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Why You Don't Realize That You're Probably Eating Endangered Fish

The problem is not simply a cheaper fish being sold as a more expensive one. Instead, fish that are disappearing from the face of the earth may be on your plate—and slipping down your gullet.

Alex Swerdloff

You may pride yourself on eating sustainably—avoiding vulnerable or badly managed species, or those that have unacceptable levels of bycatch. But new research has found that, despite your best efforts, the grouper you ordered for lunch may actually be speckled hind—a critically endangered species.

That's because it's not very unusual for threatened and endangered fish species to be knowingly mislabeled and sold as other types of fish, according to a new report by Oceana, a marine conservation group.

Food fraud, as you almost certainly know by now, is rampant. We've reported previously on a British man who was sentenced to six months in jail for selling £1.1 million worth of counterfeit Icelandic sea bass. We've told you how the Italian Health Ministry has effectively sanctioned the practice of washing seafood with a mixture of water and hydrogen peroxide in order to make it appear fresher than it really is.

Hell, another Oceana report we've written about found that upwards of 38 percent of crab cakes sold in the Chesapeake Bay area and labelled to be containing Chesapeake Bay blue crab are actually made from far inferior crab from locations as far away as Indonesia.

READ MORE: Selling Counterfeit Fish Will Put You in the Slammer in the UK

All that is to say that counterfeiting and mislabeling are by no means something new or limited to one particular aspect of the seafood industry, but now we definitively know that the problem is not simply a cheaper fish being sold as a more expensive one. Instead, fish that are disappearing from the face of the earth may be on your plate—and slipping down your gullet.

The Oceana report is an update of one they did on global fish fraud in 2014. This time, they reviewed "more than double the number of studies and cases as previous reviews, looking at seafood fraud globally and examining more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles, popular media sources, and public documents from governments and NGOs." The organization hopes to influence a presidential task force in the US, which has released a proposed rule to address illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing. Oceana says that based on the results of its study, the current proposed rule is inadequate and needs more teeth, in order to make a difference in the significant problems that currently exist.

Some of the outrageous facts that arise from the Oceana report will have you questioning every morsel of fish you've ever put in your mouth.

They found that in a group of 25,000 samples of seafood tested, one in five were mislabeled on average. This included mislabeling at every stage of the supply chain: "retail, wholesale, distribution, import/export, packaging/processing, and landing." In addition, they found that 58 percent of the samples that turned out to be other species posed health risks to consumers, "meaning that consumers could be eating seafood that could make them sick." And a bit of advice: If you travel to Italy and order grouper, perch, or swordfish, chances are you are not going to be eating those fish—a whopping 82 percent of samples of those fish were mislabeled in that country.

READ MORE: We Are About to Hit the Point of No Return for Sustainable Fishing

Perhaps the worst news to come out of the study, though, is that often the substituted species were considered threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. For example, in Brazil, 55 percent of samples sold as shark turned out to actually be largetooth sawfish, a species that is critically endangered and banned for sale in the nation.

Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana, told National Geographic that fishermen often mislabel species either caught as bycatch or purposely caught in violation of the law. "They're going to label it whatever they want to label it to make sure they can sell it in the open market," she says. "There are few controls right now in the seafood supply chain so it's really easy to pull a bait and switch."

Speaking to MUNCHIES in regards to the report, Nigel Preston—the Director General of WorldFish, an international aquaculture and fisheries nonprofit—said: "Most of the world's fish comes from small-scale fisheries where access to certification schemes is an expensive luxury. Transparency in supply chains is crucial not only in terms of protecting fish stocks, but also for securing a just space for these small-scale fishers. WorldFish is working with partners including national governments to reduce the burden on these fishers by building capacities to meet international standard requirements and gain a better share of those markets. By doing so, poorer fishers will be less likely to draw on depleted resources."

Seems like you might just want to take a second and third look at that "grouper" you just ordered.