UN turns to forensic science to help combat illegal fishing

1 February 2010 – Forensic science, more often associated with solving murders in prime time television crime series, is now helping the United Nations fight illegal fishing, fraudulent product substitution and false documentation that not only cheat consumers but also endanger fish stocks and threaten livelihoods in developing countries.

Experts, inspectors, law enforcement officials, scientists and academics from round the world recently gathered at a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) workshop in Rome to discuss how to enforce best practices in the $86-billion-a-year global fishing industry, using such tools as DNA analysis and chemical testing.

“We need to push the envelope, because we can be sure that those involved in IUU fishing are doing so,” FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department official Michele Kuruc said, referring to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), noting that a workshop participant related how a group convicted of illegally trading abalone confessed that they learned techniques for destroying evidence by watching CSI: Miami.

“We’re interested in promoting wider use of available forensic techniques, in particular by developing countries,” she added, stressing that the 110-million ton annual seafood industry is a major source of employment and government revenue for these countries, where many of the fishing grounds that feed the first world are found

DNA analysis can unveil the species of a suspect white fillet, for example, and chemical tests on fish ear bones reveal absorbed nutrients to pinpoint the region where they were caught, major weapons in combating unscrupulous fishers and traders who game the system to prevent over-fishing and avoid international restrictions aimed as preserving fish stocks, as well as taxes and other limits.

An unknown percentage of seafood on the shelves simply is not what it is purported to be, and this is a growing problem given that today’s more conscious consumers are aware of the multiple health benefits of eating seafood but are also keen to be sure they are eating fish that has been caught or farmed responsibly and is safe to eat.

The workshop discussed how best to build capacity in developing countries, handle evidence, train inspectors, and identify laboratories capable of handling testing, including upgrading labs in developing countries currently testing for food quality to conduct forensic work. The group also agreed to operate as an ad hoc FAO reference network that can be tapped by authorities around the world for guidance and advice.

“Fish can be properly identified if samples are handled properly, get to the right labs, and checked using forensic techniques,” Ms. Kuruc said. “So the idea is to help countries that don’t have such facilities and know how can access so them so they can identify and prosecute cases of malfeasance.”


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