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How Much Illegally-Caught Seafood Do We Eat? A Fact Check of the New York Times

March 21, 2016

Binar 4 - Defending Our Oceans Tour (West Africa: 2006)

How much illegally-caught seafood do Americans eat?  Or how about how much do we eat as a global community? These are interesting questions that I recently revisited after reading the New York Times article, “Palau vs. the Poachers” published on February 21, 2016.

In general, Ian Urbina’s piece is another excellent entry in a series of articles on “The Outlaw Ocean”. But, while reading, I noticed something strange about the statistics used. Specifically, Urbina wrote:

The global black market for seafood is worth more than $20 billion, and one in every five fish on American plates is caught illegally.

While the $20 billion figure is certainly something I’ve seen before (though exact estimates are $10bn to $23.5bn), the amount of illegally-caught seafood on American plates is – to my knowledge – not a figure that has ever been calculated. In fact, the only study in a peer-reviewed journal that has come close to estimating this is Pramod et al. (2014), but they only considered imports of wild-caught seafood, which is certainly not the only source of seafood consumed in the USA.

So what happened and can we come up with a better estimate? I’ll tackle each below and hopefully give better statistics for both global illegal catches and U.S. illegal catch consumption.

So What Happened and How Do We Correct the Statement?

In short, my guess is that Urbina misread the most popular paper estimating global illegal catch estimates by Agnew et al. (2009), which I’ve discussed before. That paper estimated that illegal catches represent between 11 and 26 million tonnes annually. Possibly because they were pointing out the inadequacies of official catch data, this paper never provided a percentage-based estimate for global illegal catches, but one could be easily calculated using any number of available figures.

Does this mean that we could amend Urbina’s statement to talk just about global consumption? Yes, but since we’re putting a statistic in the NYT, we’d probably want to consider four important caveats.

First, you’d want to be clear that the best available data is now over a decade old. The most recent time period of study for the Agnew et al. (2009) paper was 2000-2003. And should we expect for any major changes in these estimates? Absolutely. The paper itself pointed to a declining trend in illegal catches in the underlying case study fisheries, and a great deal has been done to reduce illegal and unreported catches by fleets operating transnationally in recent years.

Second, you’d need to explain that Agnew et al. (2009) estimates of global illegal catches are conceptually conservative. This is because they relied on a narrow definition of “illegal”. The primary focus was on illegal catches that are typically not reported, yet we could imagine that in fact many illegal catches are indeed reported. For instance, what if fishers report their catches, but have produced them in violation of license requirements, gear restrictions, or rules prohibiting fishing in certain areas?  For instance, from my work experiences in Nicaragua, it is likely that there are sizeable catches of Caribbean spiny lobster that are caught by fishers lacking the appropriate license and using illegal trap sizes, and which are then reported to the government and exported to the EU and other markets.

Third, if you use this narrow estimate, you’d want to explain that it is based largely on anecdotal information. That is, if you dig into the data sources of Agnew et al. (2009), you see they did a great job with what they have, but what they have is extremely limited. Most of the underlying studies do not use official crime statistics or surveys of fishers, but instead represent expert opinion. And this shouldn’t be too surprising. While global catch figures are kept by the FAO, there’s no similar clearing house for official fisheries crime data, or really any sort of wildlife crime data for that matter. Furthermore, we are only now starting to get decent global statistics for more serious crimes, like homicides or sexual assaults.

Fourth, and finally, you’d want to be much clearer about how you arrived at your percentage calculation. If you asked me today for a percentage figure of how much fish is caught illegally at the global level, I’d use the same Agnew et al. (2009) figure of 11-26 million tonnes, but a different denominator figure for global catches. Where before I used global FAO catch statistics, today I’d use data from the Sea Around Us Project and make it an average of the most recent period considered in the paper, 2000-2003. That figure comes out to just a little over 119m tonnes for the period. Thus, all together, we can estimate that illegal and unreported catches for the 2000-2003 period represented between 9.2 and 21.8% of global catches.

Thus, you might better say something like:

The global black market for seafood is worth more than $20 billion, and approximately one in every five fish consumed globally is caught illegally.

How Much Illegal Seafood Do Americans Eat?

Alternatively, let’s say we wanted to use the best-available information to calculate a figure for how much illegally-caught seafood is consumed in the USA.

For this basic calculation, you’d want to start with a basic matrix of where our seafood comes from (domestic or imported) and how it is produced (wild-caught or farmed). Unfortunately, the numbers for this aren’t great. For imports, NOAA has estimated that 90% of domestic seafood consumption comes from imports, but given our current traceability requirements, it’s not very easy to say how much of that comes from aquaculture or wild-capture. However, NOAA has stated that approximately half of these imports come from aquaculture, likely in reference to the FAO’s own estimate that approximately half of global consumption is now comes from aquaculture. So, that gives us 45% of domestic consumption from wild-capture, and 45% from aquaculture.

As for domestic production, NOAA statistics don’t really allow us to determine how much of our domestically-sourced seafood comes from aquaculture or wild-capture. BUT, we can make a weak assumption that our domestic consumption patterns are similar to our domestic production patterns. Taking NOAA statistics for 2014, we can then estimate that 9.4% of US seafood consumption comes from domestic wild-capture, and .6% comes from aquaculture.

All this adds up to the following consumption matrix:

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 1.58.29 PM

From here, it’s just a matter of figuring out how much of the estimated 54.4% of US consumption from wild-capture fisheries is illegal, and then accounting for total U.S. consumption.

For imports, the best available estimate comes from Pramod et al. (2014), which estimated illegal and unreported catches in US seafood imports to be between 20% and 32% using a method similar to the Agnew et al. (2009) paper discussed above to estimate illegal and unreported catches for about half of US wild-caught imports. So, it’s not a perfect figure, but it’s probably as good as it gets given the quality and availability of data.

As for illegal fishing in U.S. fisheries, you’ve really got two different studies from which you can draw quantitative estimates.

First, there is a research report (King et al., 2009) that estimated that illegal catches account for 10-20% of total catches in four U.S. fisheries: the Northeast multispecies groundfish fishery, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper individual transferable quota fishery, the Pacific groundfish trawl limited access fishery, and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands pollock fishery. The upside here is the estimates are primarily based on surveys of actual fishers, rather than expert opinion, but the downside is that these fisheries aren’t clearly representative of all U.S. fisheries and the statistic was never published in a peer-reviewed journal. Plus, important enforcement changes have likely reduced overall illegal fishing in these fisheries. For instance, in the case of the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery, VMS and ITQ accounting have now been implemented (see Porter et al., 2012).

Second, there is the Agnew et al. (2009) paper that I discussed in the last section, which provides percentage estimates of illegal catches in case study fisheries by region. It’s not ideal, but you could use the highest and lowest estimates for regions overlapping the U.S. EEZ to establish a very rough range of illegal catches in U.S. domestic fisheries as 3-15%. But again, these aren’t just for U.S. fisheries, they pertain to the 2000-2003 period, and there are reasons to believe that illegal catches may have fallen.

So taking all that together, what estimates might we have for how much illegal seafood is consumed annually by Americans? Well, you’ve got two possible answers, respectively, using the data mentioned above.

  • Estimate 1: Between 9.9% and 16.3% of all seafood consumed in the U.S. is caught illegally.
  • Estimate 2: Between 9.3% and 15.8% of all seafood consumed in the U.S. is caught illegally.

Given that the two are relatively similar, we can take the averages of these estimates to amend the NYT statement to alternatively say:

The global black market for seafood is worth more than $20 billion, and approximately one in every ten fish consumed in the U.S. is caught illegally.

What This Doesn’t Tell Us

In sum, I hope this helps shed some light on how we calculate illegal catch figures and more broadly, that this blog goes to show that we need to do a much better job of quantifying the impacts of illegal fishing. Indeed, it can be quite infuriating that we don’t have better numbers, but then, I suppose if we did have better data, illegal fishing probably wouldn’t likely be such a problem. What gets measured, gets managed, right?

But more importantly, I think we also need to consider what these numbers don’t tell us. While these numbers help us understand the impacts of illegal and unreported fishing, they tell us very little about the scale of illegal behavior. That is, is the problem of illegal catches in fisheries due to the massive criminal behavior of a relative few bad actors, or minor non-compliance among mostly law-abiding fishers? And what sort of illegal behaviors are the most damaging to the environment? Illegal overfishing? Illegal gear use? Fishing without legal authorization?

In the long-run, understanding illegal behaviors, not just their impacts, will be vitally important for improving actual management because they will help governments to more strategically prevent illegal behaviors. And given that we need far more restrictive management measures to protect fisheries, as well as most other natural resources, a better understanding of illegal behaviors related to fisheries can’t come quickly enough.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Alistair permalink
    March 21, 2016 9:50 pm

    Hi Mark,

    A great article – congratulations and thanks – your final comment about ‘illegal behaviours’ is right on the money. And that’s before you start dealing with horrible habits that aren’t illegal at all in some jurisdictions! And the big problem we’ve got is that one can’t separate out that 1/10 ‘illegal’ fish – it’s been laundered into the supply chain such that all can be tainted – what constitutes unacceptably bad behaviour is specific to each stage of each supply chain – one of the reasons I like your ‘approximately one in every ten ..’ formulation – it’s big enough to drive official, consumer and community alarm and action – but the numbers are not critical to the requisite response.

    Keep at it!


    • March 21, 2016 10:25 pm

      Many thanks for your feedback, Alistair, and I’m glad you find the “1 in 10” estimate for illegally-caught seafood helpful. Hopefully this statistic or something like it can be used to push for better traceability in the U.S. Fingers crossed!

  2. senorpescador permalink
    March 30, 2016 12:57 pm

    going to be dealing with that this year off of Centroamerica, in a serious manner I guarantee it

  3. April 8, 2016 2:09 pm

    Wow, I had no idea.

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