How much U.S. Seafood is Imported?

According to the latest science, 35-38% of seafood consumed in the U.S. is produced domestically, meaning 62-65% is imported.

The commonly quoted statistic that “90% of seafood consumed in the United States is imported” is out of date and should stop being cited. In this post, I explain the origins of the 90% myth, the scientific paper that produced the updated numbers, and the implications for U.S. trade and seafood markets.

Where did the 90% statistic come from and why is the new estimate more accurate?

A lot of seafood farmed or caught in the United States is sent overseas for processing, then sent back. Due to varying trade codes that get lost in the shuffle of globalization, these processed seafood products are often mistakenly recorded as ‘imported of foreign origin,’ despite being of U.S. origin.

For example, pink salmon is almost exclusively caught in Alaska, but a significant portion is processed in China (the U.S.’s largest seafood trade partner). After processing in China, the fish is sent back to the U.S. and sold in restaurants and grocery stores. Salmon are not a Chinese fish, but the trade codes used when sending them back from China signify them as Chinese-origin and they are recorded as imported or foreign seafood.

Recording fish caught in the U.S. but processed in China has led to a significant overestimation of Americans’ so-called ‘seafood deficit’, or the ratio of foreign to domestic seafood consumption in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the misleading 90% deficit statistic has become commonplace, mostly due to coverage of Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign that stoked consumer anxiety about imported seafood. Distorted U.S. import data had been taken at face value for several years because no one had pieced together the conversion factors that account for processing and return export/import—until three scientists, Jessica Gephart, Halley Froehlich, and Trevor Branch, published their work in PNAS in May 2019.

Knowing the conversion factor for seafood products caught or farmed in the U.S. is the key to accurately estimating the amount of domestic seafood processed abroad. Froehlich describes a conversion factor as a number that can be used to back-calculate a processed seafood item to its pre-processed weight. Basically, when pink salmon are sent back to the U.S. after being processed in China, a conversion factor can be applied to estimate how much fish was originally sent and domestic seafood statistics can be corrected. When U.S. seafood is processed abroad but consumed in the U.S., it should be counted as domestic seafood consumed domestically.

Scientists compiled live weight conversion factor data from NOAA, FAO, and CEPII; then, along with estimates for the amount of seafood processed abroad and imported again, an accurate percentage of domestic seafood consumed domestically was derived. The updated number (35-38%) is over three times higher than commonly reported.

Illustration of seafood imports and exports. United States
Allison Horst (University of California, Santa Barbara, CA)

The vexing 90% statistic + Twitter = paper

The story of how this paper came to be is different than most other scientific collaborations. Both Gephart and Froehlich had tried to reconcile the 90% statistic in the past, but “neither of us completely followed the breadcrumbs because it was never a primary focus of our typically global research,” according to Froehlich.

“I first heard this statistic while working on my PhD and studying global seafood trade. The data I was looking at did not agree with this statistic, but I assumed I must be missing something and pushed it off,” said Gephart.

Years later, a discussion on twitter reignited their curiosity and got the researchers in touch. Froehlich explains, “It started with an article posted on Twitter around US imports and what should seemingly be a quite simple question from Trevor about the percent of exports. After all three of us engaged on Twitter (along with several other scientists in the mix), it was clear none of us seafood scientists in fisheries or aquaculture could really, fully trace the numbers completely.”

After connecting on Twitter, Gephart reached out to Froehlich and Branch and the three of them began working together to find the correct seafood consumption numbers. Twitter, for all its faults, is still valuable as a connector of people. You can still read through the original discussion from last year that led to the collaboration. Academic conversations that lead to published papers usually happen in hallways, closed meetings, and private conferences; ‘Science Twitter,’ a community of scientists sharing and conversing online, functions like a multidisciplinary scientific conference that everyone can attend. Twitter can stoke collaboration among scientists, but it also makes science more accessible to the public—an important feature when the science has significant political implications.

United States Seafood Trade

Misleading statistics in fisheries and marine conservation usually circulate with the ebb and flow of the news cycle, but the ‘90% imported seafood’ statistic has unique political implications. Gephart, Froehlich, and Branch noted in their paper:

In recent years, the former US Secretary of State, current US Secretary of Commerce, and members of Congress have all cited the number to call for new policy measures addressing seafood sustainability and dependence on foreign seafood

“I kept hearing this number [90%] repeated and it started to bother me that I couldn’t figure out where the number came from. Then, under the current administration, reducing the seafood trade deficit became a priority and this statistic was being used to support a range of policy changes. If this number was going to be used as support for proposed policies, it felt important to know where the number came from, whether it was right, and whether it is even a good indicator for sustainable fisheries policy,” Gephart told me.

Essentially, the misleading 90% statistic has been used to justify recent nationalist/protectionist shifts in U.S. foreign policy: President Trump has lamented the U.S.’s trade deficit with China since he began running for president in 2014. Now in power, he has escalated a trade war that has hit the seafood industry especially hard. For example, Maine lobster (a popular seafood item in China) is now at a 45% price disadvantage compared to Canadian lobster due to the U.S. and China raising tariffs on each other’s imports. Many in the Maine lobster fishery have been laid off as a result.

The most mind-numbing implications are the tariffs on “foreign” seafood from China. Remember the pink salmon example above? It is now potentially tariffed twice, “once going to China and another when it enters back into the states as a processed good,” explained Froehlich. “It’s a bit of cutting off the nose to spite the face for the U.S., which is not helping fishers, farmers, or consumers.”

Although it has received less attention and relief efforts than agriculture, US seafood is front and center in the trade war.

NOAA has said the U.S. will not tax domestic seafood on the way back from China, but there is currently no way it can differentiate it from other seafood. China has exempted seafood for processing and export, but a retaliatory tariff is a card they still hold.

We haven’t seen a misleading fishery statistic taken quite so far politically, but with correct statistics available now, hopefully the Trump administration will flout their history and work towards a policy that benefits working class people like those in the U.S. seafood industry.

Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max studied environmental perception & policy in grad school. He thinks a lot about how other people think about the planet. He is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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