Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

fishmarket.jpg

(Photo: Hoks/Flickr)

Are You Financing Seafood Crime?

• April 08, 2014 • 9:15 AM

(Photo: Hoks/Flickr)

As some of the world’s top seafood consumers, Americans funnel billions of dollars a year to a shady network of exploitative fish launderers.

Sushi shouldn’t be served in a bento box. If restaurants were honest about it, the fish would come stuffed in a cartoon burglar’s black sack—with a contraband sand dollar glued to its side.

Between a fifth and a third of the wild-caught seafood imported into the United States was caught or trafficked illegally, according to the findings of an exhaustive study. Billions of dollars worth of shrimp, salmon, crab, and other marine life is sold in America after being harvested illegally, sold sans paperwork, or traded without required government oversight. It is effectively stolen away from ecosystems and law-abiding fishing fleets, complicating any progress toward industry sustainability.

Each American eats an average of 15 pounds of seafood every year—among the most in the world. A staggering nine-tenths is imported, often caught or processed in poor countries where the enforcement of conservation laws is miserly.

tuna fisheries import data

Researchers scoured nearly 200 papers, reports, and data sets and interviewed experts and officials worldwide for information on a handful of popular seafood varieties. They were attempting to do the impossible: Track the global trade from fisheries to American dinner plates. They extrapolated their findings from those fisheries to assess the nation’s total illicit seafood diet. What they found was a web of tangled supply chains, unscrupulous middlemen, illegal fishing fleets, enslaved and indentured workers, and naive buyers.

“A significant amount of fish is imported to the USA by first passing through one or more intermediary countries for post-harvest processing,” they write in the paper, published online Saturday in the journal Marine Policy. “These additional steps introduce additional challenges to traceability and allow for the mixing of legally- and illegally-sourced fish, where illegal fish may be essentially ‘laundered.’”

fishery-supply-chain

Overall, the researchers estimate that Americans spent between $1.3 billion and $2.1 billion in 2011 on illegal seafood imports—enriching criminals while sinking hopes that global fisheries could be managed sustainably in the absence of radical reform.

“Scientists strive to set catch levels that will sustain ocean resources, but their efforts are overrun where the profitability of illegal fishing is unconstrained,” says paper co-author Katrina Nakamura, founder of the Sustainability Incubator, a fisheries consultancy based in Hawaii.

In the paper, the authors write that existing American laws could be used to clamp down on the problem—but that they’re “not well designed for today’s massive global seafood trade.” Nor are they sufficiently enforced.

Customs officials check just two percent of the seafood entering the country, the researchers say—and even then they are on the lookout for food safety or labeling violations, rather than violations of the Lacey Act, for example, which is a 114-year-old conservation law that restricts trade in fish and wildlife.

And the researchers point out that the private sector could impose its own procedures to reduce the amount of illegal fish bought and sold in America. But, with some notable exceptions by responsible restaurants and large corporations, it has failed to do so.

“It’s an era of global overfishing and overexploitation of marine resources,” Nakamura says.

John Upton
John Upton is a science journalist with an ecology background. He has written recently for VICE, Slate, Nautilus, Modern Farmer, Grist, and Audubon magazine. He blogs at Wonk on the Wildlife. Upton's favorite eukaryotes are fungi, but he won't fault you for being human. Follow him on Twitter @johnupton.

More From John Upton

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.