Rampant Seafood Fraud Hurts Oceans, People

Rampant fraud in the seafood industry is hurting ocean ecosystems as well as peoples’ health and finances, says international advocacy group Oceana.

The group launched its Stop Seafood Fraud campaign yesterday in Washington D.C., to address industry fraud that includes mislabeling fish and falsifying documents.

"We can track organic bananas back to packing stations on farms in Central and Latin America, yet consumers are given little to no information about one of the most popular foods in the United States – seafood," says Dr. Michael Hirshfield, senior vice president for North America and chief scientist for Oceana. "With imports representing the vast majority of the seafood eaten in the United States, it’s more important than ever to know what we are eating and where, when and how it was caught."

According to their report, while 84% of the seafood eaten in the US is imported, only 2% is inspected and less than 0.001% is inspected specifically for fraud. 

Recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25-70% of the time for fish like red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, disguising species that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.

"We’ve tested well over 1,000 fish fillet samples over the past four years, from more than 50 cities across the country," says William Gergits, co-founder and managing member of Therion International, LLC, which tests seafood DNA. "Results from our DNA lab show that about 50% of the time the fish you are eating is not the species listed on the menu."

"Seafood fraud puts consumers and restaurants trying to make honest, green choices at a disadvantage," says Ellen Kassoff Gray, general manager and co-owner of D.C. restaurants Watershed and Equinox. "We need the U.S. government to provide us with the tools to make good decisions for our oceans, our pocketbooks and our health. It’s just good business."

Our seafood is following an increasingly complex path from fishing vessel to processor to distributor and ultimately to our plates. Seafood safety is handled by a patchwork of laws with no federal agency definitively in charge of addressing seafood fraud. Little coordination or information sharing exists within the U.S. government and many of these laws are not being fully implemented.

"Seafood fraud can happen at many steps in the supply chain," says Stephen Vilnit, commercial fisheries outreach and marketing at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "There are no longer any excuses for seafood fraud. We’ve got the technology to trace our seafood – and that’s good for everyone from the fisherman to the consumer."

Oceana is calling on the federal government to make combating seafood fraud a priority, including implementing existing laws, increasing inspections, and improving coordination and information sharing among federal agencies.

The nonprofit is also working to ensure that the seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legal and honestly labeled, including requiring a traceability scheme where information such as when, where, and how a fish is caught follows it throughout the supply chain – from boat to plate – allowing people to make informed decisions about the food they eat.

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