Oceana report has good data, but bad advice

The latest report by environmental activist group Oceana once again contains data that is interesting and valuable to read, but the conclusions the group draws seem laced with commentary that goes beyond the scope of its research at best, and makes questionable demands on the industry and government at worst.

The report examines the problems with mislabeling of seafood in America, this time targeting salmon. The report found that 43 percent of the samples researchers took from restaurants and grocery stores were mislabeled. Oceana discovered through DNA testing that some wild salmon species were mislabeled, but by far the biggest problem was with labeling farmed Atlantic salmon as its wild counterpart.

While the report doesn’t point fingers at individual vendors or speculate as to whether the mislabeling is accidental or deliberate, the motive to intentionally mislabel something is obvious: Describe the products as a more expensive variety in order to charge a premium price, gambling consumers won’t be able to tell the difference.

This information alone makes the Oceana report food for thought. It is the latest in several reports the group has produced in recent years, all pointing to a pervasive problem that deserves attention and action, and Oceana should be commended for its ongoing initiative in addressing the issue.

That said, Oceana’s recommendations are focused too much on writing new laws. The group calls for stricter regulation on labeling practices when there are already rules in place governing this. The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act already clearly prohibits sale of “misbranded” food, which it describes as having a “false or misleading label,” or “for sale under another name” or “an imitation of another food.”

Oceana also clearly has a problem with farmed salmon. From the report: “Imported farmed salmon (which makes up the majority of the salmon consumed in the U.S.) has many negative environmental impacts due to inefficient feeding practices, fish waste, misuse of antibiotics and pesticides, and diseases that can spread to wild populations. Environmentally conscious consumers may wish to opt for more ecologically friendly choices like wild-caught U.S. salmon.”

Whether Oceana is correct in its broad-brush criticism of farmed salmon is the subject of a different discussion, and statements like these, which are found throughout the report, seem out of place when talking about seafood fraud and mislabeling. The organization strongly implies that if America’s fisheries opted to sell all of its wild salmon domestically, instead of exporting it, there would be no need for farmed salmon, and thus much of the mislabeling described in Oceana’s newest report would be eliminated.

This tenuous link doesn’t seem to justify the anti-aquaculture tone of the report but even if it did, the numbers don’t support this premise. According to 2014 figures from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), American fisheries produced 327,746.5 metric tons (MT) of wild salmon, and exported 211,383.5 MT, leaving 116,363 MT to sell and consume domestically. We must also remember that 2014 featured an unusually high salmon run – typical years often produce less, by thousands of metric tons.

NMFS also shows 245,643.7 MT of farmed salmon imports for 2014. That’s more than was exported, which means that even if Oceana could convince all American fisheries to suddenly stop selling salmon abroad (Good luck with that – NMFS said 2014 salmon exports were worth USD 935,889,196, or EUR 853,187,463, and no one can guarantee wild salmon will earn that same revenue domestically), it still wouldn’t eliminate the need for imported farmed salmon.

So simply not exporting salmon isn’t a realistic solution. The domestic seafood industry is in the best position to stop this problem, and when the industry won’t regulate itself, Oceana is correct – it is up to governments to do it for them. Simply writing new rules, however, is not necessarily the answer. Why aren’t the current regulations doing the job? Are they poorly written, or just poorly enforced? If Oceana spent more time studying this angle and less time critiquing aquaculture in its newest report, the result would have been far more interesting and relevant to the issue.


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