As educated consumers, we appreciate quality and often prefer to buy responsibly grown or sourced products. For example, many of us happily pay more for free-range eggs, organic meat or fair trade coffee, and assume that these industries are appropriately regulated so that the quality and source of the product is accurately reported to consumers. But some things are easier to trace and regulate than others. Consider a serving of fish and chips: If I were to ask you what type of fish was sitting on your plate, grilled and lightly seasoned with lemon and salt, would you be able to tell me? Most people, even fisheries experts, probably couldn’t tell the difference between one fish fillet and another. So, given we’re all somewhat in the dark as to what’s on our dinner plate, how do we know we’re getting what we pay for?
Appallingly, many fraudsters are taking advantage of the challenges associated with post-filleting fish identification. As well as catching species of fish that are protected or from places that are off limits, fisheries fraud also happens in the market place, where low-cost or illegally caught fish are labeled and sold as a more expensive product. For example, in Europe low-cost catfish fillets have been sold as highly desirable sole. Illegal fishing is a big problem worldwide and is worth more than $14 billion annually. According to the European commissioner for maritime affairs, illegal fishing is a “criminal activity that disrupts marine ecosystems and damages fisheries communities and consumers”, and makes sustainable fisheries an impossibility.
Worldwide, fish stocks are in no state to withstand additional stress from illegal fishing activities. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the overwhelming majority of commercially fished species (almost 80%) are listed as either ‘fully-exploited’, ‘over-exploited’, ‘depleted’ or ‘recovering from depletion’. Compounding this already desperate, global situation by cheating fellow fishers, ignoring international laws and duping consumers is deplorably selfish and irresponsible.
Thankfully, scientists have been working to develop tools based on genetics, genomics, chemistry and forensic sciences that can provide solutions to the problem of illegal fishing and protect consumers from fisheries fraud. These tools can be used by non-experts during routine inspections of a catch, consignment, product or container and make sure that what’s on the label is actually what makes it onto your plate. Inspectors will be able to use the molecular tools to identify how many of which species of fish are being caught from which sites and compare this to the numbers being reported by fishers. The costs and benefits of employing these techniques are currently being investigated in Europe and will hopefully come into action there soon, with the rest of the world to follow suit. Applying cutting-edge science to a global problem should help protect consumers from fraudsters and give flailing fish stocks a fighting chance.
To hear more from Alex and get a weekly fix of scientific, environmental and health-related info, tune-in to ‘Boiling Point’ on 89.7FM Eastside Radio every Tuesday at 6.00pm, stream online at www.eastsidefm.org, find her on Facebook or e-mail email@example.com.