Traceability in seafood chain about money, not just ethics

PORTLAND, Maine — A coalition of environmentalists and seafood industry professionals is campaigning to make the case that traceability in the seafood industry is about success in the marketplace as much as it’s about ethics.

Ocean conservation group Oceana, based in Washington, D.C., has assembled the contingent of fishermen, processors, wholesalers and others to make the case that customers will pay a premium for verifiable seafood. They seek to link customers with the backstory of the product, such as where the fish was caught, whether it was sustainably harvested and when it was brought ashore.

The group includes representatives from more than a dozen businesses, including Virginia oyster farmers, a Boston seafood distributor and the fishmonger for a D.C. restaurant group. It is making its case as federal regulators consider tightening seafood importation standards.

Oceana reported in a 2013 study that illegal fishing causes more than $10 billion in global losses every year. But the organization said its latest effort is about illustrating the market potential for traceable seafood products that can sell a story along with the meal.

Steve Vilnit, marketing director for Maryland-based seafood wholesaler J.J. McDonnell, said his employer is participating in Oceana’s effort — and that business has grown in the eight years since the company started providing restaurants with more information about the backstory of their fish.

“I think what we’re seeing is the chefs caring more about where their products come from,” Vilnit said. “We’re seeing more and more restaurants that won’t buy product unless you tell them where the product was harvested, and with what kind of gear.”

Tejas Bhatt, director of the Global Food Traceability Center at the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists, said traceability can add 5 to 25 percent to the price point of a seafood product.

But traceability also comes at a cost. Providing the story of the catch means disentangling the seafood supply chain, which involves communicating with harvesters, shippers, wholesalers and retailers on the chain of custody. Buyers might also require some kind of independent third-party certification program.

Bhatt said selling seafood companies on traceable seafood means changing transparency “from a responsibility issue to a value-added issue.”

The supply chains of seafood importers have been under scrutiny since a series of media and human rights reports found Southeast Asian fishermen and shrimp processers were abused and enslaved. An expose by The Associated Press last year found that Thai companies ship seafood to the U.S. that was caught and processed by trapped and enslaved workers.

Federal authorities are also considering new rules designed to stop illegal, untraceable fishing imports that they say threaten the domestic seafood industry. The Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud released a plan to improve transparency in the seafood industry about a year ago.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said proposed changes would create a new system to collect data about the catch, trip ashore and chain of custody of fish and fish products imported into the U.S. NOAA is accepting public comments on proposed new rules about seafood traceability until April 5.

Oceana released a report touting the work of its group earlier this month at the Seafood Expo North America in Boston, a high-profile trade meeting. Beth Lowell, Oceana’s seafood fraud director, said she hopes the group’s work puts pressure on the government to tighten the rules about the seafood supply chain.

“We timed this report to help show the government that people are doing it and having success with it,” she said. “We’re hoping to show there’s value in doing this, and it makes sense to do this for all species and extend traceability through the whole supply chain.”

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