The National Marine Fisheries Service is proposing a new program meant to improve record keeping about seafood imported to the United States.
In early February, the agency announced a new traceability plan that's meant to help combat illegal fishing and seafood fraud. NMFS Director of Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspections John Henderschedt said the federal government wants a better record of who is catching seafood and where it's landed before it shows up in U.S. stores.
The proposed program would apply to about 13 types of fish, including Pacific cod, red king crab, shrimp, sea cucumber and others. Importers would be required to track where it was caught, who caught it, the type of gear that was used and where it was landed.
"In instances where the data is absent, or instances where there are other issues with the quality or the completeness of the data, we would then move to an investigation stage," Henderschedt said. "As this international trade data system develops and once we've been able to identify what the key chain of custody data elements are, we anticipate establishing additional reporting elements associated with the chain of custody, but I'll reiterate that for now, those are a record-keeping requirement."
Henderschedt said that NMFS already has that information for domestic seafood, so fishermen and processors here won't be asked to do anything differently. But it would add information that isn't tracked right now for international imports.
"We do not have laws that allow us to gather the data to ensure that we can carefully examine the legality of catch and the chain of custody of that product as it makes its way to the U.S.," he said.
For now, consumers won't have the new information about imported seafood: It's just a record the importer must keep, not data that has to be put on packaging.
While those in the domestic industry said they appreciate the effort to crack down on seafood fraud, which comes at a cost to domestic producers, Pacific Seafood Processors Association President Glenn Reed said some questions remain about the exact structure.
"We recognize that elimination of fraud benefits all of us in the seafood industry, so we support efforts to do so. We would just prefer that they targeted the problems," he said.
Reed said the requirement to track who caught fish is one that could be problematic if it were applied domestically, noting that in many of Alaska's salmon fisheries, fish are delivered to tenders by several vessels, and they'd need to keep it separated down to the vessel level.
"You can define the area, you can define the vessels that deliver to the tender, you can define the volume, but it doesn't always get down to the exact vessel," Reed said.
Although Reed said he sees the global problem, he wants to be sure that any solution acknowledges differences between fisheries and leaves room for what is already working.
"Here … we gave a process and a system and we're confident in it," Reed said.
The new rule won't go into effect until late 2016, at the earliest. The agency is planning a comment period this spring, and hoping to publish a final rule in the fall. Next winter, Henderschedt said a committee will review the program and look at other data needs and expanding it to more species.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.