They say that you are what you eat, but what if what you eat wasn’t what you thought it was? A stunning new report from Oceana shows that about one in five fish dishes sold in the world is mislabeled, with immense consequences for consumers, legal fishers, and the environment, not to mention the fish themselves. Sadly this is no Shark Tale; it’s more like a fish story since consumers are being lied to across the world about what they eat. 

Do you know what you're eating? A new report suggests that you probably don't. Image via Deposit Photos.
Do you know what you’re eating? A new report suggests that you probably don’t. Image via Deposit Photos.

The report, Deceptive Dishes, lays out the “global scale of the problem” of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. There are a variety of forms in which seafood fraud can be found in, “including species substitution—often a low-value or less desirable seafood item swapped for a more expensive or desirable choice—improper labeling, including hiding the true origin of seafood products, or adding extra breading, water or glazing to seafood products to increase their apparent weight.”

So why is this a problem? To begin with, “the majority of assessed fisheries around the world are already being fished at or over their sustainable limits” and many of the species that are being passed off as more valuable fish are actually endangered themselves. Consider how “a Santa Monica, California restaurant and two sushi chefs [who] were charged for selling whale meat, including endangered sei whale meat. The restaurant, which has since closed, had labeled the whale as fatty tuna to hide its true identity when it was shipped to the restaurant and then sold to diners as whale sushi.” This is far from an isolated case in America or abroad. The report identified fraud in 29 countries on every continent but Antarctica, and it found that “nearly one in every five samples tested worldwide, on average, was found to be mislabeled. In the U.S., studies released since 2014 found an average weighted fraud rate of 28 percent.”

The environmental impact of this problem is severe, with “overfishing, destruction of essential habitat (due to damaging bottom trawls), and bycatch (the killing of non-target species) [leading] to severely depleted fish stocks, and more and more marine animals are ending up on a growing list of species threatened with extinction.” Endangered fish are impacted by every aspect of illegal labeling. Some species are sold as more expensive fish, and others are killed to use as bait. “Sixteen percent of the species identified as substitutes are considered to have some level of elevated conservation risk (either threatened or close to becoming threatened with extinction in the near future) by the [International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)]. Most of those (nearly 12 percent of all the species substituted) are considered critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. More than half of the species identified as substitutes were species that are categorized as ‘data deficient’ or ‘not evaluated’ by the IUCN, meaning it is not known whether or not these species have healthy populations.”

An example of the impact this has was revealed in “Oceana’s past investigations [which] found that 87 percent of snapper sampled nationwide were mislabeled. In fact, 33 different species of fish were found to be substituted for the snapper sold. The majority of species sold under the name of ‘snapper’ in the U.S. have not had the population status of their stocks evaluated, so it is unclear whether most snapper species are actually sustainably fished or in jeopardy. Of the minority of the snapper species that have been assessed, 20 percent face a high risk of extinction in the wild.” Snappers are far from the only fish species to have this problem in America. “The FDA also allows 66 different species of fish to be sold under the acceptable market name ‘grouper.’ In contrast to the snappers, most of the species marketed under the name grouper in the U.S. have been evaluated by the IUCN for their risk of extinction. Roughly 36 percent are at risk, and 3 percent of those are critically endangered. Oceana’s DNA tests identified a lower fraud rate of grouper compared to snapper (26 percent), but the types of fish being misrepresented were much more disconcerting. For example, gulf grouper, an IUCN endangered species, and speckled hind, an IUCN critically endangered species, were both misrepresented and sold as more sustainably managed fish.” Not even Maryland’s famed blue crabs are immune from this! An Oceana report found that “38 percent of the crab cakes sold as locally sourced blue crab, instead contained imported species, most of which are fished unsustainably.” U.S. law facilitates this mislabeling, by allowing for many different kinds of fish to be labeled with more common names. France has a similar problem, “‘colin’ is the single market name for six different species, including hake (Merluccius spp), saithe (Pollachius virens), European pollock (Pollachius pollachius), marbled rockcod (Notothenia rossii), Alaska pollock (Theragra chalcogramma) and even Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides).” The difference between market names and scientific names is tremendous, and allows for an incredible amount of variance in what is allowed to be counted as, for example, a grouper.

Asian catfish is the species that is most frequently mislabeled as something else. Here's what people have been trying to claim it is. Image via Oceana.
Asian catfish is the species that is most frequently mislabeled as something else. Here’s what people have been trying to claim it is. Image via Oceana.

While in many cases this mislabeling is not illegal, it certainly misleads consumers into thinking that what they are eating is sustainable.

Italy and Brazil were also highlighted in the report for serious problems with mislabeling. “Researchers in Italy found that 82 percent of the 200 grouper, perch, and swordfish samples they tested were mislabeled, and almost half of those mislabeled species are considered threatened with extinction by the IUCN. Similarly, researchers in Brazil found 55 percent of ‘shark’ samples tested were actually the IUCN critically endangered largetooth sawfish, a trade-prohibited species in Brazil.”

Brazil is also an example of other ways in which the environment is harmed by illegal fishing. Their “pink river dolphins and caimans are coming under threat because they are illegally killed for use as bait for an unpopular catfish (Calophysus macropterus), known as “water vultures” by locals. Despite [the] undesirability [of water vultures], researchers noticed that landing data reflected an active fishery. At the same time, researchers noted that a ‘new’ fish named ‘douradinha’ started appearing in Brazilian markets, even though there was no known species identified by this name. Suspicious, researchers collected samples of douradinha…It turned out that 60 percent of these fish were actually the undesirable ‘vulture’ catfish. Because of its low price, public schools, hospitals, penitentiaries and the army may be major markets for this fish, which is alarming as it has been found to contain high levels of mercury.”

This map features just a few of the highlights that Oceana's report found about mislabeling around the world. They also have an interactive map that lets you see even more incidents Image via Oceana.
This map features just a few of the highlights that Oceana’s report found about mislabeling around the world. They also have an interactive map that lets you see even more incidents Image via Oceana.

This leads to the health risks that this poses. Imagine that you have a very specific allergy to cashews. If a store’s peanut butter was actually cashew butter and it didn’t tell you, you might very well be hospitalized. This is exactly the same risk that mislabeling fish poses. “More than half (58 percent) of the samples identified as substitute species in this analysis carried a species-specific health risk to consumers, meaning these risks could not be adequately screened or mitigated due to the mislabeling.” This means that mislabeling fish is endangering the lives of people who are unknowingly eating potentially deadly animals!

These are a few of the health risks that Oceana found that are caused by mislabeling:

  • “Histamine or scombrotoxin poisoning, produced in the decomposition of certain tuna-related species, which can cause tingling or burning of the mouth or throat, rash or hives, low blood pressure, itching, headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fluttery heartbeat and trouble breathing;”
  • “Ciguatera, a natural toxin in certain reef fish from affected waters, which can cause long-term debilitating neurological symptoms, including temperature reversal (not being able to distinguish between hot and cold) and painful tingling;”
  • “Tetrodotoxin, a toxin found in certain pufferfish species, which can cause symptoms ranging from numbness and tingling to paralysis and death;” (I wrote about just how deadly tetrodotoxin is here, in an article about James Bond’s least favorite octopus)
  • “Gempylotoxin, a natural toxin found in escolar and oilfish, which can cause oily bowel discharge, nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps.”

The study highlights just how dangerous these outcomes can be. “Pufferfish have been found substituted for squid in Italy, cod in China, filefish in Taiwan, and monkfish in Chicago. Many species of pufferfish can harbor the natural toxins tetrodotoxin and saxitoxin, which can be deadly at the right dose. The Chicago case sickened the couple who purchased the mislabeled fish and sent the woman to the hospital with numbness, tingling and chest pain. She required weeks of rehabilitative care.”

Another area that is impacted by mislabeling is the economy. “Millions of tons of seafood are caught or harvested, processed, packaged, shipped and sold every year, valuing $148 billion in 2014,” yet “laws are being broken on a global scale” with “the estimated value of annual losses due to illegal fishing worldwide between $10 billion and $23.5 billion.” This is around 10% of the global market for fish. This amounts to a tremendous incentive for illegal activity for economic reasons, and that is exactly what the study found. “Across the world, our review reveals that seafood mislabeling appears to be motivated primarily by economic gain through intentionally misleading buyers at every level of the seafood supply chain. About 65 percent of the studies reviewed include clear evidence of economically motivated adulteration of seafood products. In case after case, cheaper or less desirable fish were mislabeled as more expensive varieties.” In fact, fraud is incentivized at just about every step of the fishing process. “Fraud was found at every level of the seafood supply chain, though the majority of the studies (80 percent) were conducted at the retail level, such as restaurants or grocery stores. The remainder of the studies included samples from the wholesale and distributor level, the import level, or at a number of points in the supply chain. Less than 3 percent involved cases or studies at the point of landing and/or packaging and processing, and just three studies focused on online seafood markets, an emerging sector of the seafood supply chain where labeling rules are still vague.” Consider how “Oceana’s 2013 ‘Seafood Sticker Shock’ report described the prosecution of a U.S. seafood processor for the mislabeling of 160,000 pounds of coho salmon as the more expensive Chinook, a value of $1.3 million. An investigation underway in New England alleges that the owner of multiple fishing vessels and seafood processing facilities was able to hide roughly $154 million in illegally caught and mislabeled seafood in a decades-long scheme.”

This is clearly a significant problem across the globe, with “the risk of overexploitation only increas[ing] when considering the complexity and opacity of the global seafood supply chain, which is rife with illegal fishing, human rights abuses, inadequate management, and with the exception of a few model countries, little to no traceability.”

Is all hope lost? Oceana’s report seems to indicate that it is not. “A presidential task force has released a proposed rule to address IUU fishing and seafood fraud, two problems that are linked due to a global, complex and opaque seafood supply chain and that share a common solution: full-chain traceability for all seafood. The proposed rule includes traceability requirements that would only apply to 13 ‘at-risk’ types of seafood, and those requirements would be in effect only from the boat or farm to the U.S. border.” Oceans argues that “while [this is] a valuable first step, the rule as proposed would be inadequate” because a lot of the fraud that happens occurs within the U.S. “Of the 60 different misidentified types of seafood…only 26 percent would be covered by the rule. Seventy-seven percent of the legal cases reviewed (since 2001), in which seafood was found or suspected to be mislabeled, involved fraud that occurred within the U.S. In other words, the rule as proposed ends traceability at the border and would do nothing to prevent those particular cases of seafood fraud within the United States.”

Oceana suggest that we learn from steps that the European Union has taken to combat fish mislabeling.

In 2000, the EU began developing legal provisions aimed at tracing seafood and providing more consistent information to consumers, and then strengthened the IUU provisions in 2008. Since coming into force in 2010, these increased IUU provisions include a catch certification scheme for all imported and exported seafood, a third-country carding process that imposes import restrictions on countries that are not actively addressing IUU fishing, and penalties for EU nationals who engage in or support illegal fishing around the world. Additional EU regulations that went into effect in 2012 and 2014 require tracing of all seafood from catch or harvest to the retail level (i.e. grocers and restaurants). Requirements expanding consumer information required on seafood products began in 2001 and have since been strengthened in the 2012 and 2014 provisions.

These rules have had their impact clearly demonstrated, as rates of mislabeling have fallen since they were enacted. The information that is now required by the EU includes

  • “The commercial and scientific names of the product;”
  • “The production method: wild-caught (at sea or in freshwater) or farmed;
  • “The catch or production area where the fish was caught or farmed;”
  • “The fishing gear used;”
  • “Whether the product is fresh, frozen or had been previously frozen;”
  • “The “best before” and “use by” date;”
  • “Information about allergens.”
This is an example of what fish labels look like in the EU. Image via Oceana.
This is an example of what fish labels look like in the EU. Image via Oceana.

Oceana argues that even this approach is not without its flaws, saying that “while these provisions have increased fisheries control and the transparency of seafood information, certain weaknesses in the scope, implementation and information available to consumers remain. For example, certain seafood products are exempt from the provisions: most processed or prepared food (i.e., cooked, steamed, breaded, fried or marinated) a category which includes caviar, several types of aquatic invertebrates (like jellyfish, sea urchins and sea cucumbers), and canned seafood. Also excluded from the rules are entire sectors of the seafood supply chain, such as restaurants (both dine-in and take away), canteens, hospitals, schools or catering enterprises, where higher mislabeling rates have been observed, yet are poorly studied.”

The impact of EU labeling laws. Image via Oceana.
The impact of EU labeling laws. Image via Oceana.

If the upcoming presidential task force learns from the lessons of the EU’s handling of mislabeled fish, we could be well on our way to ensuring that consumers know what they’re eating, while also preserving the livelihoods of fishermen who play by the rules as well as protecting our world’s waters and the threatened species that swim therein.

For more on the work that Oceana does, check out their website, and learn about how you can adopt a fish through them here!

For more profiles in nature, from a deadly octopus to a fish that weighs more than a pickup truck to a $300,000 fish to a fish named after Obama to a truly living “living fossil,” read here!