Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing

According to Admiral Karl Schultz, Commandant of the US Coast Guard, IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing has replaced piracy as the main maritime security threat, with an economic damage that runs in the tens of billions of dollars. Transnational criminal organizations operating IUU fishing are also implicated in human trafficking and drug and arms dealing. Disrupting these illegal networks has been identified as a major priority by the US Coast Guard, NOAA and the NSF.

U.S. Coast Guard photos from video by Telfair Brown

One of the primary avenues of fighting IUU fishing is to reconstruct trading routes and identify the origin of IUU fishing products. Shipments of fish intercepted in the supply chain can contain both legal and IUU product, intermixed in international processing hubs, and so IUU fish can appear in US and European supermarkets, with proceeds going to support illegal fishing activities and transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).  For many key products, genetic testing can be used to distinguish whether a different species has been substituted, but rapid identification of origin of widely distributed species has been elusive.

Our group aims to combat IUU fishing in several ways:

1. Risk analyses: IUU and legally caught fish are often mixed at processing and trading centers. We apply a risk framework to identify the characteristics of processing centers, species and supply chain structures that are conducive to high intermixing. This framework will guide targeted application of the genetic testing tools by law enforcement and supply chain actors to ensure supply chain integrity.

2. Identification of origin of sea products by a variety of methods.

    • Genetic assignment: Genetic differences among populations of marine species are often subtle and insufficient to allow the unequivocal identification of source population of individual fish products. Gene-associated genetic markers, on the other hand, often show striking differences that separate otherwise similar population. For example, scientists in the Marine Population Genomics Lab collaborating with the Center used such a marker to unequivocally distinguish Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea/Aleutian Island populations of Pacific cod (Figure 1). This species has been identified as a priority species for seafood import monitoring by NOAA, because US caught fish often get intermixed with other species and populations of possible IUU provenance in processing plants in China. Similar approaches may be possible in tunas, squid, groupers, and snappers, which are all prime IUU fishery targets.
    • Associated species: even if the origin of fish themselves cannot be identified, associated species may provide valuable clues of the origin of fish products. For example, species and population identification of stomach contents may narrow down the potential capture location. Similarly, microbiomes associated with fish products may provide insights into origin of fish and their processing pipeline.
    • Stable isotope ratios: Many elements occur in several different stable isotopes that differ in the number of neutrons and that can be distinguished by mass spectrometry. Stable isotope ratios vary spatially across oceans and ecosystems, and as they accumulate in the food web, they can be used to ascertain the geographic origin of organic material such as fish products. Stable isotope ratios have been used to distinguish farm raised from wild animals and identify the origin of fish and shellfish. Here, we will use a combined analyses of genetic assignment, associated species and stable isotope that will likely yield the most accurate assessment of product origin.

3. Rapid detection technology

    • Fish-OLA assay with lateral flow readouts for cod assignment. Nuttada Panpradist (Postdoctoral research fellow in the Lutz UW Bioengineering) led the development of an easy-to-use, rapid lateral flow assay “Fish-OLA” (Oligonucleotide ligation assay) that can detect the two signature single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in cod DNA previously identified by the UW SAFS Marine Population Genomics Lab. The Fish-OLA included ready-to-use dry reagents which enable easy assay setup and lateral flow tests, which provide visual readout. Evaluation of Fish-OLA on a blinded panel of 200 codfish samples showed 100% accuracy. The assay was put into kit format and presented along with the newly developed user instructions in a course at the University of Washington. Forty-six 1st-time undergraduate students operated the fish-OLA assay on blinded samples and achieved an overall accuracy of 92% at 5% failure rate. This low level of failure rate is considered a high success as we observed near 100% failure when the same cohort of students operated a traditional PCR.

    • Automated device to rapidly identify species and regions of seafood other than Pacific cod. Detecting tens of SNPs or more is commonly required to determine species and sources of other seafood species. We envision the development of a new portable DNA screening tool that can parallelly detecting tens of SNP on a single device. We aim to develop a platform that can automate the core essential steps for a DNA test by pairing recent advances in medical diagnostics for the developing world with a liquid handling system that can be programmed to controllably manipulate droplets of aqueous solutions (Böhringer lab). This system will use the droplets to move and combine samples with reagents, enabling a DNA test. Former Ph.D. student Hal Holmes is transferring this microfluidic platform to real-world applications at Conservation X Labs, a technology and innovation company that creates solutions to stop the extinction crisis. The realization of this patent-pending platform will enhance our ability to detect and halt seafood fraud and illegal substitutions. Further, this platform also shows much potential for translation to other forms of wildlife trafficking, food safety, and invasive species monitoring.