DNA tracing technologies can protect fish stocks, says MSC

Sensemaking / DNA tracing technologies can protect fish stocks, says MSC

The Marine Stewardship Council has launched a campaign promoting DNA testing methods to meet the need for traceability in seafood industry

By Adam Sadiq / 27 Mar 2016

DNA tracing technologies can be an effective tool to protect fish stocks, support fishing communities and aid consumers to retain the power of ethical purchase - a new campaign from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) asserts. This campaign ties together a number of critical issues related to future ocean health and highlights the pressing need for widening both consumer empowerment and industry accountability if seafood trade is to be made sustainable.

Launched in March, the campaign highlights the issue of fraud and information loss in the seafood industry, in particular the extent to which seafood products are mislabelled. Rupert Howes, CEO of the MSC outlines why, alongside ecosystem stewardship, the MSC advocates the use of DNA tracing as a solution: "High profile food scares such as the European horsemeat scandal have left many consumers wary of claims made on food packaging. Food fraud undermines the efforts of reputable fishers and traders and has led to wide recognition of the need for credible traceability in the supply chain. The MSC Chain of Custody program is one of the most recognised and widely used ways of providing this reassurance to seafood consumers and businesses."

DNA testing is carried out on an annual basis for the MSC by an independent third party laboratory, which has access to a digitised library of the DNA profiles of almost all known fish species. By cross-referencing samples within their supply chain, the lab can verify the species and sometimes even the geographical source of products that carry its blue label. This enables the MSC to identify the point at which products were mislabelled, and ascertain whether this was through error or illegal practice.

In 2015, this DNA testing process achieved 99.6% accuracy for the MSC’s blue label products. A total of 256 individual products were tested, spanning 13 species of fish sampled from retailers across 16 different countries. The aim was to verify whether the products emerged from a sustainably managed fishery. That year, a single incidence occurred when two species of Sole, both emerging from MSC fisheries, were mistaken for one another during the labelling process. Year by year, the MSC’s DNA auditing process has flagged up fewer errors in its supply chain, identifying only 1% of its products as mislabelled since 2009.

A recent meta-analysis of the open seafood market identifies the scale of the traceability issue, finding that up to 30% of seafood sold to consumers is mislabelled and missold at some point in the supply chain. All too often this is done for the sake of profit, where species of lesser market value are missold deliberately as a more valuable species. The meta-analysis was composed from the DNA results of 4500 samples taken over 51 separate peer-reviewed studies.

The scale of Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the seafood industry poses an urgent challenge to humanity - endangering both fish stocks and human lives, through piracy, slavery and the threat it presents to fishing communities. It is estimated that IUU fishing every year accounts for 11-26 million tonnes of fish removed from the oceans: this represents between USD 10-23.5 billion of losses for the industry each year. Many cases of IUU go on to affect fishing communities in developing nations who cannot secure their livelihoods in waters close to where industrialised methods are employed. IUU and associated bycatch can cause severe trauma to marine ecosystems preventing their replenishment at sustainable rates, even leading to ecosystem collapse. This issue coupled with the environmental impacts of climate change on marine life makes an urgent case for action to mitigate the impact of human industry on ocean health.

Mark Driscoll, Head of Food at Forum, further links the issues of IUU and traceability together with humanity's need to find sustainable ways to provide protein in the future: ‘Some 32% of the world's fisheries are overexploited or depleted and yet over 3 billion people globally depend on fish as their main source of protein, which is a key priority for us as part of the Protein Challenge 2040 Initiative. DNA testing is going to be a vital tool for ensuring we know how and where our fish is sourced and offer reassurance to consumers that it is sustainably sourced.’

The scale of IUU fishing makes it harder for researchers and regulating bodies to collect accurate data on the depletion of fish stocks around the world, and from there to create models supporting us to replenish and then manage marine ecosystems in perpetuity. The MSC has shown the potential of DNA testing to regulate supply chains, as part of their effort to increase cooperation between communities, consumers and organizations working to monitor and protect ecosystems.

An important step forwards is increasing cultural awareness of the issues posed by IUU, enabling end users and consumers to choose responsibly sourced fish. What other solutions have you seen to support traceability in the seafood industry and combat overfishing? 


MSC (March 2016) From ocean to plate: How DNA testing helps to ensure traceable, sustainable seafood

MSC (February 23, 2016) Seafood traceability: How DNA testing ensures the traceability of MSC labelled seafood

MSC (March 18, 2016) How DNA testing works

MSC (March 17, 2016) Tackling seafood fraud

Pardo, M. Á., Jiménez, E. & Pérez-Villarreal, B.  (2016) Misdescription incidents in seafood sector. Food Control 62, 277–283

Agnew, D. J. et al. (2009) Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing. PLoS One 4, e4570

Al Jazeera (January 26, 2012) People & Power - Pirate Fishing Documentary

Smithsonian (November 10, 2014) Ocean Dead Zones Are Getting Worse Globally Due to Climate Change

MSC (January 2016) Best Foot Forward: The journey to sustainability for the Ashtamudi clam fishery, India

Image Credit:Paul Winch-Furness

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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