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SNAPTRACE Report Summary

Project ID: 701737
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SNAPTRACE (Fishing in the dark: unravelling the global trade and traceability of the ‘snappers’)

Reporting period: 2016-07-04 to 2018-07-03

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

In an era of rising seafood demand and impaired ocean health, the ongoing prevalence of illegal fishing and market fraud is of major global concern, threatening vulnerable stocks, jeopardising livelihoods and having frequent links with organised transnational crime. As seafood trade routes grow longer and more complex, there is general accord that full traceability and detailed product labelling are imperative to promote legal and sustainable seafood trade. Yet such provisions have seldom been translated into policy. Moreover, for many valuable and heavily-exploited groups of fishes, we still have a scant understanding of the drivers of their demand, the intricacies of their market provision, and the extent to which poor trade and labelling controls mask market biodiversity, hinder consumer choice and imperil species on a global scale. The SNAPTRACE project aimed to tackle these critical issues and pave the way toward more traceable, transparent and sustainable seafood markets, using one of the world’s most iconic but diverse families of fishes as a model – snappers, family Lutjanidae. To achieve this goal, we used a multidisciplinary approach and advanced molecular tools to systematically address the project’s core objectives: 1) to test the utility of international trade data analysis in supporting effective snapper traceability and exposing illicit activities, and 2) to use DNA barcoding to unravel the species diversity underpinning the global ‘snapper’ trade and the impacts arising from vague labelling and mislabelling. Our results indicate that official trade data severely lack the level of detail required to track trade flows, uncover deceitful practices and inform exploitation of snappers and related species. Moreover, we demonstrated that the lax application of the ‘snapper’ umbrella term and widespread mislabelling conceal substantial diversity in global markets, lumping taxa for sale from an array of disparately-managed fisheries and with different conservation concerns. Bringing this trade into the open should compel a revision of the current harmonised trade classification system and international seafood labelling and traceability policies that allow such extensive biodiversity to be consumed unknowingly.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

By comparing snapper production, import and export statistics from international and national databases for 2006–2013, we discovered wide anomalies in records and showed that officially reported snapper trade may be underestimated by >70%. Major discrepancies were found between imports reported by the USA, the world’s largest snapper consumer, and exports declared by its main suppliers – Mexico, Panama and Brazil. New Zealand emerged as the world’s largest snapper exporter, however, our analysis suggests that the traded fish is silver seabream (Pagrus auratus), belonging to a different fish family and distorting ‘true’ snapper export statistics by 30%. The most obvious reason for these large discrepancies lies with the lack of unique trade codes for snappers, allowing a substantial portion of trade to go undocumented or be lumped under generic categories. Due to the ambiguities associated with this poor trade-code specificity, no robust inferences can be drawn on the extent to which dubious practices contribute to trade data discrepancies, nor on the magnitude of illegal harvests.

By DNA barcoding 300 ‘snapper’ products from six countries, we found 67 species from 16 families masquerading under this umbrella term, deriving from numerous disparately-managed fisheries and with different traceability and conservation concerns. Over half of the identified species were reef-dwelling species, which are likely threatened by overfishing, habitat loss and insufficient protection. At least 40% of samples were mislabelled, with common substitutes being seabreams, rockfishes, threadfin breams, fusiliers and tilapia. Despite following the EU’s highly stringent seafood labelling and traceability regulations, samples from the UK were linked with the highest misrepresentation rates, species diversity, number of potential origins and risks of arising from poorly-managed fisheries.

Two full manuscripts, one correspondence article and one conference abstract were published in leading open-access journals with direct links to SNAPTRACE. The results were also orally presented at three international symposia and four invited guest lectures. We capitalised on our strategic alignment with key global NGOs and academic collaborators to ensure that the project outcomes were channelled to relevant managers and regulators to catalyse timely policy and enforcement interventions. We also actively participated in media-related communication and public outreach throughout the project, mainly via press releases, social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, ResearchGate), blogposts, interviews and short films.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

At a time when food security represents a foremost threat to our future on this planet, an increasingly diverse range of wild fishes are being harvested and traded globally at unprecedented rates, underpinning highly complex supply networks, whose traceability and sustainability are exceedingly difficult to assess and monitor. Indeed, in many regions of the world, snappers are being exploited with little systematic rigour and transparency. Yet, it is impossible to develop sound management plans without understanding the magnitude of demand and exploitation, and precisely which species are involved. In the first global trade data analysis of snappers, we showed that the lack of unique trade codes for the family leads to substantial distortion of official trade statistics, impedes the ability to track true snapper volumes in trade, and permits illicit harvesting and trade to persist unchecked. Given the highlighted constraints of the prevailing international trade classification system, a similar scenario is likely for many other valuable fishes and wildlife products that appear widely in international commerce, but for which no unique codes are currently reserved. In the most geographically-extensive seafood authentication to date, we documented the consequences of both rife mislabelling and the authorised trade of a wide range of species under generic labels, leading to underestimation of the actual number of species being marketed, heightening of barriers to traceability and resource management, and prolonged confusion and misinformation among consumers worldwide. Our results further underscore the momentous compliance and traceability obstacles faced by the UK in the context of snappers, demonstrating the vulnerability of the EU’s robust control systems to deceit and obliging stronger monitoring and enforcement to prevent the nation from inadvertently funding profits of illicit fishing and trade. Overall, we have illustrated the inadequacies in the current trade of high-value wild fish stocks around the globe, which has particularly negative impacts on poorly assessed, diverse fisheries in developing countries that meet demands of the Global North. We have also identified targets for improving trade-code specificity, enhancing seafood labelling and traceability policies and enforcement actions, and building capacity in developing-world fisheries. In their entirety, the outcomes of SNAPTRACE should prove relevant and timely, initiating an evidence-based management of snappers, which has hitherto been difficult to implement based on prevailing insights.

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