their fish comes from.
Why would you want to eat a fish caught 8,000 miles away anyway?