Fish Industry On the Hook for Rampant Mislabeling of Species

A new report identifies rampant fraud in the seafood industry

Reports found that critically endangered largetooth sawfish are sometimes passed off as shark in some fish markets. J. Patrick Fischer via Wikimedia Commons

Looking at an array of fish fillets in a local market, it’s easy to see how you could accidently mix them up. Without the little signs labeling each species, it can be hard to tell the difference between catfish and cod.

recent report, however, by a seafood industry watchdog organization suggests that a slew of fish identification mix ups are not accidental. The group has unearthed evidence of fraud at almost every step of the supply chain—actions that could be putting critically endangered species at risk.

For years, the conservation group Oceana has had its eye on mislabeling in the seafood industry. In the report released last week, the group examined over 200 studies, news articles and government documents related to mislabeling in the supply chain that brings fish from the dock to dinner plates. The group found that an average of one in five fish were intentionally mislabeled at some point in the process of getting them to consumers, Nicholas St. Fleur reports for the New York Times.

“It is likely that the average consumer has eaten mislabeled fish for sure,” Beth Lowell, Oceana’s senior campaign director and an author on the report, tells St. Fleur. “You’re getting ripped off, while you enjoyed your meal you’re paying a high price for a low fish.”

In most cases, Oceana found that cheap farmed fish, like Asian catfish, were substituted for more expensive fish like perch and grouper. However, the study also suggests that in some cases, critically endangered fish are passed off as food by fishermen and wholesalers, Jani Actman reports for National Geographic. For example, the group found that the largetooth sawfish, a species of ray, is frequently sold as shark in Brazilian markets, while speckled hind is often mislabeled as grouper in the United States. The report even found one incident of a California sushi restaurant selling meat from endangered sei whales as fatty tuna.

“That endangered seafood item is one fewer individual from that population that is struggling,” Oceana senior scientist and study author Kimberly Warner tells Actman.

This doesn’t mean that fishermen are necessarily targeting endangered species, as the fish could end up in fishing nets as bycatch. It does, however, raise questions about how the seafood industry should be regulated. Oceana is now calling for the Obama administration to expand proposed rules, requiring better traceability for caught fish at borders. They also are calling for seafood restaurants and supermarkets to demand more accountability from their purveyors, Ben DiPietro reports for the Wall Street Journal.

But the findings don’t have everyone in the seafood industry convinced that more regulation is the answer.

“If they were lobbying for more enforcement, we would be in lockstep,” Gavin Gibbons, a spokesperson for leading seafood industry trade group the National Fisheries Institute, tells Actman. “But they’re saying drivers are running a stop sign—and it doesn’t make sense to put up another stop sign. They’re asking for more bureaucracy.”

Gibbons says that Oceana’s report is misleading, arguing that they only looked at studies that focused on fish that are frequently mislabeled. Lowell, however, says that the report took more than 25,000 fish samples from around the world into account, indicating that there is a larger issue at hand.

“This report reveals that it’s a global problem and it’s not going to go away on its own,” Lowell tells St. Fleur.

The United States government is set to issue new rules regarding fishing regulations by the end of the year.

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