30 percent of seafood imported to U.S. is caught illegally, study says

WASHINGTON — That seafood on your dinner plate is starting to look a little fishy.

A new study that examined illegal and unreported marine harvests brought to the United States from around the globe says it maybe shouldn't be there at all. Up to 32 percent of imported wild shrimp, crab, salmon, pollock, tuna and other catch was poached.

Illegal fishing is a major concern of scientists because the world's oceans can barely sustain legal seafood harvests. Eighty-five percent of the world's commercial seafood grounds "are fished up to their biological limits or beyond," the study said.

Earlier studies have shown that illegal and underreported fishing comprises up to 31 percent of the world's catch, but this study is the first to examine how much of it slips pass the better-inspected ports of the United States.

"That was really a surprise to us," said Tony Pitcher, a professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia who helped write the study, "Estimates of illegal and unreported fish in seafood imports to the USA," published this month in the journal Marine Policy.

"We thought a well-governed country like the U.S., with tighter controls, would be better," Pitcher said. Inspectors in the United States, which imports 14 percent of the global total, are not required to ask for documentation that shows a bounty's origin.

U.S. inspectors are far more concerned with the freshness of seafood and its potential impact on human health. What gets by inspectors is valued in the study at $1.3 billion to $2.1 billion per year, a sum that only encourages more illegal and unreported fishing, Pitcher said.

"It's quite clear that most consumers don't have an idea what's coming into the supply," he said.

Americans ate about 2 million tons of seafood in 2011, second only to China. They spent more than $85 billion on seafood products — much of it harvested within the country — in stores, restaurants or elsewhere. Tuna, pollock, crab and cod are America's favorite wild-caught seafood.

Documenting where the fish were caught is lax, the study's authors said. Most wild-caught imports to the United States come from 10 countries: China, Thailand, Indonesia, Ecuador, Canada, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Mexico and Chile.

30 percent of seafood imported to U.S. is caught illegally, study says 04/20/14 [Last modified: Sunday, April 20, 2014 10:06pm]

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