A Case of Mistaken Identity: Seafood Fraud

Paper: Marín A, Serna J, Robles C, Ramírez B, Reyes-Flores LE, Zelada-Mázmela E, et al. (2018) A glimpse into the genetic diversity of the Peruvian seafood sector: Unveiling species substitution, mislabeling and trade of threatened species. PLoS ONE 13(11): e0206596.

Everyone loves salmon! Maybe a little too much — high demands for salmon contributed to the overexploitation of their fisheries. Source: Flickr, James Bowe

Sustainable seafood has recently become a hot topic in marine conservation. Scientists and conservationists advise transparency in the seafood process: knowing where it came from, how it was sourced, and what its species is are some of the best ways that we as consumers can imbue “eco-friendly” into our diets. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helped pioneer fishing transparency with their Dolphin-Safe certification, which monitors and marks sustainable tuna products that pose minimal threat to dolphins and other marine mammals. Additionally, the Marine Stewardship Council places its label on seafoods it deems sustainable. The Monterey Bay Aquarium even created its Seafood Watch website, an easy way for consumers to find local grocery stores or restaurants which provide sustainable seafood.

A tasty Peruvian ceviche. Source: Flickr,

However, what happens when we can’t track seafood’s journey or we’re not exactly sure about what we’re eating? These are some of the complications policy-makers are facing today. Specifically, Peru is dealing with this very predicament. As one of the world’s largest fishing States, Peru’s economy depends on its fishing industry. Unfortunately, seafood fraud (or the intentional or accidental mislabeling of seafood products) is a massive concern which permeates Peru’s government and economy for a variety of reasons. The challenge is that seafood fraud can happen anywhere in the seafood process: from the initial catch to its provision in markets and restaurants.

Marín et al. (2018) utilized full and mini-DNA barcoding to assess the accuracy of Peru’s seafood labeling. These researchers collected 143 samples from restaurants, supermarket chains, markets, fish landing sites, multimarkets, and wholesale fish markets. Representative of Peru’s highly diverse fauna, Marín et al. (2018) identified 55 different species of seafood representing mostly sharks, rays, and bony fishes.

a. Fish Landing Site: guitarfish; b. Market: Pacific menhaden; c. Supermarket chain; d. Multimarket; e. Restaurant: marinated seafood “cebiche”; f. Restaurant: spicy shellfish cream “picante de mariscos”; g. Restaurant: grilled octopus; h. Restaurant: fish and shellfish in “parihuela” soup; i. Restaurant: fried Peruvian grunt. Source: Marín et al. (2018)

However, the study also found that about 35 out of the 131 identified samples were mislabeled, and the majority of mislabeled products came from markets and restaurants. Interestingly, most mislabeled products (about 94.28%) were cooked, so their features could not be determined just by examining them superficially. The most common species found in samples was the Chilean eagle ray, which was often labeled as manta ray, guitarfish, and smooth tooth hound (a type of shark). Additionally, most sharks were mislabeled as “tollo”, a generic name for shark. Finally, four samples were categorized as endangered species illegal to fish: a whale shark and three iridescent sharks.

Seafood fraud is loaded with complexities, as those who mislabel seafoods may be doing so knowingly or unknowingly. It’s important we make sure not to vilify those who commit seafood fraud, but rather understand the mechanisms which may influence it. For example, illegal fishing for endangered or vulnerable species can be quite profitable since often times, high demand for these species directly contributes to overexploitation of marine stocks. A continued high demand paired with relatively low supply increases the value of these seafoods. These aforementioned high economic incentives to illegally fish paired with Peru’s tendency to give one common name (like tollo) for multiple species confuses seafood transparency. As always, policy suggestions have their nuances. Marín et al.’s (2018) study shows us that it’s most definitely not only the consumer’s responsibility to ensure seafood transparency. Ultimately, this research proves DNA barcoding an effective way to identify seafood species and enhance seafood transparency, a reliable tool that can augment the Peruvian government’s current work to fight against seafood fraud.

For an example on efforts to increase global fishing transparency, check out this real-time map of fishing vessels by Global Fishing Watch! This data visualization allows anyone at any time to watch fishing vessels, and has helped spot vessels “going dark” (turning off their GPS tracker) right before approaching a marine protected area, and then coming back right outside of it—a clear sign of illegal fishing. Just one month ago, Peru began to feature its vessels on the data visualization website in an effort to increase transparency in their fishing.

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