A new study used DNA testing to reveal shark meat being sold under generic fish names.
When Britons head to the fish and chip shop, they might actually be eating 'shark and chips'. An alarming new study, published in Scientific Reports, has found that almost 90 percent of fish and chip shops in the UK are serving up a species of shark called the spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias). This shark, which was abundant at the beginning of the 20th century, is now considered endangered in Europe and vulnerable in the rest of the world.
How does shark meat make its way onto diners' plates? The problem lies partly with the UK's seafood labeling system. Fish sold under generic names, such as rock, huss, and flake, are often spiny dogfish, as well as other types of shark, including nursehound and starry smoothhound. (These are at lower risk than the spiny dogfish.) Munchies reported:
"In the United Kingdom, those labels are allowed by EU legislation for a variety of shark species, but they don’t make it clear that what you’re ordering is, in fact, endangered shark."
The Guardian explained that, in the EU, it was illegal to catch spiny dogfish until 2011, but now it can be sold as bycatch, "when it is brought up in nets that target other species."
The researchers from the University of Exeter tested 117 tissue samples from 78 fish and chip shops (samples were battered and fried when collected) and 39 fishmongers (frozen and fresh) in southern England. They also examined 40 shark fins, some purchased from wholesalers and others provided by the UK Customs Agency. From CNN:
"Researchers determined the species to which the samples belonged by cross-referencing the DNA sequence of a sample with the Barcode of Life DNA database. The species identified included the starry smoothound, nursehound, Pacific spiny dogfish and blue shark. Most common, however, was the spiny dogfish, which 77 of the samples were found to be."
Unfortunately, these findings aren't all that shocking, as seafood is notoriously mislabeled. In 2018 Oceana Canada released a report that found 44 percent of seafood sold by retailers and restaurants across the country to be mislabeled. The British Charity Shark Trust said it wasn't surprised by the study, either, telling CNN, "Sharks and rays are at a substantially higher risk of extinction than most other groups of vertebrates."
It's clear that labeling rules need to be tightened up. Customers have a right to know what they're eating and where it came from, and they should be able to refuse an endangered species. (More precisely, they shouldn't even be offered one!) It's also important to know for health reasons. As study author Catherine Hobbs pointed out,
"Knowing what species you are buying could be important in terms of allergies, toxins, mercury content and the growing concern over microplastics in the marine food chain."
Don't hesitate to ask questions the next time you're buying fish. If a retailer cannot provide a satisfactory answer, choose something else – or, better yet, follow famed marine biologist Sylvia Earle's lead and choose not to eat seafood at all. See full study here.