May 31, 2011

science for the fishies

If you've read anything about commercial fishing in the past decade or two, you know that industrial fishing practices range from irresponsible to appalling. The worst practices cause major seafloor destruction and grotesque slaughter of "by-catch," marine life ranging from rough fish to sea turtles. Over the past century, countless fisheries have collapsed under the strain of unsustainable harvest, leaving regional economies in ruins while the global industry trudges blithely to its next victim.

The anonymous fish flesh that you buy frozen and breaded in the supermarket or fast-food restaurant is the product of a shadowy industry where breaches of treaties, boundaries and quotas are routine. Even when a seller makes promises about the origin of a fish, their claims are unreliable and unverifiable, until now.

The Economist reports that a European consortium has developed a DNA-sampling procedure that can ascertain not only which species of fish a fillet came from, but which ocean and population. Right now the technology only covers four major commercial species: cod, hake, herring and sole, but its scope will expand.

The device is not intended for consumers at the end of the supply chain, but for those who buy in quantity. As a consumer, you can help by being curious about fish you buy and responsive to labeling or the lack thereof. This new technology is a welcome development that should bring some honesty to a market that has thrived on obscuring links between products and the sometimes horrendous practices used in harvest.

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