Sustainability | Ecotrope

Exporting And Re-Importing Local Seafood?

Ecotrope | Sept. 21, 2012 9:44 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:29 p.m.

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How much U.S. seafood gets exported for processing and then shipped back to American consumers? Apparently, we don't know.

How much U.S. seafood gets exported for processing and then shipped back to American consumers? Apparently, we don't know.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this week that the U.S. seafood catch hit a 17-year high in 2011. The leap from 2010 in the pounds fishermen landed and the value of the catch is staggering: From 1.9 billion pounds to 10.1 billion pounds and from $784 million to $5.3 billion.

But another number that was up in 2011 has conservationists worried: The percentage of seafood the U.S. imports rose five points to 91 percent.

Matt Tinning, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, says that number means Americans may be unknowingly driving demand for unsustainable seafood – including fish that has been caught illegally overseas.

“When you buy American seafood, you know it’s increasingly being caught sustainably,” said Tinning. “Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of many imports. By some estimates, pirate fishing accounts for more than 20 percent of the global seafood supply chain.”

The top three seafood imports are shrimp, canned tuna and tilapia fillets. But NOAA Fisheries says a portion of the imported seafood is actually caught by American fishermen, exported overseas for processing and then re-imported to the U.S.

 Regulators say they don't know how much of the total imports were actually caught in the U.S.

 Regulators say they don't know how much of the total imports were actually caught in the U.S.

How big is that portion? How much of our local catch is being exported and then re-imported?

Apparently, we don’t know. According to NOAA spokeswoman Christine Patrick, seafood exports were up in 2011, too. But NOAA doesn’t track how many of those exports come back to the U.S. as imports.

“When they import seafood, it doesn’t say the country of origin,” said Patrick. “We lose that beginning information. It’s something NOAA wants to get a better handle on.”

As I’ve noted in the past, tracking seafood from the ocean to your plate is one way to make sure you’re eating sustainable seafood and not contributing to the collapse of fish populations. You can look for the Marine Stewardship Council sustainable label or check the Monterey Bay Aquarium seafood guide for eco-friendly seafood options.

But even if the fishery itself is sustainable, how sustainable is it to catch fish here in the U.S., ship it to Asia for less expensive processing and ship it back to American consumers?

According to Mike DeCesare, a spokesman for the Marine Stewardship Council, said the MSC label ensures that the seafood has been caught sustainably and tracked through the supply chain. So you can be assured that “it is what it’s supposed to be and can be traced back to the fishery it came from,” he said.

But there are 250 seafood processors in China that are certified to process seafood with the MSC-label. The food miles involved in delivering the product to your plate aren’t part of the assessment. DeCesare said processing locations vary a lot depending on market conditions.

It seems like processing the local catch here would be more environmentally friendly. I wonder if anyone is tracking that…

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