Forensics fight illegal fishing

MADRID -- Europe's FishPopTrace look to integrate science and law enforcement, by identifying specifically where fish sold for food comes from to prevent further illegal fishing.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor on

MADRID--The world's second-largest fish market, after Tokyo, is in the land-locked Madrid. Now Spain is working to improve the quality of their fish to increase international competitiveness.

They hope to increase competition, especially during the economic crisis, by focusing on modernizing processes and infrastructure, improving labeling and focusing on product traceability.

Following widespread criticism from Greenpeace and other environmental NGOs, only this last June did the Spanish fisheries sign an agreement to stop illegal fishing.

Elena Gonzalez, a geneticist at the Natural History Museum of Madrid, working with her alma mater the Complutense University of Madrid, is a researcher of one of 15 FishPopTrace labs around Europe, who are looking to trace the origins of popular table fish. Gonzalez has focused her research on four species of common Spanish and European fish: cod, hake, sole and herring. Gonzalez has extracted and mapped out proteins from the brains, livers, muscle tissues and hearts of these fish.

One of the procedures they use is to extract proteins from the brains and to use a color-coding technique to differentiate the ocean, sea or bay origins. Another scientist identified subtle differences in DNA, while another examined the shape of the ear bones.

They can identify down to which body of water the fish comes from. Then, by making a distinction between one fish population and another, it is easier to identify the origin of the fish and if it was caught sustainably or illegally.

The next step for the FishPopTrace project is to create tools that can be recognized and used in criminal investigations to prosecute illegal fishing around the world. Jann Martinsohn, a scientist with the European Commission’s Maritime Affairs Unit, hopes to better integrate science and law enforcement. If it can be scientifically-proven in an international court that a fish came from an area sanctioned as over-fished, fake labelers can be caught and prosecuted.

The next obstacle is that most consumers are not concerned about illegal fishing, at least on the surface.

Manuel Garcia Perez, a Madrid-based IT programmer from Burgos, says he eats fish bought in Madrid because he lives here, but does not pay attention to the labels. "But it's not the best. People say it's (fish bought in Madrid) the best because it's the capital, but it's just not," Garcia said.

Since the Madrid fish market is so important to the international industry, fish can be shipped there from anywhere in the world. "It's just not as fresh," said Garcia, who prefers the fish he has eaten along the Spanish coast. Garcia said that he is not too bothered where the fish comes from, but, since it affects the taste, he really does.

We will just have to wait and see how many Spanish fisheries will be in hot water and who will hook new customers with higher quality fish.

Photo: Spain's Wikipedia

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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