Bait and switch: Fish fraud rampant worldwide, new study shows

·3 min read

Cheap shark labeled as more expensive species. Shrimp balls made of pork. And a scallop bait-and-switch.

Seafood fraud is rampant worldwide.

Recent analysis in more than 30 countries found that 36% of seafood studied was mislabeled, according to a new Guardian Seascape survey. Researchers combed 44 recent studies of more than 9,000 seafood samples from restaurants, fish stores and supermarkets.

Glaring examples surfaced of a 2018 study in which nearly 70% of supposed snapper sold throughout the U.K. were actually from 38 other species, including some possibly endangered reef-dwelling species, The Guardian found.

The Guardian was careful to note that the results did not mean that a third of all seafood worldwide is mislabeled; only certain species were analyzed, for instance, “meaning it is inaccurate to conclude that 36% of all global seafood is necessarily mislabeled,” The Guardian said. Likewise, the studies all had different methodologies and samples. “Nor are fish always deliberately mislabeled – although the huge majority of substitutions involved lower-priced fish replacing higher-priced ones, indicating fraud rather than carelessness.”

Some things are mistakenly mislabeled, The Guardian found. But it’s harder to make that case for other situations, in which a variety would be marketed as another, higher-priced, species.

The multifaceted and non-transparent global seafood supply chain leaves numerous openings for fraud, The Guardian found. So too does seafood illiteracy.

And compounding the issue is that on the other side of the Pond at least, many people don’t know what they’re buying, wrote two researchers from Liverpool John Moores University in England.

Marine Biodiversity professor Stefano Mariani and research assistant and PhD student at the University of Salford Marine Cusa asked 720 people from the U.K., Ireland, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Greece to identify six commercial fish species from photos.

“People from Spain performed the best, with an average accuracy score of 38% and a little over two species guessed correctly,” the pair wrote in The Conversation. “U.K. respondents did the worst, with an average accuracy score of 18% and just over one species correctly identified on average. Most of the participants in our study struggled to identify even cod and salmon, and in a few cases threw out wild guesses, such as goldfish, stickleback, piranha and tiger shark.”

But the worst offenders are those who purposely sell low-value fish in place of more popular and expensive species, The Guardian said. There’s also a practice known as fish laundering, when illegally caught fish is pawned off as legit, British Columbia fisheries economist Rashid Sumaila told The Guardian.

The conservation group Oceana published a report earlier this month called for “expanding transparency and traceability to end illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud,” the group said in a statement.

“Americans have a right to know more about the seafood they eat and should have confidence that their dollars are not supporting the pillaging of the oceans or human rights abuses at sea,” said Beth Lowell, Oceana’s deputy vice president for U.S. campaigns, in the statement. “All seafood sold in the U.S. should be safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced and honestly labeled. Until then, honest fishermen, seafood businesses, consumers and the oceans will pay the price.”

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