Conservation group says regulatory gaps in Canadian seafood supply chain pose threat

·3 min read

HALIFAX — An ocean conservation organization says Canada's “poorly regulated” seafood supply chain has hampered the fisheries sector and put ocean health in jeopardy.

In a report released Thursday, Oceana Canada says the regulatory gaps are unwittingly contributing to illicit seafood fishing and trade.

Sayara Thurston, the group’s seafood fraud campaigner and author of the report, said the industry's supply chains are notoriously complex. It's difficult for Canadians, she explained, to track seafood to its place of origin and all too easy for “illegal, unreported and unregulated” products to make their way to the country's retailers.

“You could be buying something that says 'Product of the United States,' but in fact, it was fished in a completely different country,” Thurston said in a recent interview. 

A previous Oceana Canada study found that Canada’s “insufficient labelling requirements” had led to significant mislabelling of seafood products. Of 472 seafood samples collected from Canadian grocery stores and restaurants, nearly half were mislabelled. In part, that's because the place of origin on seafood products may only suggest the last place the product was processed, which is allowed under Canada’s current standards, Thurston, said.

Thursday's report calculates that the illicit seafood trade in Canada results in lost tax revenues of nearly $94 million, as unreported catches equal an estimated 14 per cent of the $3.9-billion annual landed value for marine fisheries. The group also found Canadians are spending up to $160 million annually on seafood caught via undocumented fishing.

Thurston described the use of “modern slaves” in the global unregulated fish trade, which she said can involve the kidnapping and coercion of undocumented workers. Illegal fishing can also have drastic effects on fish populations as certain species can quickly become overfished.

The advocacy group is calling on the federal government to make good on its previously announced commitment to create a "boat-to-plate" traceability program, which would allow tracking of seafood from vessels and farms right though the supply chain to retailers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has mandated Minister of Health Patty Hajdu, who oversees the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to collaborate on a tracking system.

Food inspection agency spokeswoman Theresa Fritz said in a statement Thursday the department is considering implementing a boat-to-plate program but did not provide details.

Fritz said the government's current traceability program allows food products to be "followed from one point in the supply chain to the next." She said the method "can significantly speed up the removal and investigation of unsafe or misrepresented food from the market."

Oceana Canada's report, however, references research from the European Union that found Canada's current method was not effective in quickly verifying products or in ensuring safety and legality.

Some of Canada’s largest trading partners have already tackled the tracking issue, Oceana argues, including the United States and the European Union.

“What we're looking for is for Canada not to be left behind on this issue, to keep up with the global trend of increasing transparency in the seafood supply chain," Thurston said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2020. 

- - - 

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Danielle Edwards, The Canadian Press