Fish and fish products are among the world’s most highly traded food commodities, valued at roughly US$150 billion annually. Unfortunately, not all products are caught within the law: Illegal and unreported fishing accounts for up to $23.5 billion worth of seafood a year, according to one study—or 1 in 5 wild-caught ocean fish—making it critical that all players in the supply chain work to ensure the legitimacy of the seafood they buy and sell.
The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work to combat illegal fishing has included collaborating with international seafood brands, retailers, and processors. We’re now engaging with two sectors often overlooked by those working to eliminate the market for illegally caught fish: the fish-meal and fish oil (marine ingredients) and surimi (fish paste) processing industries.
Fish-meal comes from three sources: small pelagic (open-ocean) fish that are deliberately caught, non-targeted species caught when fishing for other species known as bycatch), or by-products generated during seafood processing in industry sectors such as surimi. In each case, the fish are landed and taken to processing factories, where they are dried and ground. The fish-meal and other ingredients are then fed to farmed fish and livestock or developed into products such as fish oil capsules.
The raw material used in this industry and by surimi processors can originate from both legal and illegal sources. It is difficult for buyers to learn where fish were caught and by which vessels once fish are combined into large batches for sale. Fish-meal that might include illegal catch can be fed to farmed fish that are certified as “responsible” by a third party. A lack of regulations to track sourcing makes it easier for illegal catch to avoid detection.
Raising awareness of these patterns is a critical part of efforts to prevent illegal, unreported, and unregulated products from entering the supply chain. Keeping illegal catch out of seafood markets requires that companies ask some simple questions of their suppliers. Processors must conduct due diligence to ensure that vessels they are buying from are licensed and documented on vessel registers, can be traced through unique vessel identifiers, and are outfitted with vessel monitoring systems to ensure that they are complying with the requirements of their fishing license. Pew and other stakeholders will host a series of workshops for seafood processors in Southeast Asia this year to explain how tracking their supply chains can help build compliance within the seafood industry.
Huw Thomas is a senior officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ending illegal fishing project.