By Reut Elimelech.
Ever since I can remember I was drawn to the sea. When I was young we used to spend entire weekends camping on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Falling a sleep under the endless blanket of stars and to the sound of waves is one of the best memories I have. In the summer of 2010, my relationship with the sea developed as I finally got the chance to learn deep-water diving. Swimming in the vast blue waters of the Red Sea, observing the large coral structures and a vibrant reef full of Broomtails, Humpheads and Lionfish was an unforgettable and exhilarating experience.
The silence and solitude underwater was so different from the commotion of the waves and people by the shore. It was then when I completely fall in love with the sea. I wanted to experience more of it and to learn more about it. I learned our oceans provide us with numerous environmental services, from the oxygen we breathe, to regulating the climate and proving us we the food we eat. “We can’t exist without it,” as said Marine Ecologist, Enric Sala. And yet, we forget to appreciate it and overexploit its gifts to us.
According to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “growing human population worldwide lead to an increase of 8-fold in fish production,” which led to overexploitation of more than 75% of seafood species (Oceana). Overfishing led to fishing previously un-targeted and smaller species, which are considered undesirable, and therefore are being renamed along the seafood supply chain to enhance their marketability. This phenomenon is known as seafood fraud. Seafood fraud, much like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are being integrated in our fruits and vegetables without any labeling, it is a product if our modern world. In today’s world we are so disconnected from the place, people and animals that make the food we consume, that the last and only clue for our food’s origins might be found on its label. But what happens when these labels are not telling us the entire truth, or even worse when it deliberately deceives us? Seafood fraud is a calculated obfuscation that intentionally creates a situation where we simply do not know what species of fish we are consuming.
Seafood fraud impacts not only consumers and their health but also fishermen and honest seafood businesses that lose consumers who no longer trust seafood. It is also affects our oceans, as overfishing alters the oceans ecosystem and weakens the biodiversity of the marine environments.
Yet outside of some guidelines put forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no current federal legislation to fight seafood fraud, both intentional and unintentional.
My original idea was to provide people with information about wholesale and retail food service that sale mislabeled fish, until proper legislation will be enacted and enforced. I believe that today’s unique ability to share information across the world can help pressure the seafood industry. If consumers knew which wholesale and retail food service sale mislabeled fish, they can stop buying seafood from them. In turn those wholesale and retail food service will stop purchasing mislabeled fish from distributors. Then distributors will stop buying mislabeled fish from the processors, and so on. I truly believe that the power of our dollar can help us pressure the industry to stop the seafood fraud and eventually help save our oceans.
In order to provide people with this knowledge I wished to create a rating system for grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues in New York City according to their % of fish mislabeling. My initial idea was to base this rating system on Oceana’s 2012 DNA testing results, which found that 39 % of the 142 seafood samples in New York City area collected, were mislabeled, according to the FDA guidelines.
I started designing a map based mobile application (similarly to Yelp), which will make this rating system accessible.
At the same time I reached out to Oceana asking to receive their 2012 DNA testing results for New York City area. Unfortunately due to liability concerns they we’re not able to share the information with me.
I realized I had to find another way to check the differences between fish species without a DNA testing them. With the help of my professor, Peter Terezakis, I researched the possibilities of chemical tests or visible physical differences that I would be able to look for on my own. We reached out to DR. Bart Ziegler, a toxicologists who confirmed my concern that in order properly differentiate between fish species I need a proper lab.
I couldn’t find any proven method other than DNA testing to differentiate between fish species and thought I had to change course. However, during my search for methods to test fish species I found about The Better Seafood Board (BSB). They are members of the National Fisheries Institute that have pledge to eradicate economic fraud in the seafood industry by “not selling seafood that is short in weight or count, that has the wrong name, or that has been transshipped from one country to another to circumvent duties and tariffs.”
The BSB also “provides a mechanism for industry’s partners in the supply chain to report suppliers committing economic fraud.” The BSB contains more than 140 members in different levels of the supply chain, from fishers to retail service provider and even restaurants, who all have one goal in mind – to maintain consumer trust in seafood.
I decided to change my approach and instead of singling out wholesale and retail food service who sale mislabeled seafood, to note brands of manufacturers who guarantee to not selling seafood that has the wrong name.
I researched manufacturers in the BSB members list to find out the brands under which they sale seafood, and created a searchable seafood brands database. The database is accessible online at Fisy.nyc.
Fishy.nyc is a user-friendly, easy to use website (with a mobile adaptability), where consumers can find if the seafood brands they are purchasing are accurately labeled.
I started promoting my site via social media and encouraged visitors to leave comments and give feedback so it can constantly improve and develop. I hope the site will become a tool consumers use whenever they purchase seafood at the market or choose a seafood restaurant to dine at. Moreover, I hope the database will continue to grow as more seafood industry’s members will decide to join the BSB after realizing that consumers support and give their dollars to those who do not mislabel their products.
By making small changes in our seafood consumption habits we can make a big difference on the seafood industry and eventually help save our seas!