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DNA barcoding needed to break fish black market

Half of the snappers sold in markets may actually be other types of fish. Image credit: ‘Maine Avenue Fish Market’ by Ellie Van Houtte is licenced under CC BY 2.0

General fish labels like snapper, sole and seabream take away the power to accurately assess stocks and then distort fishing quotas, but by identifying individual species we could prevent illegal catches ending up on our plates. 

When a type of fish becomes popular the resulting demand sees dozens of other species come under the same label. This approach disregards if some species are endangered or under a greater threat of overfishing.

‘There are 112 different species of snappers and a lot of countries would allow any of them to be called snapper on the label,’ said Dr Donna Cawthorn from the University of Salford in the UK and the leading researcher at SNAPTRACE, an EU-funded project looking to close these labelling loopholes.

The project is collecting DNA samples of snappers around the world while analysing customs data. So far, they have found that only around half of the snapper trade is entering into official statistics – meaning the other half could easily be different species sold as snappers.

‘Every country has its own labelling standards, it’s only the EU that requires (Member States to use) specific names on packages, so it leaves the door wide open for various species to be passed off as snappers,’ said Dr Cawthorn.

The SNAPTRACE project is promoting the idea of selling each species of fish under its own specific name and is investigating the routine use of DNA barcoding to enforce this approach. DNA barcoding works by using a short genetic sequence in an organism's DNA to identify it as belonging to a particular species. This barcoding method could allow merchants to use genetic markers to identify what fish they are actually buying.

‘At the moment we are doing the majority of the (DNA testing) work in laboratories, but technology is moving really fast and units are becoming available to do sequencing reactions in minutes,’ said Dr Cawthorn.

Horse meat

Market fraud surrounding mislabelled fish is similar in many ways to a scandal in 2013, when food labelled as beef was shown to contain horse meat.

It turns out that situation was actually uncovered by a DNA barcoding test on Irish fish. Professor Stefano Mariani, also from the University of Salford and SNAPTRACE project, was part of that fish fraud investigation and said it forced the Irish government to set up a food task force, which subsequently identified horse meat being sold as beef.

‘People remember the horse meat scandal, but they don’t remember the fish fraud. Perhaps it’s easier for the general public to see fish as food as opposed to wildlife.’

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 31.4 % of stocks are overfished and 58.1 % are fished to their maximum sustainable capacity. Without better labelling there is an increased risk that endangered species escape quota limitations and continue to be harvested.

‘A key step would be that the same care and caution in reporting the exports, imports and production statistics are taken in each country,’ said Prof. Mariani.

Unfortunately the laws are different around the world, meaning there is room for fishing vessels to unload at so-called ports of convenience, where lower standards mean there is less chance of being caught bringing in illegal fish.

‘People remember the horse meat scandal, but they don’t remember the fish fraud.’

Professor Stefano Mariani, University of Salford, UK

Ports

Estimates of illegal or unreported fishing range from 11 to 26 million tonnes of catch per year, according to researchers. That’s at least 15 % of the world’s total annual fisheries output.

According to Professor Cedric Ryngaert, from the faculty of law, economics and governance at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, the fact that our oceans are so vast means policing fishing vessels is most effective at ports.

‘The ship has to go somewhere to unload its catch, there you can check what’s happened and see if they have complied with regulations.’

He leads the EU-funded UNIJURIS project, which is exploring the issues that arise when countries apply their laws on an international stage to protect global values, such as legal and sustainable fisheries.

This follows a recent trend where states give their national laws international jurisdiction and punish foreign vessels involved in illegal fishing. If they dock in their ports they could face huge fines or be permanently banned from their waters.

Such actions have been driven by increased consumer demand for legal catches, as well as a need to protect the stability of the global market and food supplies. The US and the EU are the biggest markets for fish and the two biggest players enforcing these stringent requirements.

According to Prof. Ryngaert, for this approach to reduce illegal fishing there must be a unified global effort, otherwise we risk leaking the problem to ports with less stringent regulations or where corruption is rife.

‘We already settled the issue that ports have the right, and duty, to take efforts (against illegal fishing), but we want to know what are the limits of these states taking measures?’

Arron Honniball, a PhD candidate from Utrecht University who is working on UNIJURIS, explains that ‘some states are adopting measures that address illegal fishing out of fear that their market and port access will be cut. For small states that rely on access to the EU market they clearly want to adopt this type of regulation to ensure they are not identified as non-cooperating.’

That’s a positive step forward for sustainable fishing and it’s already seen countries like Sri Lanka and Guinea punished for not meeting EU standards.

‘This results in the blocking of market and port access of all vessels carrying fish or fish products harvested under that state’s flag until they are given a green card, which happens when they update their laws and implement long lasting measures,’ said Honniball.

The risk, however, is that richer countries with the resources to enforce higher standards can enact protectionist practices that favour their own fishing fleets.

Certain developing economies depend on established markets and denying them access could push their vessels to unload at ports of convenience, which could end up boosting the illegal fishing trade and even spark an international trade war.

Where the law meets its limit or encounters bottlenecks, consumers could help relieve the pressure – if they had labelling they could rely upon.

‘Consumers can invest in sustainably caught fish,’ advised Prof. Ryngaert. ‘The biggest advantage they have is labelling.’

Around 5 % of the world's oceans are now classified as marine protected areas. Some of these impose restrictions on fishing at certain times of the year or using particular methods, while others don't allow any fishing at all.

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The Issue

Under the EU’s General Food Law Regulation, the ability to trace the origin of food is fundamental.

Fishing and aquaculture in Europe must also be environmentally sustainable, according to the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.

Genetics is mentioned in these regulations as one way of achieving these goals.

More info