Fishy business

Illegal fishing and fish fraud widespread across Latin America.

A 2019 US fish fraud report published by Oceana, an ocean conservation international advocacy group, revealed that 21% of the fish sold in the US did not correspond to the label with which it was being sold. The problem is less visible but also present in Latin America where, despite the lack of comprehensive regional studies, experts in Mexico and Brazil have highlighted a similar problem.

A director of a fishing trade organisation commented, “The fishing industry in Mexico faces two fundamental challenges related to fraud: firstly, low levels of inspection and secondly the ill-informed domestic consumers.”

“The fishing industry in Mexico faces two fundamental challenges related to fraud: firstly, low levels of inspection and secondly the ill-informed domestic consumers.”

Director, fishing trade organisation, Mexico

Oceana Mexico reported in 2019 that a DNA study of fish sold in three different cities in Mexico revealed that 31% were not what its label indicated. Furthermore, the study showed that the 48 species tested turned out to be 100 different types of fish.

A lawyer specialising in Mexico’s fishing industry observed, “Mexicans are not big consumers of fish and the bulk of the population lives far from the sea. Most people can’t tell the difference between species of fish with the naked eye. If we do not know the differences between such species by seeing them as a whole, much less filleted, we cannot distinguish textures.”

In Mexico, a group of Senators pushed in February 2020 for a reform of the Fishing and Aquaculture law to promote fish conservation and combat illegal fishing to enhance its traceability. An industry executive explained traceability was a significant problem, “Most of the fraud happens at the plants and distributors. It is not known how fish enter or leave these centres and there are only a few inspectors.”

“Most of the fraud happens at the plants and distributors. It is not known how fish enter or leave these centres and there are only a few inspectors.”

Executive, fishing industry, Mexico

So far, governments in Latin America have put their focus on illegal fishing activities to enhance controls over fraudulent fish sales. Latin American countries mostly use the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation Agreement on Port State Measures which allows countries to prevent the unloading of non-registered vessels to combat illegal fishing activities.

An executive at a Brazilian fish institute saw similar problems with fish fraud and traceability, “Fish fraud is a widespread problem throughout the Americas. The main problem in Brazil is the size of the country, in some parts of the country fish goes from ports to retailers, without undergoing strict traceability controls. This paves the way for fraudsters and makes government efforts very difficult to implement.”

According to industry sources, most illegal fishing in Latin America is carried out by vessels from China, Taiwan, South Korea, Spain and Portugal. In Chile, the National Service of Fishing and Aquaculture (Sernapesca) uses satellite images and promotes the exchange of electronic information with its counterparts to monitor the arrival of illegal vessels to its ports.

Consumers are the main party affected by the sale of fraudulent fish, both in economic and health terms. According to Oceana, consumers pay higher prices for low quality fish which, due to its lack of traceability, can have a negative impact on the consumer’s health.

Fish producers have called on governments to introduce sea-to-dish traceability and to strengthen cooperation with private companies by: issuing an electronic certificate for fish shipments, establishing designated ports of unloading, increasing inspections in the fish supply chains and improving product labelling.

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