Seafood Fraud: Oh, what a tangled web . . .

by Mary Hall on March 7, 2013

Imagine driving up the North Atlantic coastline, far beyond New Brunswick, winding your way along hair-raising mountain highways to reach a remote fishing village on the edge of the sea.  Based on my experience, this little fishing village is a “foodie paradise.” You’ll find fresh berries, fresh bread and French pastries, local beer, handmade cheese and yogurt, and of course, lots of fish.  Dotting the craggy coast, unassuming seafood restaurants operate out of odd buildings and historical homes.  You may see one or two fishing boats heading out to sea.  Still, something fundamental appears to be missing: fresh fish.

After June, the fish served in the restaurants along the Canadian North Atlantic is frozen and, technically speaking, not local.  The local fishermen have used up their government allotment of fishing days at sea.  Still they head out to sea—to shop.  They purchase fish that was netted, processed, frozen, and boxed by a Russian factory trawler situated just beyond Canadian waters.  This seafood supply chain has three links: (1) Russians selling boxed frozen fish to Canadian fishermen, (2) Canadian fishermen selling boxed frozen fish to small restaurants, and (3) small restaurants serving fish to tourists.  A three-link supply chain represents three opportunities for fish fraud.  By the time it reaches the end of the chain, do you really know if the fish you’re eating is actually the Atlantic cod you ordered?

If Canada is anything like the U.S., there’s a good chance it’s not.

Courtesy of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) central library.


Last month, the Oceana Foundation released a stunning statement:

“1 out of every 3 fish sold in the United States is mislabeled.”   

Considering that the U.S. is the second largest seafood consumer worldwide (China is first), that statistic represents a massive amount of mislabeled fish.  To complicate matters, 1,700 different species of seafood are available for sale in the U.S.  They come from around the world.  In fact, more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), only 2% of this imported seafood  is inspected at all, and only 0.001% is inspected for seafood fraud.

With these facts in mind, Oceana initiated one of the largest seafood fraud investigations ever conducted. From 2010 to 2012, investigators collected more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states. The study focused on restaurants (including sushi spots) as well as grocery stores. After performing DNA tests on the fish, Oceana announced the following major findings:

  • RED SNAPPER: 113 out of 120 samples of “red snapper” purchased nationwide were imitators. One imitator was tilefish, which the FDA warns should not be consumed by pregnant women or children due to its mercury content.
  • TUNA: 17 out of 18 samples of tuna were actually escolar, a species of snake mackerel that can cause acute gastrointestinal problems.
  • SALMON: 1 out of every 4 salmon samples marketed as contaminant-free, wild fish was actually farmed salmon.

Halibut, sole, Pacific cod, grouper, and striped bass were also swapped for lesser species. Investigators found these fish being replaced with cheaper, more abundant fish, even at high-end restaurants.


Courtesy of the National Wildlife Service

What our government can do

At a time when Americans are being urged to eat more seafood, it’s important that the government take steps to ensure that the seafood supply chain is safe. In their 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,  the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services advise all Americans, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, to eat seafood at least twice a week for heart and brain benefits. The American Heart Association has long recommended eating fish at least two times a week

According to Oceana, the U.S. government needs to track fish “from boat to plate” to significantly reduce seafood fraud.  This type of tracking would educate consumers by telling them the exact fish species they purchased; where, when and how it was caught; if it was farmed or previously frozen; and if any additives were used during processing.   While U.S. fishermen already provide much of this information at the dock, Oceana says little to none of it currently follows the fish throughout the supply chain.

On March 6, 2013, in response to Oceana’s report, United States Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act (SAFE Seafood Act), which is designed to address the growing problem of seafood fraud.

What you can do

According to Oceana, consumers can do a lot to protect themselves:

  • Ask questions. When you purchase fish, ask what kind of fish it is, if it is wild or farm raised, and where, when and how it was caught.
  • Check the price. A price that seems too good to be true probably is. An unusually low price usually means you are buying a lower quality fish than the type displayed on the label.
  • Purchase the whole fish. When possible, purchase the whole fish. It’s more difficult to swap one species for another when the entire fish is visible.
  • Buy certified. A few different programs, including the Marine Stewardship Council, certify fisheries as sustainable. Certified companies tend to operate under more rigorous ethical standards.
Michael March 8, 2013 at 5:20 am

So long as the species on the plate is more sustainably caught than the one on the label, I don’t see where it’s a big deal. A bigger problem would be the reverse, or fish caught in contaminated environments being advertised otherwise.

Mary Hall March 8, 2013 at 11:20 am

I agree that it may not be a “big” deal if the imitator fish is sustainably caught and doesn’t pose any health hazard. In that case, the consumer is just being ripped off by the discrepancy in price. But the point is, in 1 out of 3 cases, the consumer really does not know what they are getting and where it came from. Some areas of the world have high levels of water pollution

Angela March 12, 2013 at 10:23 am

Ha – that’s a good point! As someone who is very invested in ocean conservation, I sometimes wish that people were cheated more out of unsustainably sourced fish/seafood through imitations, especially as too many people go for ‘fashionable’ species on the brink of collapse and usually wreck them in the kitchen anyway, if industrial food processing hasn’t already done so. (*thinks up art project*) I agree, though, that it might be a fairer idea to inform consumers better about the fish/seafood they are eating and why they cannot have every species of fish all year round.
I recently watched a German documentary on the different types of fake fish/seafood that are (often legally) produced such as fake caviar, fake salmon and surimi ‘crabs’. Wonder whether there is an English language equivalent…

Paige March 8, 2013 at 11:22 am

I disagree, I think it’s equally troublesome to think that what I am ordering is being falsely labeled.

You used Canada as a reference, but how can we learn more about the nature of the US’s supply chain?

I also wonder what the conditions the MSC deems as sustainable…

Mary Hall March 8, 2013 at 12:08 pm

MSC evaluates whether or not the fish population targeted is maintained at healthy levels, the ecosystem is intact, and that the fishery management system is effective. Whole Foods uses the MSC label as a stamp of approval for their sustainably caught fish. Having said that, while I was looking up more info on MSC to answer your question, I came across an NPR 3-part series from last month that criticized MSC as not being quite as rigorous as they make themselves out to be . . . Here are a few links that you might find interesting:
Marine Seafood Council:
NPR series on MSC:
Whole Foods statement on MSC:

Re: US Fish Supply Chain
The Oceana Foundation’s study, referenced in my article, was soley focused on the US seafood supply chain. I regret starting my article off with an example from Canada . . . I think it may throw people off.
Thanks for asking about this!

Virginia March 8, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Thanks for a well researched post. Convincing also. This inspires me to be a doer and act on the problem. It is sad to see suggestions that too much fish should not be consumed because of contamination. Now we can’t thoroughly enjoy it because we’re not sure we are getting our money’s worth in weight (water added) or the species we thought we purchased .

Mary Hall March 9, 2013 at 8:44 am

Thanks for your feedback! Hopefully as more people become aware of this problem, Congress may eventually demand transparency all the way down the seafood supply chain. It will be interesting to see where our fish is really coming from.

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