Illegally Caught Seafood in the Philippines are Ending Up on America's Plates
Oceana has released a new report showing that the illegal seafood trade, fueled in part by U.S. demand, is hurting local fishing communities around the world. Among the affected countries is the Philippines, where a significant amount of illegally caught seafood that ends up on American plates comes from.
Blue swimmer crab comprised more than a quarter of the total imports in the United States in 2019 that are caught from the sea in the Philippines through illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing activities.
A Bucket of Blue Swimmer Crabs
A Plate of Blue Swimmer Crab
"Blue swimming crab from the Philippines is entering the United States disguised as more expensive domestic varieties, and that demand is driving overfishing, which is devastating local economies. Swimming crabs comprised over one-quarter of the total illegal, unreported, and unregulated wild-caught products imported into the United States in 2019," Oceana wrote in its report.
The Philippines is Among the World's Top 15 Fishing Countries
According to Oceana, the Philippines is one of the top 15 fishing countries in the world, exporting a variety of products, including tuna, shrimp, and crab.
Around 1.6 million Filipinos depend on the seafood industry for their livelihoods, and fishery exports from the Philippines totaled over 226,821 metric tons, with 24 percent of that going to the United States.
The Philippines is the third-largest crab exporter globally, and the second-largest crab exporter to the United States. The blue swimmer crab is the main species fished, comprising over 90 percent of the crabs landed.
Around 95 percent of the crabs are landed by artisanal fishers rather than the commercial fleet. Blue swimming crabs get their name from the flat pair of legs they use to paddle through the ocean.
The species Portunus pelagicus resides in the Indo-Pacific region and is one of 51 species of swimming crabs found worldwide. Blue swimming crabs can be found in waters off three continents, from East Africa to the Philippines to Australia.
In the Philippines, blue swimming crabs are caught using pots, gillnets, and entangling nets. Global commercial fishing of blue swimming crabs rapidly grew in the 1990s when the Chesapeake Bay blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) fishery crashed.
Imports began to replace Chesapeake blue crabs to satisfy the U.S. demand when domestic landings in the bay dropped by nearly half in 1992.
Because of its ability to pass as other crabs, substitutions of blue swimming crab for higher-value crab occur to this day throughout the global market, often without the knowledge of consumers. In 2015, Oceana tested crab cakes from Maryland and Washington, D.C. that purportedly contained only locally sourced blue crab. Forty-eight percent of the crab cakes tested contained crab from the IndoPacific region, with the most common substitute being blue swimming crab.
Seafood fraud is common with the blue swimming crab because crab imported into the United States typically costs less than the domestic catch.
Oceana says this demonstrates the need to expand traceability and transparency requirements for all seafood imports.
The U.S. is the World's Largest Seafood Importer
The United States is the world’s largest seafood importing country, yet around 60 percent of imported seafood products are not covered by the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), which requires catch documentation and traceability requirements for some imports. Currently, the program only applies to 13 species and species groups at risk of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud.
The United States imported an estimated $2.4 billion worth of seafood derived from IUU fishing in 2019 alone. The United States’ high demand for seafood combined with SIMP’s limitations allow seafood sourced from illegal activity to flood the U.S. market, driving economic and ecological loss around the world. In the report, Oceana highlights four examples of seafood entering the U.S. that are not covered by SIMP and are potentially sourced from the illegal seafood trade, which threatens fishing communities and jeopardizes ocean health. Oceana is calling on President Biden to expand SIMP to include all imported seafood and implement traceability from net to plate.
“When Americans order calamari at a restaurant, they do not want a side of criminal activity to come with it.”
“When Americans order calamari at a restaurant, they do not want a side of criminal activity to come with it,” said Beth Lowell, Oceana’s acting vice president for the United States. “The reality is that imported seafood on Americans’ plates can originate from illegal fishing, crime, environmental destruction, and human rights abuses.
Seafood that is fraudulently labeled or sourced from illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing has no place in the United States. President Biden should ensure all seafood sold in the United States is safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled by expanding traceability of seafood and transparency at sea. By collecting the information about the origins of seafood we import, the government can more effectively screen imports and keep illicit products out of the U.S. market — and support legal fishers worldwide.”
SIMP was created in 2016 to address IUU fishing and seafood fraud among seafood imports, but the program only requires catch documentation and traceability for 13 types of imported seafood, or about 40% of U.S. seafood imports. Additionally, the program only requires traceability from the boat or farm to the U.S. border — not all the way to the consumers’ plate.
In 2019, Oceana released the results of a seafood fraud investigation, testing popular seafood not covered by SIMP, and found that 1 in every 5 fish tested nationwide was mislabeled, demonstrating that seafood fraud is still pervasive in the United States. Seafood fraud and IUU fishing ultimately hurt honest fishers and seafood businesses that play by the rules, mask conservation and health risks of certain species, and cheat consumers who fall victim to a bait-and-switch.