Traceability efforts overridden by inflationary pressures in Canada, US
An increased effort by Canada and the United States to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing isn’t being matched by a tightening of import controls that would prevent illegally sourced seafood from entering domestic markets, according to a letter sent from 26 seafood industry stakeholders to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The letter, which was signed by Buy-Low Foods, Sobey’s, and Ocean Brands, as well as seafood sustainability non-governmental organizations including Oceana, Ocean Wise, Sea Choice, and the David Suzuki Foundation, urged Canada’s federal government to commit to a timeline on mandating boat-to-plate traceability for seafood sold in the country.
Richmond, British Columbia, Canada-based Organic Ocean, a seafood firm that was named to SeafoodSource’s Top 25: Sustainability and Conservation list in 2020, also signed the letter.
“Some view traceability and labeling reform as introducing additional and needless costs in an already skinny margin business, while others feel it’s necessary to address IUU fisheries and enable consumers to make informed purchasing decisions,” Organic Ocean CEO Dane Chauvel told SeafoodSource. “Organic Ocean would be in the latter, believing the benefits outweigh the costs.”
The letter criticized Canada’s inaction in following through on a promise to ensure all seafood products sold in the country are fully traceable from the point of final sale back to the point of harvest. Canada imports 80 percent of the seafood it consumes. Chauvel told SeafoodSource he believes there is a “gap” between the goal of more traceability and what the rest of industry wants.
“There is a view that this is layering on cost in a low-margin business to address a problem that is not all that significant,” he said. “Regulators then say, ‘Well, if industry doesn’t want it, why should we step up?’"
And yet at the level of fishermen there is demand for a traceability regime to protect Canadian producers from unfair competition, according to Chauvel. He referenced spot prawn (Pandalus platyceros) fishers who have sought government approval to allow them to place identifiers on packaging so that buyers know they come from regulated fishers. The spot prawn fishery runs from the U.S. state of California across Canada’s western coast to the U.S. state of Alaska.
“Lots of [spot shrimp] product is being laundered into the market, and you can’t tell if it is IUU or not. Traceability would benefit the harvest, the consumer, and research,” he said. “The problem with IUU is if products enter the supply chain and you can’t identify them. There are health and environmental reasons to do this.”
Chauvel said action by Canadian authorities on the spot prawn would be a good first step in implementing a traceability regime.
“Others will then be inclined to come on board,” he said.
In the United States, seafood NGOs are also pressing for a campaign to combat opacity and secrecy in American seafood supply chains. While praising retailer Hy-Vee’s move in June to publish data on suppliers for its private-label tuna, Greenpeace said it was “unfortunate” that Hy-Vee could only get supplier information on its store brand, rather than the national brands it buys from, such as Starkist and Chicken of the Sea.
“Inaction and secrecy by retailers and national brands leave large loopholes for the exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers, the perpetuation of environmentally damaging practices, and the occurrence of IUU fishing,” Greenpeace said.
Hy-Vee pledged to publish supply-chain information after a 2021 Greenpeace report, "The High Cost of Cheap Tuna: U.S. Supermarkets, Sustainability, and Human Rights at Sea," found all 16 retailers surveyed to be “failing in ensuring their tuna supply chains are free of both environmental harm and exploitative labor practices.”
However, current inflationary pressures on seafood and retail businesses may be blunting their appetite for immediate action to implement traceability protocols. Chauvel said Organic Ocean has seen its seafood prices rise by 16 percent year-on-year and its U.S. trucking contractor has raised prices by 70 percent. As a result of tightening margins, Chauvel said he’s worried traceability initiatives are now seen more as “something nice to have, not a must-have.”
“Yes, it’s brutal,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Organic Ocean