Seafood fraud has been defined as a purposeful misleading of consumers in order to increase profits, and it happens more often than you might think. Roughly one in three seafood samples were found to be mislabeled, worldwide. As consumers we are routinely given little-to-no information on exactly where or how our seafood came to us.
Many restaurants have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy on the source of their fish; beyond the marketplace, they may not even be aware of the complex web that fish catches enter after being harvested.
Try it next time you’re at a seafood restaurant. Challenge your server or chef to produce a location (and a certainty!) of where the evening special came from.
This rampant mislabeling of seafood makes it extremely difficult, even for aware consumers, to make eco-friendly choices. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch can help, but fails at fraudulent labeling.
Seafood fraud can be harmful in many other ways as well. Human health can be directly impacted by ingesting more toxic substances than intended, for example, higher mercury levels due to a mislabeled fish fillet. Mislabeled seafood also creates a market for illegally harvested fish that inevitably get mixed into legal catches (see post on Black Fish). Finally, mislabeling certain illegally caught species can mislead consumers about the true availability of seafood, often skewing the misconception towards higher availability of over-fished species. For instance, farmed salmon is almost half of the time mislabeled as wild, for fraudulent reasons (see post), leading the public to believe that wild-caught salmon is more prevalent than it actually is.
In a recent survey by Oceana that looked into mislabeled seafood in consumer marketplaces, 4 out 5 Americans stated that they would prefer new requirements to help reduce seafood fraud. Oceana is pushing towards increased traceability of seafood, with hopes to influence a new standard of seafood marketing.
Earlier this year, the NOAA Fisheries task force proposed creating a U.S. seafood traceability program that would increase data on fish landings, harvesting, and chain of custody.
“This proposed rule is a critical first step in our efforts to create a comprehensive traceability program designed to prevent products from illegal and fraudulent fishing entering U.S. commerce,” said Catherine Novelli, under secretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment. “Starting with our discrete list of priority seafood species, we will create an effective program to protect against practices that undermine the sustainability of our shared ocean resources.”
By highly scrutinizing the different links in the seafood chain, regulations and proper consumer information can help reduce the unknown variability in what we eat. Along with honest labels, scientists, policy-makers, and the general public will have a better idea of where fish stocks stand, without looking through the blurred mess of seafood fraud.