Seafood images from Bait and Switch Report
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I'm lucky to live on Vancouver Island where you can't walk down the street without tripping over a fisherfolk and his or her boat. It would be tough to pass off a still-twitching catch as something other than what it is, but for eaters further inland that buy their catch from behind glass things are different. Oceana has compiled research from academics, governments and consumers into a report that shows that mislabelling seafood is common practice with serious consequences.
Many fish are intentionally mislabelled, but one DNA study shows that 90% of snapper is mislabelled while an investigation by Consumer Reports concluded that 56% of farmed salmon is sold as wild-caught.
More Fraud with Processed Fish
It's not a surprise that there is more fraud with processed seafood than with fresh.
Processing removes the skin, head, and other parts of a fish used for identification. This means whole fish are more readily identifiable, while fillets and prepared seafood offer more opportunities for fraud (Buck 2007). Anonymity through processing is one of the reasons why seafood fraud is so widespread in the U.S. market, since most fish are processed before being imported. Only about one fifth of imports to the U.S. arrive as whole or gutted fish (Rasmussen and Morrissey 2009)
The report states that there are around 1700 species of seafood caught around the world for sale in the U.S. with only 2% of the catch being inspected. Some of the more common substitutions include Yellowtail for Mahi Mahi, Tilapia for Tuna, Nile Perch for Shark, and a whole host of fish including Atlantic Cod and Mullet Snapper are often labelled Red Snapper.
While most fish is mislabelled to get a higher price or to avoid species-specific tariffs there are other cases where the seller is greenwashing their catch.
Several kinds of tuna are sold under one name, including yellowfin, bigeye, albacore, skipjack and sometimes even bluefin tuna. Whether in cans or at a sushi bar, it can be hard to tell which tuna you are eating from the flesh or the label. Many restaurants fail to explain which species is being sold, and those selling the severely overexploited bluefin tuna often conceal its identity or confuse Atlantic and Pacific fish.
And the fraud doesn't end there.
Other forms of fraud include adding excess breading, ice or salt water to seafood in order to get away with selling smaller quantities of fish than advertised, known as short-weighting.
The process of short-weighting happens at various stages along the fish processing line. Seafood is typically glazed with ice in order to keep the product fresh. Operators are not supposed to add extra ice or include the weight of the ice in the total net weight, which provides less seafood for more money.
The study goes on to cite a study of 21,000 packages of frozen seafood from 17 states across the U.S. where up to 40% of the product's weight was ice. This would cause the consumer to be overcharged by as much as nine dollars per package.
Fraud Causes More Destructive Fishing
Seafood fraud undermines conservation efforts to prevent overfishing and incidental capture of at-risk species by making illegal fishing profitable. With widespread mislabeling of fish species, legitimate businesses are losing hard-earned profits and consumers are prevented from making eco-friendly choices. Concealing illegally caught fish through at-sea transfers, falsified documentation and underreporting makes responsible fisheries management harder for governments around the world
How to Stop Seafood Fraud
Oceana lays out some guidelines that they think would put a stop to seafood fraud in the U.S. The first of these is to track and trace seafood and they believe that the technology exists to do this, with the EU havig already established a system of catch certification. They also suggest that the federal government could do a better job implementing existing laws and coordinating federal agencies.
(1. Right is rockfish, left is red snapper. 2. Right is wild salmon, left is farmed Atlantic salmon.)
Full Report: Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health. (pdf)
More on Our Troubled Oceans
Overfishing 101: How We're Fishing the Oceans Dry
Warmer, More Acidic Seas Spell Doom for West Coast Abalone