Gulf of Mexico fish-tracking system goes full steam ahead

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Responding to deepening concerns about seafood mislabeling and the safety of fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico, a trade association of Gulf fishermen is tagging and credentialing each of the fish its members pull from the water. It is also routinely sampling catch for dispersants, heavy metals and other oil-based contaminants to allay customer concern over the safety of fish caught in the vicinity of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which spilled 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf.

The new Gulf Wild system follows a six-month pilot program, during which 100,000 American red snapper and Gulf-caught grouper fish were tagged with identification numbers after being hauled aboard fishing boats. Upon reaching shore, the numbers were electronically recorded and uploaded to an online database with information about the fish’s species, the harvesting vessel that caught it and the approximate harvest location. The Gulf Wild program went into full production this week with 100 high-volume commercial fishermen within the five-state Gulf region.

Bubba Cochrane, of Galveston, Texas, is one of the fisherman participating in the program. ‘We take each fish off the hook individually, so we tag them when we gut the fish and then they go down below for the ride home,’ said Cochrane, who typically catches 10,000 pounds of red snapper per four-day trip.

Cochrane then manually enters the tag numbers on data sheets, where he also writes the time, date and GPS location where he caught the fish. The data sheets are logged in lots of 100 fish, and are then given to the fish buyer, who enters it into the Gulf Wild database so the individual number on each fish can be tracked.


A recent investigation by the Boston Globe reported that fish was mislabeled 48% of the time. Consumer Reports also reported recently that red snapper is labeled correctly just 45% of the time.

The Gulf Wild system is being rolled out just as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to ramp up its new DNA fish-testing program. Early next year, FDA regulators will take DNA samples from fish as presented for import and from domestic warehouse and distribution centers, processing the data at six field labs in a program to determine how the FDA can best focus its efforts to reduce seafood fraud.

‘Mislabeling seafood is illegal, and in recent years we’ve ramped up our focus on that,’ said FDA spokesman Doug Karas, adding that the FDA’s main priority is seafood safety. He said seafood mislabeling presents a safety concern to people who may have allergies to certain types of fish and mistakenly eat something labeled as something else.


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-- Susan Carpenter