Behind the Fishy Fa

Behind the Fishy Fa

Emma Bryce
Published: 03/07/2013

But which fish is it? Photo by Karsten Elmose Vad / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


A short while ago, Americans were stunned by research from conservation group Oceana, which showed that at some point between baited line and dinner plate, roughly 30 percent of the country’s fish is mislabeled—a process that’s being recognized increasingly as organized seafood fraud. The motivation? Somewhere along the supply chain, people see the benefit of disguising fish that are cheaper, more abundant, or less desirable as fancier fare. But mislabeling seafood could have impacts not only on people, who might eat fish that they shouldn’t, but on the oceans as well, as lines between legal and illegal catch begin to blur.

In the wake of this fraud research, U.S. Massachusetts representative Edward Markey is trying to combat seafood mislabeling. On Wednesday, he reintroduced the Safety And Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act—the SAFE Seafood Act—a piece of legislation that first reared its head in July 2012, but was not enacted. Now, as Markey highlights it again he hopes it will steer businesses and consumers away from misrepresented fish.

“Fish fraud is a national problem that needs a national solution,” Markey said in a statement. “From tackle to table, this bill makes the entire seafood supply chain more transparent and trustworthy.”

Seafood fraud is deemed such a prominent problem because of Oceana’s findings—among that startling 30 percent figure, their research shows that 44 percent of the grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi outlets they visited sold mislabeled fish. Snapper and tuna were the most frequently mislabeled, they found, as those more desirable fish usually stood in for a medley of other, less popular, specimens. But beyond Oceana’s findings, there is also the reality that more than 90% of seafood in the U.S. is imported, reports E&E News, and of that only 2% is evaluated for food safety. Overall, less than 1% of the U.S.’s seafood is inspected for fraud, Oceana says.

But why are Markey’s recalibration efforts important, beyond making consumers more aware? Because currently, misrepresented seafood indirectly harms fish in the sea. Oceana reports that seafood fraud creates a gap in the market for illegal fishing, by making it “easy to launder illegally caught seafood products”—fish that are protected or juvenile for instance, or fish that are caught using methods that damage the seafloor or kill endangered species—since it provides an easy cover up for ill deeds. Furthermore, Oceana explains:


Market-driven conservation efforts depend on the consumer’s ability to make an informed purchase of a particular species…This effort becomes impossible when fish are mislabeled. Because mislabeling maintains the appearance of a steady supply of popular fish species despite overfishing, the general public is unaware that the species is in serious trouble.


Without informed consumers, authorities can’t depend on them to change the way they behave.

Markey’s reinstated act might put an end to the confusion. The move would require that seafood bears labels detailing what species it is, where it was caught, and how it was harvested. Also, E&E News reports:

The bill calls for expanding imported seafood safety inspections, requiring inspectors to check for fraud, establishing procedures for refusing mislabeled imports and publicly listing violators.

The solution to the problem of misrepresented fish is naturally to start calling fish what they are, as Markey’s new proposition suggests.

Another way is to pick up on the gathering trend that’s creating a sustainable market out of the ‘less desirable’ fish that stand in for species like snapper and tuna. Commonly called ‘trash fish’, these are by-catch species that would traditionally have been thrown back into the sea because of lack of consumer demand. Selling these specimens not only draws consumer gullets away from struggling populations of less abundant fish like tuna, but might also contribute to the culture of knowing where food comes from.

Similarly, Community-Supported Fisheries—in the same spirit as the Community-Supported Agriculture that facilitates direct access for city residents to sustainably grown food—could help to stopper seafood fraud by shortening the supply chain and therefore limiting the potential for fraud to occur.

Ultimately though, it’s policy that has to change, which is why the reintroduced SAFE Seafood Act is so encouraging. At Wednesday’s event, David Schorr, head of the World Wildlife Fund's Transparent Seas Project, concluded in this vein that “the SAFE Seafood Act has the potential to put a dent in the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices responsible for a fifth of all fish harvested from the world’s oceans.”


Related stories:

Gone Fish – Ted Williams

Safety Net – Catherine Elton

Raising Fish in Urban Areas – Rachel Nuwer

The Truth Behind Food Labels – Gretel H. Schueller

Trash Fish: It’s What’s for Dinner – Dan Oko