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Coastal lawmakers call for ‘bait-to-table’ labeling for ocean fish

Representative Blake Farenthold, R-TX, has reintroduced a bill intended to cut down on seafood fraud and protect American fishermen. He says his Protecting Honest Fishermen Act would level the playing field for Americans who play by the rules and have to compete with foreign fishing operations that mislabel products.

Farenthold was joined in the introduction by Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-MS, and Alan Lowenthal, D-CA. All three representatives are from congressional districts fronting on salt water either on the Gulf of Mexico or on the Pacific coast.

House Resolution 3108 would require all seafood sold in the United States to be traced from bait to table. Currently, American fishing businesses already have to provide this information, but foreign seafood suppliers are not subject to the same regulations.

“It’s important to level the playing field and protect the hardworking men and women in the seafood industry,” said Farenthold in a statement about the legislation. “American fishermen shouldn’t be at a disadvantage to foreign fishermen especially here in the United States.”

This legislation will improve systems for seafood safety, legality, traceability, and consumer information, he said.

According to the conservation group Oceana, the new bill builds on the Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which requires selected seafood at risk of illegal fishing and seafood fraud to provide additional information as a condition of import. It also requires that seafood be traced from the fishing vessel to the U.S. border.

The Protecting Honest Fishermen Act of 2017 would expand on the monitoring program by:

  • Including all species sold in the U.S.;
  • Requiring full-chain traceability for seafood with more information for consumers, including the kind of fish, how and where it was caught, whether it was wild-caught or farm-raised, and whether it underwent any transformation along the way;
  • Authorizes officials to refuse seafood imports found in violation; and
  • Tracking perpetrators of seafood fraud.

The bipartisan bill “takes the guesswork out of purchasing fish,” according to Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana. She says the bill will help ensure seafood is “honestly labeled” while leveling the playing field for U.S. fishing businesses that are already required to collect and report all this information.

“Without full-chain traceability for all U.S. seafood, consumers will continue to be cheated, hardworking fishermen will continue to be undercut, and the long-term productively of our oceans will continue to be in jeopardy,” Lowell said in a news release.

Because of the huge volumes of imports and limited staffing at the Food and Drug Administration, less than 2 percent of fish imported to the U.S. is inspected.

The U.S. currently imports 90 percent of its seafood and less than 2 percent is inspected at the border. Virtually none is inspected specifically for fraud. New requirements for some imports of high risk illegal fishing and seafood fraud under the Seafood Import Monitoring Program are scheduled to go into effect in January 2018.

Farenthold said American fishing businesses that comply with federal regulations are at a disadvantages to foreign fishermen who do not have to follow the same rules.

Oceana has been documenting seafood fraud in the U.S. since 2001. It found that on average, one-third of the fish, shrimp, crab cakes and salmon sold at retail in the U.S. was mislabeled. The group’s findings suggest for one out of every three purchases, consumers are paying premium prices for less desirable or less expensive species. In September 2016 Oceana reported on a study of 25,000 samples of seafood worldwide where one in five were mislabeled across all sectors: retail, wholesale, distribution, import/export, packaging/processing and landing.

That study also reported on European Union crackdowns on illegal fishing to combat fish fraud. It showed how catch documentation, traceability and consumer labeling are feasible tools for reducing seafood fraud.Oceana also has survey research showing 83 percent of Americans support new requirements to eliminate seafood fraud in the U.S.

According to Oceana, seafood fraud  includes threatened species being sold as more sustainable products, expensive varieties being replaced with cheaper alternatives, and fish that can cause illness being sold in place of those safer to eat.

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