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.
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
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.’
If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.
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.
Swarms of firefighting drones could one day be deployed to tackle hugely destructive megafires that are becoming increasingly frequent in the Mediterranean region because of climate change, arson and poor landscape management.
Global warming is a reality – but just how bad will it be? A study published in January 2018 claims to halve the uncertainty around how much our planet's temperature will change in response to rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, potentially giving governments more confidence to prepare for the future.
A lot of lip service is being paid to making scientific papers free to access but when it comes to action there is a lot of hypocrisy, according to Robert-Jan Smits, the EU's outgoing director-general for research, science and innovation. He has recently been appointed the EU's special envoy on open access, tasked with helping make all publicly funded research in Europe freely available by 2020.
There is a need for renewed political attention, says EU’s new special envoy.
Digital cannot replace personal experiences.
Cultural heritage destruction can be a war crime as sites form part of people's emotional landscape, says Dr van Ess.