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Monday, October 3, 2016

Fighting fish fraud

You could be eating endangered fish without even realizing it

Image result for fish fraudWhen you go out for sushi or visit a seafood restaurant, how sure can you be that you’re really getting what you’ve ordered? Last week, Oceana released some shocking findings: Around the world, an average of one in five samples of seafood is mislabeled.

The report examined 25,000 samples worldwide and reviewed more than 200 published studies from 55 different countries. Every continent was represented apart from Antarctica. The mislabeling was present in every part of the seafood supply chain, including retail, wholesale, distribution, import/export, packaging, processing, and landing.

That’s bad news for many reasons – mislabeling makes dining dangerous for consumers (not all of these species are considered suitable for human consumption), and difficult for people who are trying to avoid mercury exposure or who simply want to dine more sustainably. In most cases, cheap fish were being passed off as more expensive varieties.

But one of the most disturbing findings of the report was the fact that 16 percent of these samples were identified as endangered species. More than half the fish identified as substitutes have unknown population numbers, so that’s likely an underestimate.

For example, in Brazil, 55 percent of the samples sold as shark were actually largetooth sawfish, a critically endangered species that is banned for sale within the country. 

In Italy, 82 percent of grouper, perch and swordfish samples were mislabeled, with nearly half the actual species considered threatened by extinction by the IUCN. 

This isn’t a phenomenon limited to foreign countries, either: in Santa Monica, Calif., the “tuna” on the menu at one sushi restaurant turned out to actually be whale meat.

Tightening Seafood Industry Regulations May Help

While catching and selling these species is illegal, most of the time the laws aren’t well-enforced. They may simply be reeled in as bycatch by fishermen seeking other species, or fishermen may purposely seek them out in violation of the law.

Either way, says Oceana’s senior campaign director, Beth Lowell, they’re often mislabeled intentionally to make it possible to sell them on the open market. Due to the lack of controls in the seafood supply chain, this fraud is rarely recognized.

The U.S. is currently working to address seafood fraud, with President Obama pushing for a new rule that would require greater traceability of the path certain types of fish take on their way to the market. 

However, this plan would only track the 13 types of seafood most likely to be mislabeled – and Oceana would like all seafood to be covered by the rule. The EU has already pushed for transparency in its seafood industry, and the rate of fraud has already dropped from 23 percent in 2011 to 8 percent in 2015.

In the Meantime, Here’s How You Can Avoid Fish Fraud

So now that you know what a massive issue seafood fraud is, how can you make sure you’re eating the fish you ordered? There are a few ways savvy consumers can ensure they’re getting their money’s worth, eating sustainably, and avoiding fish that aren’t healthy for human consumption.

First, if you live near the sea or other body of water, there’s always the option of buying your fish fresh from the fisherman. You can often find them at farmer’s markets or local piers. In general, the fewer hands the fish passes through on the way to your plate, the more likely it is to be what you wanted.

Another option is to see if your local grocery store or restaurant participates in a voluntary seafood tracking program. Trace and Trust is a company that identifies every fish in its program with an ID number, so you can always be sure where your fish was caught, which species it is, and even the identity of the boat captain.

If neither of those options are available, there are some safer bets you can make. According to Oceana, Mahi Mahi, flounder and tilapia are the least likely fishes to be mislabeled. 

Salmon is also a good bet–though your “wild caught” filet may actually be farmed, you’ll probably at least receive the right species. 

Interestingly enough, research has found that canned tuna is also unlikely to be mislabeled. 

Shellfish are unlikely to be mislabeled in general, although your crab may actually be from China even if it’s advertised as being from Maryland.

And, of course, when in doubt: Ask your fishmonger plenty of questions about where your fish came from. The answers they give you about the source of your seafood will help you judge whether or not you’re comfortable purchasing from them.