What to Know About Imported Seafood
Co-written with Betsy Suttle
We often don’t know where the food on our plate comes from. When it comes to seafood, this might be particularly true. While U.S. seafood is among the best managed in the world, we import 91 percent of what is consumed in this country. Much of this imported seafood comes from countries with minimal or no effective management in place to ensure healthy stocks, ecosystems, and communities. Aside from the country of origin, U.S. consumers often have no way of knowing how imported fish was caught or produced, or if future fish stocks, ecosystems, and communities are being protected.
Where is our seafood coming from?
The seafood we eat comes from all over the world. Here’s a list of seafood items and some of the countries that export them to the U.S.:
Why does it matter?
The fact that the U.S. imports seafood is not so much the issue as how much and from where. The U.S. imports more seafood than it exports, resulting in a trade deficit of $11.2 billion — second only to our trade deficit in oil. While there is room for improvement, it is widely recognized that U.S. fisheries are among the best managed in the world. In fact, a 2009 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that U.S. fisheries ranked second in the world for compliance with the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. The U.S. also has the world’s largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ), or territorial seas, of which nearly 40 percent is designated as marine protected areas (MPAs). These MPAs have varying degrees of restrictions to further enable the efforts of fishery managers to protect our ocean ecosystems.
MPAs are still a new tool, and while little is known about their impacts, statistics show that other management tools such as quotas, limited access, and gear alterations are improving the state of our fisheries and ocean ecosystems. According to NOAA Fisheries’ Status of Stocks 2012, six fisheries were rebuilt (a total of 32 since 2000), 10 were taken off the overfished list, and four were removed from the overfishing list. While these efforts are helping local fishing communities in the long run, every time a new MPA is created, quota is reduced, or new fishing gear is required, it is the fishermen who take a hit by losing fishing grounds, catch, and having to pay to obtain new gear to come into compliance. All of these sacrifices have enabled U.S. fisheries to reach or be on a trajectory towards sustainable levels, and this should be taken into consideration when purchasing seafood, especially if there are price differences.
Buying U.S. seafood supports U.S. fishermen and fisheries
Fishing and aquaculture are important to the U.S. economy. Some key numbers to consider:
Buying local helps keep dollars and jobs in the U.S. and rewards those who are abiding by a stringent suite of rules and regulations designed to promote healthy ocean ecosystems and communities.
U.S. seafood is safe for you and safe for the ocean
Seafood harvested and produced in the U.S. is subject to strict regulations from a number of state and federal agencies, including state fish and wildlife departments, NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In addition, regional fishery management councils work with NOAA Fisheries to develop management plans specific to their regions. The councils include representatives from the fishing industry, environmental groups, states, and tribes.
There are about 100 federal laws that guide U.S. fisheries and aquaculture management, including the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management, Environmental Protection, Marine Mammal Protection, and the Endangered Species Acts. While we may sometimes complain about bureaucracies and red tape, these regulations are designed to ensure that
You know what you are getting with U.S. seafood
Mislabeling and seafood fraud issues have been a hot topic in the news. Fish caught in the open ocean, outside the jurisdiction of any country, often pass through several ports for processing and packing before being shipped to the U.S., providing lots of opportunities for mislabeling to occur.
Illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing is untraceable and a major contributor to seafood fraud. It also violates conservation and management measures with negative consequences for fisheries, marine ecosystems, food security, and coastal communities across the globe and often operates with slave and child labor. IUU fishing vessels rob those who are fishing legally of up to $23 billion per year. The U.S. is working with the international community to combat IUU fishing.
Seafood that is caught and sold in the U.S. has fewer steps in getting from the source to the consumer, and there are checks and balances all along the way. Choosing domestic seafood minimizes fish fraud and the purchase of seafood caught by IUU vessels.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Imported seafood often travels thousands of miles to get to your plate. The fossil fuels required to power the ships, planes, trains, and trucks used to transport these products to the U.S. generate greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Scientists are still working to determine what effects climate change will have on fisheries, but research suggests that there will be significant impacts on our ocean ecosystems. It has already been linked to the bleaching of coral and shifts in the migration patterns of key species such as anchovy and sardines.
“Not in my backyard!”
We can’t have this conversation without addressing the controversial elephant in the room, aquaculture. More than half of the seafood the U.S. imports is from aquaculture, or fish farming. In fact, the U.S. is the leading importer of farmed seafood products. It is second in the world only to China for total seafood consumption and has the largest area of territorial seas in the world, yet domestic aquaculture production only meets five percent of its supply. Meanwhile, the U.S. imports shrimp, tilapia, salmon, and other farmed species from other countries, many of which have minimal regulations in place to protect the environment and local communities. Some of the operations overseas are known to exploit workers, including children.
Aquaculture production has greatly improved over the last few decades. In 2011, the U.S. released national aquaculture policies to ensure that impacts on the coastal environment and communities are minimal. Rather than importing from questionable aquaculture producers, we must be willing to accept and improve upon well-managed domestic aquaculture to supplement responsible wild-capture fisheries to meet the growing demand here in the U.S.
Is all imported seafood bad?
No. Some countries, such as Canada, New Zealand, and Norway, also have strong fishery and aquaculture management programs. And, while health regulations are minimal in some countries, the U.S. FDA does inspect seafood imports to ensure that they are safe for U.S. consumers, though U.S. seafood is subject to more stringent health regulations throughout the production/harvest cycle.
There are also fisheries and fish farms from other countries that have been certified by credible third-party entities such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), and Friend of the Sea. In some cases, select fisheries are participating in fishery improvement projects with groups like the WWF to minimize their impacts and eventually obtain MSC certification. Certified products should be clearly labeled.
These are good alternatives, but well-managed domestic sources are the best option for healthy ocean ecosystems and coastal economies.
Tips for Buying Local and U.S. Seafood
Get to know your local fishermen
Just like the farmer’s markets, there are fishermen’s markets scattered throughout the
U.S. coasts. Take the family to the coast on a weekend morning and strike up a conversation with your local fishermen to find out what the catch of the day is and take home a healthy seafood dinner. You can also sign up for a community supported fishery (CSF) to get a variety of local, seasonal catch. Go to localcatch.org to find a CSF near you.
Talk to your fishmongers
If you have questions about the seafood you are buying, talk to your vendors. They should know the details about the product and can suggest alternatives if you can’t find what you are looking for.
Try a variety of seafood
Don’t just stick with the same seafood you’ve always been eating. There may be some local seafood items that you have never tried before. By choosing different types of seafood, you also help reduce pressure on highly targeted species. And you may discover some new favorites.
Know your seasons
Like fruits and vegetables that have peak seasons, some seafood items can only be harvested at certain times of the year. If you know what is in season, you can select local seafood at its freshest. CSFs are a great way to learn about local seafood seasons.
Choose suitable alternatives
If a product you are looking for is out of season or unavailable, ask your fishmonger to suggest alternatives that are from the U.S. Most seafood is available frozen year round, and with today’s technology, frozen seafood is delicious and nutritious.
In a market dominated by imported seafood, it can be harder to find U.S. seafood, but it is worth the effort. When possible, consider purchasing seafood products that are harvested regionally. Your actions will help support local fishermen, producers, and communities and the long-term health and sustainability of domestic fisheries and aquaculture production.
To learn more about well-managed U.S. seafood, visit NOAA Fisheries’ FishWatch.