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Development in food preservation and processing technologies and liberalization of trade have contributed significantly to the globalization of fish trade and to the diversification of seafood, both in terms of species and products. It is currently estimated that more than 800 fish species are traded internationally under many different forms, shapes, brands and preparations.

As the prices differ depending on the product/species and consumer preferences and perceptions, it is important that market forces and environment provide for the protection of consumers from fraudulent and deceptive practices whereby low value species/products are substituted for high value similar species. At the national level, food legislation generally indicates that the label must not mislead consumers, but international trade and the use of similar terms for different products makes it complicated when a product from one country is introduced to another in which the market niche already exists.

Seafood companies and exporting countries are increasingly seeking to sell their seafood products using commercial names with established international repute to derive maximum value and recognition. The matter is even worse because different species may have the same common name in different countries (or regions of the same country). On the other hand, sometimes the same species receives different names in the same language at different locations in the same country. For example, in Nordic countries, canned Sprattus sprattus is labelled "sardiner" or "ansjos" and is called brisling if not canned, while in other countries sardine refers to Sardina pilchardus and anchovy to Engraulidae species. A market name such as "seabass" is very frequently used in international trade, but it refers to very different species from various families; the same observation can be made for the name "catfish". This may be a source of misleading information.

On the other side, food companies, trade associations and even entire countries can be protective of market niches for given fish species and products. This is because they consider that establishing such market niches often requires significant investment in research and development, publicity, promotion and consumer sensitization towards the claimed attributes of the specific product they try to protect. Therefore, the successful companies or countries do not accept that other similar products use the same commercial denominations and compete on the same marked niches. This may be a source of trade disputes between countries.

Recent examples of international trade disputes (scallop muscles, canned sardines, arbitrated by the World Trade Organization WTO, catfish, etc.) show that fish species identification is a recurrent and worldwide issue. Though these disputes generally involve a limited number of countries, they have a direct impact on international fish trade.

Box 1: In the sardine case, the dispute came from the use of the name "sardine" which was exclusively reserved for Sardina pilchardus in certain countries when other countries meant to develop trade of different clupeid species labelled as "sardine" products. The dispute was taken to the WTO Appellate Body which looked into the Codex Standard for Canned Sardine and Sardine-type Products (CODEX STAN 94 -1981 REV. 1-1995). The labelling provisions of the standard state that the name of the product shall be: (i) "Sardines" (to be reserved exclusively for Sardina pilchardus (Walbaum)); or (ii) "X sardines" of a country, a geographic area, the species, or the common name of the species in accordance with the law and custom of the country in which the product is sold, and in a manner not to mislead the consumer. ‘X' refers to sardine-type species listed in the ‘Product definition' section of the standard; it includes small pelagic fish such as anchovies or herring. As an outcome of the dispute on the trade description of preserved Sardines, the WTO Appellate Body concluded that the labelling provisions of Codex standards are relevant, effective and efficient in pursuing the legitimate objectives of promoting market transparency, consumer protection and fair competition. Consequently, countries will have to modify their labelling regulations in such a way that they are consistent with Codex provisions.

Other implications of fish species identification may be pointed out in CITES provision implementation.

The problem of identifying specimens of listed species in international trade is likely to be a significant one for many aquatic species. While this is also true of some terrestrial species it may be more pronounced for marine species as these are often widely traded in a highly processed form, making it difficult and in some cases impossible to visually distinguish between the products from listed and unlisted species. In addition such products are often traded in a perishable state requiring rapid clearance procedures at border points.

The effective implementation of a CITES listing is largely dependent on the ability of Customs' and other officials to be able to identify specimens derived from the listed species. If the listed species is not able to be readily identified illegally obtained product may be readily laundered under other species names or products from the listed species may simply enter trade without the necessary documentation having been issued.

There are a number of approaches used under CITES to mitigate the potential for problems with species identification to undermine the effectiveness of a listing. The most effective and practical approach, or combination of approaches, would obviously vary depending on the biological characteristics of the aquatic species and the nature of trade in specimens derived from it.

One approach to this issue for species listed in Appendix I or II of CITES is for so-called ‘look a-like' species to also be listed. An Appendix I listing offers the highest protection for a species under CITES. A species listed in Appendix I has been determined by CITES Parties to be threatened with extinction and affected or potentially affected by international trade. Trade in an Appendix I-listed species may only be authorised in exceptional circumstances and any such trade may not be for a primarily commercial purpose. An Appendix II listing of a species does not necessarily mean that it is currently threatened with extinction or that trade in that species will be limited, however any such trade must be determined not to be detrimental to the survival of the species. Appendix II includes species that may become threatened if their trade is not effectively regulated. For example, Patagonian Toothfish and Antarctic Toothfish Dissostichus mawsoni are very similar in appearance as whole fish and indistinguishable from each other in filleted form. The two species are not distinguished in trade and share a common market niche. If one or other of these species were to be listed in, for example, Appendix II it would be necessary to consider whether the other should also be listed under the look a-like provisions.

In regard to Appendix I there is provision within Conference Resolution 9.24 (Rev. CoP12) for a species that is visually similar to a species listed in Appendix I to be listed in Appendix II. Annex 2b of this resolution establishes two conditions under which a species may be included in Appendix II in accordance with Article II, paragraph 2(b).

Box 2: A. The specimens resemble specimens of a species included in Appendix II under the provisions of Article II, paragraph 2(a), or in Appendix I, such that a non-expert, with reasonable effort, is unlikely to be able to distinguish between them. B. The species is a member of a taxon of which most of the species are included in Appendix II under the provisions of Article II, paragraph 2(a) or in Appendix I, and the remaining species must be included to bring trade in specimens of the others under effective control.
Close-up of fish imported from tropical countries sold at a French market
Close-up of fish imported from tropical countries sold at a French market

Nevertheless, some countries are concerned that these criteria have the potential to be interpreted in a manner that could result in an economically important marine fisheries species to be included in Appendix II. Moreover, ability of Customs officers to readily and accurately identify some imported commodities derived from species included in Appendix II, whether or not they are accompanied by appropriate export documents, often proves difficult.

Development of procedures based upon sound scientific method for fish species identification should allow for a more accurate management of protected species and look-alike species and mitigate economic impact of precautionary principle implementation.

Possible solutions

In its section 11.2 "Responsible international trade", FAO's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries calls for the liberalization of trade in fish and fishery products and for the elimination of unjustified barriers, in accordance with the principles laid down in the agreements of the WTO. But such liberalization can only take place in a framework of transparency and enhanced information to consumers, particularly as regards product labelling.

Reconciling both interests of those seeking to protect commercial denominations and those seeking to use these denominations for "similar" species requires international undertaking using a reliable approach and methodology. The principles depicting the environment to achieve this are embodied in the WTO binding agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade TBT. The objective of the TBT Agreement is to prevent the use of national or regional technical requirements, or standards in general, as unjustified technical barriers to trade. It includes numerous measures designed to protect the consumer against deception and economic fraud. The TBT Agreement basically provides that all technical standards and regulations must have a legitimate purpose and that the impact or cost of implementing the standard must be proportional to the purpose of the standard. It also states that, if there are two or more ways of achieving the same objective, the least trade restrictive alternative should be followed. The agreement also places emphasis on international standards, WTO members being obliged to use international standards or parts of them except where the international standard would be ineffective or inappropriate in the national situation. The aspects of food standards that TBT requirements cover specifically are quality provisions, nutritional requirements, labelling, packaging and product content regulations, and methods of analysis.

Labelling the product to indicate the exact nature and characterization is considered the most appropriate and transparent way in international trade, because it should enable consumers to make choices in full knowledge of the facts and thus protects consumers from deceptive practices. Likewise, to verify the conformity of a fish product towards label claims requires reliable authentication techniques.

It is therefore important to develop scientific criteria for listing new species under a given denomination and reliable methodology to verify the authenticity of labelling claims. In this respect, the Codex Alimentarius standards have become an integral part of the international regulatory framework within which international trade is being facilitated through harmonization. Already, they have been used as the benchmark in international trade disputes, and it is expected that they will play an increasing role.

Fish exporting countries are increasingly seeking recognition of their fishery products in the Codex standards; it is perfectly legitimate for a country to want to derive maximum benefit from its resources and expertise. The potential reward from including additional species or families of species in a Codex standard is of course linked to the international recognition of the derived products of this species. This recognition is associated primarily with the commercial name of the product; then authorisation to use a name with established international repute is therefore an important asset and a declared objective. However, there are many species seeking value-enhancing appellations, but such appellations are relatively few. Labelling provisions need therefore to be sufficiently clear to avoid misleading consumers and creating conditions of unfair competition in international trade.

Since Codex standards are used as reference documents in trade disputes, discussions within Codex Committee for Fishery Products (CCFFP) tend to be tougher and lengthier in particular when considering definition and labelling sections of new draft standards. Inclusion of additional species in existing standards is also a sensitive issue. This led the Committee to embark on work to develop an improved methodology for the inclusion of additional species in Codex standards.

The species proposed for inclusion in a Codex standard need to be identifiable. The present inclusion procedure requests supply of biological information in order to place the species within a classification; nevertheless additional information should be provided to improve the effectiveness of this procedure. With the prospect of growing international trade and an increasing number of potentially marketable species, there must be methods to verify product authenticity. The country requesting the inclusion of an additional species in a standard should be in a position to provide biochemical references that will permit identification of the species in the products covered by the standard, e.g. protein electrophoretic profiles or DNA sequences.

The same reasoning may be applied for inclusion of additional species in CITES lists. Development of procedures based upon sound scientific method for fish species identification should allow for a more accurate management of protected species and look-alike species and mitigate economic impact of precautionary principle implementation.

Action taken

Since the mid 1960s, FAO has developed the Species Identification and Data Programme (SIDP) to clarify and improve on a national, regional and global scale, the identification of species of actual or potential interest to fisheries, more recently conservation criteria are also being considered. This programme has produced well known world catalogues, regional identification sheets and national field guides, used for 4 decades by many fish trading companies as the authoritative source of scientific and vernacular names and characteristics. During the last decade, the information regarding bony fish and cartilaginous fish has progressively been included in FishBase. FAO has recently established a list of species of interest in international fish trade and compiled current information on the authentication of fish species using techniques such as electrophoresis and DNA sequencing. This work supports the deliberations of the CCFFP on the identification of fish species for the standardization of fish and fishery products and facilitating fish, trade and especially exports from developing countries.

Based upon information available in particular in FishBase the corresponding common names have been indicated, where available, in the different languages used in the different countries classified according to the regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and Caribbean, Near East, North America, and Southwest Pacific. It is to be noted that, according to most Codex Standards for fishery products, "the name of the product declared on the label shall be the common or usual name applied to the species in accordance with the law and custom of the country in which the product is sold, and in a manner not to mislead the consumer". FAO names and taxonomic codes are also indicated based upon the Aquatic Science and Fisheries Information System (ASFIS). Nevertheless, this document is to be considered as a starting list which needs to be improved and completed. FAO calls upon collaboration of Codex member countries on this work. The list of species needs to be corrected and updated, in particular to verify whether all species are really of commercial interest, to remove species that have no or little commercial interest and to insert as necessary additional species.


Molecular biology has made considerable progress in the identification of processed fishery products, including products having undergone extensive technological treatment. It would be interesting to draw up an inventory of the analytical protocols used in the member countries of the Codex Alimentarius to identify species used in fishery products and to collate available reference data. Such a compilation or database of internationally recognized references could be useful for applying the inclusion procedures and for verifying product conformity with the labelling requirements of standards.

Within CITES, identification manuals are a widely used tool to assist visual identification of CITES-listed species. Such guides may prove extremely useful for some specimens but for others genetic testing may be the only means by which to distinguish CITES-listed species. For certain species, for example whales, DNA tests are already being used for the purposes of tracking trade at the species level and, in some cases, at the individual specimen level. The main difficulties with such tests are the technical resources required and the costs. As much of the trade in aquatic species originates from the waters of developing countries, the use of sophisticated tools such as DNA testing or examination of microscopic details at the point of export may prove beyond current capacity. Overall, it is unlikely to be feasible to implement such rigorous testing regimes as a primary means of detecting specimens of a listed species, particularly Appendix II-listed species for which trade may occur widely and in high volumes. However there is potential to use these methods as a secondary method to verify whether specimens identified by visual means are derived from a listed species.

Correct identification of the species and their origin requires the collaboration of the scientific community at an international level. During the 1st Trans Atlantic Fish Technologist meeting (TAFT) held in Reykjavik, Iceland, in June 2003, the creation of an international network of institutions to provide authentic reference samples was proposed; indeed, the main problem to authenticate a sample is often the lack of authentic reference material at the location where the analysis is required. It would be most useful to construct a database or a web page, containing a list of each species being used as food, with the common names for each species, the location where each common name is indeed common, the scientific name, description of the analyses performed on the species and link to the results (for example, material and methods used for IEF, 2-DE analyses, PCR amplifications, NMR and trace element analyses, etc). This could link to a page containing a figure of how the results look (photograph of the gel or the scan) and, if possible, to a table containing the values corresponding to the figure. For each species, it would also be most helpful to include a link to an institution from which samples of authentic material can be obtained

The Sardina pilchardus has been one of the recently disputed examples of species identification conflicts
The Sardina pilchardus has been one of the recently disputed examples of species identification conflicts

The support of an internationally recognized institution like FAO is useful to establish the infrastructure and the contacts among the relevant institutions in each country. FAO is currently examining the possibilities of taking on this responsibility through a Web-based system (Aquatic Food Program AFP) keeping in mind the need to ensure easier access to scientific information by developing countries. By fostering collaboration between various international institutions and individual scientists, FAO expects that AFP will generate a peer-reviewed aquatic food safety and quality multidisciplinary knowledge base. The long-term goals of the AFP are to support member countries in the area of safety and quality (including authenticity) of food produced from aquatic species.

Such a list of common names linked to the AFP knowledge base containing scientific data could be useful for preparing and implementing a new Codex inclusion procedure and, more generally, for further work on species identification and for enhancing international fish trade transparency.

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