Making sure Alaskan seafood is authentic

As a result of international tracking difficulties, seafood marketed as “Alaskan” is often anything but, sparking legislative calls to make the Alaska label a privilege, not a right.

Wild-caught Alaska seafood is marketed as sustainable and healthy for local economies, strong selling points for the modern U.S. consumer. The labels aren’t always accurate, however, as pirate fishing and outright fraud often put foreign or untracked seafood under the Alaska banner.

International agreements and national legislation aim to impose more stringent tracking requirements for seafood landings, which are often the root of mislabeled fish. Other legislation simply pushes for marketing changes to make sure the label “Alaska” means what it says.

Marketing and international traceability issues haunt Alaska pollock, crab, and salmon, the largest and most valuable of Alaska’s federal and state fisheries.

In Congress, Rep. Don Young and Rep. Jaime Beutler, R-Wash., introduced legislation on Oct. 22 to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to change the term “Alaska pollock” to “pollock.”

According to a GMA Research consumer report, up to 40 percent of what is currently sold as “Alaska pollock” is in fact from Russia waters, which do not have the same controls and management frameworks as U.S. North Pacific fisheries governed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, particularly concerning marine habitat protections and preventing overfishing.

Pollock is the largest fishery in the U.S., producing 2.9 billions pounds and accounting for 11 percent of U.S. seafood intake. In the North Pacific management region, pollock accounted for $406 million worth of landings.

“The U.S. fishing industry and the American consumer deserve this common sense change to the pollock name,” said Young. “There’s no reason why foreign caught pollock should be disguised as Alaskan, especially given the significant management efforts we’ve taken in the North Pacific to create the most sustainable fishery in the world.”

Similar to pollock, North Pacific crab is often mislabeled as Alaskan. Russian crab is also caught in the Bering Sea but under less stringent sustainability practices as U.S. crab. Russian IUU crab (illegal, unreported, unregulated) alone has cost Alaska Bering Sea crab fishermen up to $560 million, according to one estimate by United Fishermen of Alaska, the state’s largest commercial fishing industry group.

Crab and salmon comprise the most valuable of Alaska’s fisheries, and salmon shares some of the same mislabeling challenges from more than fishing piracy.

Retailers charge a premium for Alaska sockeye and people are willing to pay it, but some of what’s sold isn’t Alaska wild-caught sockeye at all, depending on region and time of year.

Oceana released a study detailing that 43 percent of their 82 grocery store and restaurant samples of Alaska salmon were mislabeled, according to DNA samples; 69 percent were farmed Atlantic salmon being marketed as Alaska or Pacific wild-caught.

Oceana’s methodology isn’t discussed in the report. The study only took samples from East Coast and Midwest establishments during the winter of 2013-14, when salmon production is at its lowest.

The report in fact clashes with a 2013 Oceana study, which found only 7 percent mislabeling of salmon in 2012, but during the height of the season when salmon were readily available and largely from grocery stores.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, or ASMI, is a state agency dedicated to increasing the value and markets for Alaska’s fish. ASMI Executive Director Alexa Tonkovich recognizes salmon labeling inaccuracy as a problem produced in part by ASMI’s successful marketing campaigns. People recognize the Alaska wild-caught brand enough for frauds to want on the bandwagon.

“It’s great they want to copy us,” said Tonkovich said. “It means we have a strong brand.”

Aquaculture, as well as IUU fishing and fraud, could contribute to labeling imprecision. Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced and passed an amendment to the fiscal year 2016 Agriculture, Rural Development, and Food and Drug Administration spending bill that would require genetically enhanced salmon to be labeled as such.

Murkowski, who has long promoted commercial fishing interests, objects entirely to Massachusetts company AquaFish’s salmon, which is spliced with chinook salmon to grow twice as fast as in the wild. The FDA has not yet approved the fish for human consumption, but Alaska delegates have been vying to stay ahead of the marketing curve to protect Alaska’s fishermen’s interests in the marketplace.

Murkowski’s worry echoes Tonkovich’s, arguing the Alaska brand has worked hard enough to justify its high value, and anything but natural wild-caught Alaska salmon needs to be clearly identified for the consumer.

“If the FDA moves forward, as it currently is, there would not be a requirement to ensure that people know what it is that they are eating,” said Murkowski in a release. “People need to know whether they are eating a genetically-engineered fish or they are eating a wild Alaskan salmon that we promote so strongly in our state.”

Seafood mislabeling extends beyond Alaska fish to other regional U.S. seafood favorites, often with the same sustainability marketing as Alaska species. A 2015 Oceana study collected 90 crab cakes from 86 restaurants throughout Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area during the 2014 Maryland crab season and tested them for species of origin. Maryland blue crab, like Alaska seafood, is considered a sustainable seafood choice.

Almost half turned out not to be Chesapeake Bay crab; 48 percent were from the Indo-Pacific region and the Mexican Pacific coast. Eight species other than blue crab were found. Data suggests U.S. crab imports often arrive mislabeled at port.

Similar findings mar shrimp’s record. Oceana reports up to 30 percent of sampled shrimp mislabeled.

President Barack Obama recently signed a bill that makes the U.S. the 14th signatory to the Port State Measures Agreement, which would hold all member nations to port enforcement policies to limit illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, the source of much of the labeling issues. 25 nations must sign for the international law to go into effect.

12/06/2016 - 6:42pm