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Cans of pink salmon caught in U.S. waters, processed in Asia, and sold at a supermarket in Washington, D.C. (Jon Greenberg) Cans of pink salmon caught in U.S. waters, processed in Asia, and sold at a supermarket in Washington, D.C. (Jon Greenberg)

Cans of pink salmon caught in U.S. waters, processed in Asia, and sold at a supermarket in Washington, D.C. (Jon Greenberg)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg December 13, 2019

Fishy stat: Elizabeth Warren goes overboard with claim on re-imported fish

The first quick-fire question Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon put to Elizabeth Warren Dec. 5 was, "What is the most important issue facing American voters today?"

"Corruption," Warren fired back.

That fits well with her campaign message that big corporations and the uber-rich have wormed their way into the corridors of power in Washington.

But Warren has another bit of fishy business on her mind.

In a Dec. 10 policy brief, she laid out plans to leverage the power of the oceans to fight climate change and boost jobs in the fishing industry. Among her points, Warren said America had offshored too much of the fish processing business.

"We must also rebuild the necessary infrastructure to once again support vibrant coastal communities and a local seafood economy," Warren said. "Today, roughly one in four fish eaten in the United States was caught here and sent to Asia for processing before being re-imported for American consumers. By building processing plants in the United States, we can not only decrease the carbon footprint of the seafood industry, but we can also create a new class of jobs in the Blue Economy."

Dare we say, that 1-in-4 statistic had us hooked.

We got in touch with the fishery researchers who wrote the paper Warren used to support her assertion. They said they didn’t offer that stat, and while they don’t have an exact estimate, her figure is probably too high.

Should Warren throw this one back? Let’s break it down.

The life cycle of a fishstick 

Off Alaska, up in the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands, trawlers bring in over 1.3 million metric tons of Alaska pollock, a versatile white fish. The catch is huge, amounting to a third of America’s total seafood output. Measured in sales, about a quarter of the catch stays in the United States and shows up on grocery shelves as everything from filets to breaded fish sticks to imitation crab meat.

China buys about 14% of the catch. And some of that comes back to the United States.

"Fish is processed in places like China because the costs of processing are cheaper than they are in the United States," said former U.S. Agriculture Department chief economist Joseph Glauber.

As much as $900 million worth of pollock and other seafood is caught in U.S. waters, processed in China and sold here as filets and fish sticks.

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The general pattern repeats for pink salmon. It’s caught in Alaska, sent to countries  such as China or Thailand, and comes back as salmon burgers or perhaps salmon in a can. Other species of fish, to a lesser extent, also make this global round trip.

Tough to estimate

Warren said that about one out of four fish Americans eat are part of this cycle, citing a National Academy of Sciences paper from a multi-university research team.

But you won’t find Warren’s stat in that article, because the article tackled a different question. The authors wanted to debunk a talking point that only 10% of the seafood Americans eat is domestically produced. (This is a popular talking point among some top U.S. officials.)

The researchers wrote that a better estimate of the fish caught and eaten here would be about 35% to 38%. Warren’s staff told us they took the difference between 10% and 35%, got 25% and used that to come up with the statistic that 1-in-4 fish was caught here, sent overseas, and re-imported.

"That would not be the correct approach," said co-author Jessica Gephart at American University. "The 10% was not a solid number to begin with."

In other words, the article did not take the 10% as given, and then add in the re-imported fish. It was a complete reworking of all the numbers.

Martin Smith, professor of environmental economics at Duke University, offered support for the topline results of Gephart and her colleagues for domestic-origin consumption. He reached a similar percentage based on the 10-most commonly eaten fish in the United States. "So, that’s a totally different methodology that gets to a similar number," Smith said.

All researchers agree that there’s a severe lack of good data, and estimates will vary. And what Warren described is a real issue.

But the actual number of fish caught here, processed in Asia, and then sold here, Gephart said, is likely "significantly less" than one out of four.

Our ruling

Warren said one out of four fish caught in the United States is processed in Asia and then eaten here. That relies on a misreading of a research article that aimed to debunk a widely used statistic.

One of the co-authors said Warren’s statistic was significantly too high and the method her staff used to derive it was not correct.

The issue of domestic seafood being processed overseas is large, but experts said it is not as large as Warren said.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

CORRECTION (April 20, 2020): This fact-check originally relied on government data that blended live weight with processed weight. This led us to understate the share of pollock sold overseas, and overstate the amount that went to China. The fact-check has been reflected to show the accurate figure.

Our Sources

Elizabeth Warren, We need a Blue New Deal for our oceans, Dec. 10, 2019

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, To create sustainable seafood industries, the United States needs a better accounting of imports and exports, May 7, 2019

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Supporting information: The US seafood deficit: globalization, trade wars, and sustainability, May 7, 2019

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Commercial fishery statistics, accessed Dec. 11, 2019

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Global Wild Fisheries, accessed Dec. 11, 2019

U.S. Department of Agriculture, A Tale of a Fish from Two Countries, Feb. 21, 2017

Wall Street Journal, Fish Caught in America, Processed in China Get Trapped by Trade Dispute, Aug. 9, 2018

Sustainable Fisheries-University of Washington, How much U.S. Seafood is Imported?, 2019

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Assessment of the Walleye Pollock Stock in the Eastern Bering Sea, Nov. 19, 2018

Forbes, How The Trade War With China Is Threatening America's Largest Fishery, Feb. 12, 2019

U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Alaska pollock and cod prices on the way up, Jan. 14, 2019

U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Global fish highlights, January 2019

McDowell Group, Pink Salmon Product Development and the Role of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, February 2011

Sea Port, Pollock, accessed Dec. 12, 2019

The Hill, The seafood trade deficit is a diversionary tactic, Sept. 20, 2018

Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Interview with Elizabeth Warren, Dec. 5, 2019

Interview, Jessica A. Gephart, Assistant Professor Environmental Science, American University, Dec. 12, 2019

Email exchange, John Ewald, director of public affairs, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - Fisheries, Dec. 12, 2019

Email exchange, Martin D. Smith,  professor of environmental economics, Duke University, Dec. 12, 2019

Email exchange, Trevor A. Branch, Associate Professor Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Dec. 11, 2019

Email exchange, Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow, International Food policy Research Institute, Dec. 11, 2019


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Fishy stat: Elizabeth Warren goes overboard with claim on re-imported fish

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