Seafood Industry Fights Back Against Obama's Fish Fraud Laws

Last month, in an effort to enhance transparency for consumers, the Obama administration announced rules that would require seafood importers to be able to trace the origin of each and every fish sold in the US.

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Jan 12 2017, 8:00pm

Photo via Flickr user rsmith11235

Even your humble local sushi joint will (hopefully) offer a dizzying array of seafood, from fluke to lobster to sea urchin. But chances are high that your sashimi isn't what it seems: According to one report a couple years back from the ocean advocacy group Oceana, as much as 74 percent of fish sold at sushi spots in the US is fraudulent. Per that report, 92 percent of what's sold as "red snapper" and 71 percent of what's sold as "tuna" are actually imposter species of fish.

Seafood fraud is nothing new, and another Oceana report found that overall, 20 percent of all types of seafood sold nationally was mislabeled. Often, endangered fish of dubious origin can be passed off as more sustainable types of fish.

Last month, in an effort to enhance transparency for consumers and allow traceability of fish coming to US shores from foreign waters—where shady international fishing operators often use illegal methods to haul in catch en masse—the Obama administration announced rules that would require seafood importers to be able to trace the origin of each and every fish sold in the US back to an individual boat or fish farm.

Now, however, fishing industry players are fighting back, and have sued the government for placing what they say is an onerous and expensive burden on importers who already follow the rules.

READ MORE: The Feds Are Finally Doing Something About America's Serious Seafood Fraud Problem

The rule, which would go into effect on January 1 of 2018, requires importers to keep track of sourcing information for 13 priority species including tuna, swordfish, cod, and other species that are often mislabeled and overharvested. Importers would need to specify when and where a fish was caught, and would have to hold onto the data for two years. A new Seafood Import Monitoring Program within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would oversee the program.

When the program was announced, Kathryn Sullivan, a NOAA Administrator said, "As a global leader in sustainable fisheries management and seafood consumption, the US has a responsibility to combat illegal practices that undermine the sustainability of our shared ocean resources. We designed this program to further ensure that imported seafood is legally harvested and truthfully represented, with minimal burden to our partners."

READ MORE: Why You Don't Realize That You're Probably Eating Endangered Fish

But the lawsuit filed by the National Fisheries Institute and a number of seafood companies and industry players says that keeping track of all that information would be incredibly expensive, costing "potentially hundreds of millions" and is unfair to responsible importers who already follow the law. The NFI says that many responsible importers conduct DNA testing at the border to ensure fish aren't mislabeled and contests that most fish fraid occurs after it passes customs.

The NFI told MUNCHIES that it has been extremely supportive of the crackdown on Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported (IUU) fishing, but that "the rule imposes excessive data collection requirements on companies and countries that are already doing the right thing in addressing IUU fishing. Rather than using the myriad of laws already on the books to aggressively target and address IUU fishing, this rule suggests massive and expensive data collection is somehow the answer… It is a classic example of guilty until proven innocent." The NFI would like to see the rule vacated.

Oceana's senior campaign director Beth Lowell described the lawsuit as "unfortunate" and told MUNCHIES that "The Seafood Import Monitoring Program is a groundbreaking step towards more transparency and traceability in the seafood supply chain. For the first time ever, some imported seafood will now be held to the same standards as domestically caught fish, helping to level the playing field for American fishermen and reducing the risk facing US consumers."

With the program's January 2018 launch on the horizon, the fight over imported fish will continue in the courts. In the abstract, it does indeed seem daunting, having to keep track of every fish pulled from the sea—perhaps something to consider as you down a three-roll special at your desk lunch.