Can DNA fight seafood fraud?
Forensic technologies can play a key role in protecting the USD 86 billion (EUR 63 billion) global seafood market from fraudulent practices such as species substitution, according to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization.
As the seafood industry moves toward sustainability, such technology could also help ensure that fish are responsibly caught or farmed, said the FAO.
"Fraudulent product substitution and use of false labels and documentation are frequently employed to transport and market products illicitly," said Michele Kuruc of the FAO's fisheries and aquaculture department.
"Fish can be properly identified if samples are handled properly, get to the right labs and checked using forensic techniques," added Kuruc.
According to the FAO, DNA analysis can reveal the species of a whitefish fillet, while chemical tests on fish ear bones reveal absorbed nutrients and pinpoint the region where they were caught.
Kuruc underlined that while the identification of unprocessed fish is "usually fairly easy," processed seafood sets up greater challenges. "What inspectors see often doesn't look much like a fish in the wild," said Kuruc.
With today's seafood transported across the globe, it is also common for fish to be processed at sea before coming to shore, again setting up challenges for inspectors to identify the fish.
The FAO recently convened a workshop of experts, inspectors, law enforcement officials, scientists and academics to discuss how forensic technologies could be more widely deployed in fisheries enforcement.
"Some countries have successfully used various forensic methods in investigations and court cases, but many fisheries monitoring, control and surveillance personnel still remain unaware of their existence," said Kuruc.
Countries need to "push the envelope," added Kuruc, because "we can be sure that those involved in IUU fishing are doing so."
As of 1 January, the European Union, the world's biggest seafood market, ushered in new laws to prevent IUU fishing. The new rules, which require that catch certificates accompany seafood shipments, are aimed at blocking imports of illegally harvested fish.