Test developed to crack down on illegal fishing and mislabelling
May 23 2012 Lewis Smith
Hake: size does matter
A test created to identify where a fish has been caught is expected to be a major weapon against illegal fishing and the misuse of eco-labels.
Researchers have developed a genetic test that can detect which sea a fish comes from. Previously genetic tests could do little more than identify the species being tested.
With the test - which has so far been developed to identify cod, hake, sole and herring - effective even for processed fish, scientists are confident it will be a “powerful and versatile” tool against illegal fishing and mis-labelling. At least a fifth of global catches are estimated to be illegally fished.
The test was created by the $5 million (€4m) FishPopTrace project led by Bangor University in the UK and involving researchers from Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Iceland, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US.
While the project has concentrated initially on being able to distinguish between fish caught in European waters it can be adapted for use on species anywhere else in the world.
To improve the accuracy of testing, and ensure a “forensic level of validation”, the research team identified genetic markers that were specific to local populations of fish. The markers indicated that fish of the same species but in different places had evolved localised adaptations.
For cod the test reveals enables researchers to determine whether a fish has come from the North Sea, where stocks have been overfished, or areas such as the Baltic where the species is sustainably managed. Similarly, herring from Iceland and northern Norway can now be distinguished from those in the North Sea.
Sole from the Irish and Celtic Seas can be separated from those taken from off the Thames estuary or the Belgic coast. The team said a proportion of sole landed in Belgium is suspected of having been taken from the Thames/Belgium coast “which is closer to market, but closed to fishing”.
Hake has a minimum catch size of 20 cm in the Atlantic fishery but 27cm in the Mediterranean and many undersized fish are “misreported as of Mediterranean origin”, said the researchers. They hoped that now the two stocks can be distinguished, the scam can be ended.
Professor Gary Carvalho, of Bangor University, headed the FishPopTrace EU consortium that developed the test.
He said: "A major existing problem is that it has not previously been possible to prove the exact origin of any particular fish, and in some circumstances, particularly with processed or cooked fish, it can be quite difficult even to identify the species, let alone its source of origin.
"We set out to develop a method that could be used throughout the food supply chain and across the fish industry, and have shown its effectiveness in four common European species - Atlantic Cod, Atlantic Herring, Common Sole and European Hake - each threatened by overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The system can be further developed for any fish species as required.”
In their report, published in the journal Nature Communications, the team said: “Our results demonstrate how application of gene-associated markers will likely revolutionize origin assignment and become highly valuable tools for fighting illegal fishing and mislabelling.”
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