Seafood Fraud: Is that Fish Really a Fish?

That fish you’re grabbing for dinner may actually be mislabelled. Seafood fraud is more common than you think. In a new article, scientists report on the negative impacts of seafood mislabelling on fisheries, marine ecosystems, and our health.

Kroetz, K., Luque, G.M., Gephart, J.A., Jardine, S.L., Lee, P., Moore, K.C., Cole, C., Steinkruger, A., and Donlan, C.J. (2020). Consequences of seafood mislabelling for marine populations and fisheries management. Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, 117 (48).

Mislabelled Food

Have you ever questioned if that wild caught Atlantic salmon you had for dinner last night could have been an imposter? Maybe it wasn’t wild caught. Maybe it was actually caught in the Pacific Ocean. Or maybe it wasn’t even a salmon at all, but (the cheaper) rainbow trout!

We tend to trust our grocery stores and restaurants, but mislabelled food is more common than you might think. Seafood is now the highest traded commodity in the world. As a result, seafood mislabelling (when one species of fish, crustacean, or shellfish is sold as another species) has also increased.

Seafood on the market in Sicily, Italy. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, Lucarelli)

Some fish look quite similar to the naked eye, especially filleted fish – free of skin and fins. It is often impossible for the consumer to distinguish fish species at the point of sale. For this reason, fish and fish products are the second most likely category of food to be subjected to fraud. Seafood fraud or misbranding involves misleading consumers about their seafood (lying about the species, place of origin, or if it was farmed vs. wild caught) in order to maximize profits. Although misbranding is regulated under various food and drug acts, it is not mandatory to confirm the fish species being sold with testing. Seafood mislabelling and seafood fraud has been a rising public concern, however, there has been little study into the impacts or sustainability to affected fisheries.

Finding the Imposters

In new research, scientists decided to investigate what type of impacts seafood fraud could have on fisheries, on habitats, and on the environment itself.

The United States, the largest importer of seafood in the world, was used as a study location due to the amount of well-documented research and data. Scientists compared trends in trade, production, and mislabelling data. By the time fish get to the distribution stage, they are often so hard to identify that forensic testing (using DNA) must be used to determine the actual species. The scientists compared correctly labelled fish and a mislabelled product so they could estimate the amount of mislabelled seafood Americans consume. They were then able to use trade data to determine where the seafood had actually originated and if it was farmed or wild.

What’s Really in Your Food?

The study found that in the United States 190,000 to 250,000 tonnes of mislabelled seafood was being sold each year. That is 3.4 to 4.3% of America’s total seafood consumption. The most common mislabelled seafood was America’s most consumed and preferred seafood, the giant tiger prawn. The giant tiger prawn was often substituted for the smaller white leg shrimp. Although seafood sold in the US is supposed to be labelled appropriately with the seafood location and if it’s wild or farmed, this rule doesn’t apply if the food has been processed (i.e. frozen, peeled, deveined). Therefore, these types of seafood labels can hide anything.

Shrimp is the most popular seafood in America. But also, the most mislabelled. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, Tiia Monto)

Even more disturbing, fish often didn’t come from the location stated on the label either. 28% more substitute products had been imported than what was claimed on the labels. For example, Atlantic salmon, another popular species among Americans, was often mislabelled as Pacific salmon (from a different ocean) or even rainbow trout (usually in the Pacific or in Asia or North America). Since the US has strict policies for bycatch and overfishing, the substituted fish could be taken from an area with less regulations and restrictions.

The United States is not the only place that has this problem. Oceana Canada revealed that a shocking 44% of fish samples in Canada were being mislabelled.

Seafood fraud has negative impacts on the fisheries that are being used as imposter fish. Sometimes the imposter fish were even posing as multiple other species. For example, the striped catfish was found to be a substitute for 12 other types of seafood, putting immense pressure on this fish and fishery. The substituted fisheries often had worse management, unhealthier stocks and a greater percentage of bycatch (fish or marine life accidentally caught). Worse, the seafood could have been obtained illegally or with destructive fishing practices. In turn, supporting illegal fisheries and making them more profitable encourages overfishing, destruction to the marine environment, and damage to fish populations. The study from Oceana Canada found that 30% of mislabelled fish were already endangered, threatened, or vulnerable species, so continuing to catch these illegally will drive more species to extinction.

This is just the amount of BYCATCH (unintended catch) from a shrimp fishery on Florida’s East Coast. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA)

Beyond these negative environmental impacts, seafood mislabeling can have economic impacts, as well as health risks, including human exposure to unwanted allergens, toxins, or environmental contaminants.

So what can we do? Best practices should take into account mislabeling and seafood fraud in order to reduce it. Consumers should have better access to information on seafood and know where their fish comes from.

If you want to be sustainable about your seafood choices, there are ways to avoid mislabeling. Try to look for labels on your seafood that have regulatory groups associated, like the Marine Stewardship Council, Aquaculture Stewardship Council, and Naturland. Choose sustainable options (check out this consumer guide!), buy locally sustainable seafood, and learn more about ocean issues so you can feel more comfortable consuming fish with less damage on the environment.

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