Fish Story: Students Discover Widespread Mislabelling

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Red Sea Sturgeonfish, photo J.E. Randall, Fishbase

Here is another of those stories about how technology is changing so fast, and how it can empower us. John Schwartz writes in the New York Times about how high school student Kate Stoeckle was talking over a sushi dinner with her dad, a scientist working in DNA bar coding, a much simpler and cheaper way of identifying species. She asked "Could you bar code sushi?" Dad answered "Yeah, I think you could — and if you did that, I think you'd be the first ones."

So she and a friend went to work, eating sushi. As dad said, "It involved shopping and eating, in which they were already fluent." They sent the samples to the University of Guelph, where graduate student Eugene Wong did the analysis, and found that half of the restaurants and six out of ten grocery stores sold mislabelled fish.

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Gold Ribbon Soapfish, photo J.E. Randall, Fishbase

Back in Guelph, Wong and Assistant Professor Robert Hanner tested 96 samples from New York and Toronto, and found that 25% were mislabelled, Tilapia got sold as tuna, which is worth twice as much. Endangered atlantic halibut was sold as pacific halibut. Dr. Hanner is quoted in the Globe and Mail:

"We're not really sure where mislabelling is occurring," he says, adding that he thinks it's usually not the fishermen or the fishmongers themselves. "My guess is it's happening somewhere in the processing and distribution supply chain."

He hopes that one day people will have portable DNA detectors that will tell you what the catch of the day really is.

That technology may be a few years away, he says, but 10 years ago who would have thought that cellphones would come equipped with cameras and GPS devices?

"The cost of doing this is coming down," he says. "What we need to do is to get it out of university research labs and into the hands of border inspectors and end consumers." ::Globe and Mail

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Blue Spotted Wrasse, photo J.E. Randall, Fishbase

Back in New York, John Schwartz writes in the New York Times:

The students worked under the tutelage of Jesse H. Ausubel of Rockefeller University, a champion of the DNA bar coding technique. As for Ms. Strauss and Ms. Stoeckle, Dr. Ausubel said they "have contributed to global science" by adding to the database, built on a model similar to that of Wikipedia, in which people around the world can contribute.

In a way, Dr. Ausubel said, their experiment is a return to an earlier era of scientific inquiry. "Three hundred years ago, science was less professionalized," he said, and contributions were made by interested amateurs. "Perhaps the wheel is turning again where more people can participate." ::New York Times
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