Good Seafood Fraud?

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China helps to fuel the international demand for shark fins; and fishermen, in order to meet this demand, illegally kill and waste sharks all over the world every day.  A recent Chinese shark fin scandal, though, has the world saying “meh.”  

The Global Times reports that these fake shark fins on the market are made of gelatin and algin.  “The contents of real shark fins and fake ones made with gelatin are almost the same, and the textures are also the same. Also they will do no harm to humans if they are made with food standard gelatin and algin,” said Gao.  In fact, Gao expands, fake shark fins are better for you because they’re not loaded with heavy metals.  

Could this seafood fraud be good for Chinese seafood lovers and the oceans?  Our crack team will keep you up to date.

The Thin Blue Line: border crossing and illegal fish

130107 #traceability Coast Guard photo (1)

Original image credit: United States Coast Guard

What: Blacktip, bonnethead, and bull sharks

Where: Four miles south of the Texas coast

How: Last month, a US Coast Guard ship from South Padre Island came across an illegal, five-mile long gillnet full of dead sharks 17 miles north of the US-Mexico border. Among the casualties were 225 blacktip, 109 bonnethead, and 11 bull sharks.  No arrests were made since the boat that set the net was not found.

The Story: “Gill nets indiscriminately kill any fish or marine mammal it snares across miles of ocean, often leaving much of the catch spoiled by the time it is hauled in,” said Coast Guard Commander Daniel Deptula. Because of their destructive impact on fish, turtles and marine mammals, gillnets have been banned in Texas state waters since 1981; however, the Coast Guard recovered 49 miles of them in 2012 and the numbers are on the rise. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reports that incidents of pirate fishing with gillnets off the coast have doubled since 2011. “The seizures are far past any other year in my 16-year career,” said Sgt. James Dunks said.

The Coast Guard reports that the illegal nets come from Mexican fisherman crossing into the US’s Exclusive Economic Zone to fish because the Mexican fish stocks are so depleted. “Well you get too many people fishing for the same thing, they’re not catching as much, so they’re going to search new territory to try to find more fish,” Dunks said. The growing fear is that pirate fishing by gillnets will cause our Gulf of Mexico fish stocks to resemble those of our neighbor to the south. The Coast Guard believes that the sharks were destined to be finned, a practice where only the fins are cut off the fish to be sold while the rest of the carcass is tossed back into the sea.

What We Can Do: A reliable system of seafood traceability would help consumers to avoid pirate fish and put pressure on fishermen and fishing companies worldwide to supply legal, sustainable seafood for US tables. Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing (IUU) doesn’t just happen in remote corners of the Pacific; it happens here at home and affects YOUR fish. For now, support local fishermen that are involved in positive fishing practices by doing your homework and asking questions about your favorite seafood.

UPDATE: In a separate incident, a Mexican fishing boat captain has just plead guilty to charges of failing to “heave to” after ramming a US Coast Guard ship that caught the boat fishing illegally in Texas waters; the captain performed the maneuvers in an effort to flee and escape prosecution.

The Usual Suspects

121213 Sushi #traceability

Original photo credit: flickr user avlxyz CC BY 2.0

What: “White tuna”, “wild-caught salmon”, and “red snapper”

Where: New York City

How: New York City is the latest metropolitan area found to have a high incidence of seafood mislabeling.

The Story: Oceana continues its series of recent investigations into seafood fraud by testing samples from New York area restaurants and markets. As with Los Angeles and Boston, it may be hard to find correctly marketed seafood in the Big Apple; 39 percent of the 142 samples tested were mislabeled. Large, national chain retailers had the lowest incidence of seafood fraud at 12 percent, while 40 percent of samples tested from smaller, independent retailers were mislabeled.

Researchers found that all of the 16 sushi restaurants included in the study had mislabeled seafood. The most common culprit at sushi bars is marketing the infamous, gastric upset-inducing escolar as “white tuna”, a label that the FDA has established as only appropriate for canned albacore tuna. Language barriers may be the cause of some of these instances of mislabeling, says Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana and an author of the study. “The bottom line is that if you go to a sushi bar, it’s a good idea to ask questions because sushi is an art form. They’re very proud of the fish they serve. So there’s no harm in asking, ‘Well, what is that?’”

Other examples of mislabeling found in the city include farmed Atlantic salmon being sold as wild-caught Pacific salmon, and thirteen different species of fish inaccurately being marketed as red snapper. One fish subbed in for red snapper is tilefish, a fish that the FDA has warned contains high amounts of mercury, and so shouldn’t be consumed by children and pregnant or nursing women. “It’s unacceptable that New York seafood lovers are being duped more than one-third of the time when purchasing certain types of fish,” says Warner.

What We Can Do: With a complex supply chain and various motives for not labeling seafood correctly, finding the source of seafood fraud in the industry is difficult. As long as we continue without a reliable system of seafood traceability in our country, seafood fraud is likely to remain a problem. Until then, ask questions about your seafood. “If vendors don’t know that their customers are demanding this kind of information, they’re going to get away with it forever,” Warner stated.

In the land of cod, not all is as it should be

original photo credit: NOAA

Original photo credit: NOAA

What: Atlantic cod vs. Pacific cod

Where: Boston, Massachusetts

How: Many restaurants and markets in the Boston area are mislabeling seafood (still), but some are blaming the supply chain for their mislabeled menu items.

The Story: The Boston Globe conducted an investigation into seafood sold at Boston area restaurants and markets for the second year in a row, visiting many of the restaurants they tested last year in their award-winning investigation into seafood mislabeling. Even after being called out for mislabeling in last year, many of the restaurants tested this time around were repeat offenders. Out of the 76 samples taken, 58 were found to be mislabeled. In most cases, less expensive fish is being substituted for more costly species, and much of the substitution that takes place uses imported fish.

In several examples, fish being marketed as locally caught Atlantic cod was actually previously-frozen Pacific cod, which many people find less appetizing, and which sells for half the price. Some of the retailers blamed their seafood supplier for the mislabeling, and sent the Globe’s reporters hunting down the murky seafood supply chain looking for answers–and responsibility. Some restaurants did take the results seriously and promised to change their practices and menus, whereas others got defensive. The restaurant manager at Ken’s Steak House was quoted saying, “We’re too busy to deal with such silliness.”

Seafood mislabeling is far from silly, no matter how busy the staff at Boston restaurants may be. As the Globe’s report suggested, mislabeling may stem from different motivations, from trying to maximize profit, wanting to be seen providing a constant supply of hard-to-get seafood, or in response to customer preferences for “local” catch. But lying about where that fish was caught isn’t just a rip off for consumers; it distorts reality for seafood consumers, who might be unaware that their local favorite is in dire straits if it keeps showing up in today’s specials. We shouldn’t be surprised that it may be hard to find fresh Atlantic cod on the East Coast;  Atlantic cod has been overfished for generations, and changing ocean conditions further hamper population growth. Fishermen are dealing with difficult cuts in their quotas, and consumers should know about it.

What We Can Do: With all of the seafood fraud happening in the US and around the world today, the Globe raises a good question: who is to blame? In the end, a poorly regulated seafood industry is the real culprit. Fishermen, retailers, and consumers would all benefit from seafood traceability, which would bring much needed transparency to the seafood supply chain so we can stop pointing fingers, and get back to eating our delicious, well labeled fish.

The name game: seafood mislabeling

121203-red-snapper-fraud-LA-county-600-px

Original photo credit: Christopher Mace

What: Red snapper or Pacific Ocean perch…who knows?

Where: Los Angeles County, California

How: A recent investigation has revealed widespread violations of seafood labeling requirements in LA County.

The Story: The Seafood Task Force, a collaboration among the LA County Department of Public Health, California Department of Health, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, examined seafood from restaurants and markets in the LA area. Some samples were sent for genetic testing to determine the species. Of the 103 samples of seafood, 74 were found to be mislabeled.

The most common violation was the failure to represent the country of origin. When country of origin information was included, it was frequently misrepresented. Another common violation was selling a product labeled as one species, but substituted with a less expensive and sometimes less desirable species. Examples include:

  • Pacific Ocean perch (Pacific rockfish), tilapia, silk snapper, sea bream, and pollock sold as red snapper
  • Fluke (summer flounder) sold as halibut
  • Imitation crab, abalone, and octopus sold as the real product
  • Crawfish sold as lobster

In a couple of cases, escolar was being sold as “white tuna,” a species of fish that does not exist.  Escolar is also called the “ex-lax” of fish by some in the industry because large amounts of it can cause severe gastrointestinal upset, a fact which many consumers are not aware of. Not that they could have avoided it had they tried…

Seafood mislabeling can be costly; and guess who’s paying for it? You may be paying $14.99 per pound for what you think is red snapper, but getting Pacific Ocean perch, which has a value of less than half, at just $6.99 per pound.  Indeed, none of the “red snapper” samples tested by the Seafood Task Force were actually red snapper.  Seafood mislabeling can also be dangerous. Consumers with seafood allergies and pregnant women may have trouble avoiding certain fish and shellfish if they don’t know what is really on their plate.

Don’t feel bad about getting snookered though; it’s easy to be fooled into thinking you as a consumer are purchasing one species of fish when you’re actually getting a totally unrelated species. As seen below in an image provided by Oceana, once a fish is filleted it can be very difficult to distinguish. Can you tell the difference between the properly labeled fillet and the imposter?

Original image credit: Oceana
Correct answers are : 1. Fish on the left is escolar or oilfish. 2. Left is Nile perch. 3. Right is mako shark. 4. Right is rockfish. 5. Left is farmed Atlantic salmon.

What We Can Do: To solve this problem, we need a reliable system of seafood traceability. Not only are consumers being duped, but retailers are as well.  Since the mislabeling can start at the very beginning of the supply chain, with the fishermen and fishing companies, retailers may also be unaware that their product is not what it seems.  We all deserve to know what we are eating, and those in the industry that participate in legal, sustainable fisheries ought to have recognition.

Is your tuna “laundered” to look squeaky clean?

Original photo credit: flickr user nilsrinaldi CC BY 2.0

What: Yellowfin and skipjack tuna

Where: International waters in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean, known as the “Pacific Commons”

How: According to the Jakarta Globe, Greenpeace has filmed fishing vessels in the Pacific Commons engaged in large-scale, illegal transfers of tuna. Vessels registered in Indonesia  and the Philippines were spotted transferring tuna to a vessel registered to Cambodia. The Cambodian vessel’s hull, which is the size of a basketball court, was knee-deep in yellowfin and skipjack tuna that was probably headed for the canned tuna market. None of the four boats are authorized by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), who manages fishing rights for tuna in the area (bordered by red on the below map), to either fish or transfer fish in the Pacific Commons. The “fish laundering” occurred just outside Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and took place in an effort to hide where the tuna was actually caught and by which vessel.

Western and Central Pacific Ocean Convention Area (original image credit: NOAA)

The Story: Pirate fishing in the Western and Central Pacific is unfortunately a common occurrence. About 60% of the world’s tuna is caught in these waters, but few fishing vessels bother with licenses and it is estimated that almost half the fish are caught illegally. Of those vessels which do have licenses, many under-report their catch or falsify information about where the tuna was caught.

What We Can Do: John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA, advises, “In order for people to be confident that their canned tuna is legal, never mind sustainable, we need stronger traceability standards so retailers can track seafood from where it is caught all the way to the shelf.”

When “fresh” seafood isn’t so fresh

Original photo credit: flickr user timquijano CC BY 2.0

What: “Fresh” Atlantic mackerel…or is it? (Also, tuna, cod, and haddock)

Where: According to the London Times and reported by Global Food Mate, supermarkets in east London, United Kingdom, are selling mackerel and other fish labeled as fresh that may actually have been frozen for almost a year.

How: The London supermarket Stainsbury’s carried Atlantic mackerel that was being marketed as fresh, but the details didn’t add up. The Atlantic mackerel fishery lost its Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation in March of this year. The blue MSC label indicates that the fish sold comes from a sustainable fishery according to MSC’s set of standards. The mackerel at Stainsbury’s carried the MSC label, and therefore must have been caught prior to March. A small sign next to the iced mackerel indicated in fine print that it was “previously frozen”. Fillets from six other species, such as tuna, cod, and haddock, were labeled “may have been previously frozen,” but consumers were not given information as to how long.

The Story: Frozen seafood being sold as fresh seafood is also a problem here in the United States. Due to short seasons in some fisheries, fishing companies often freeze their catch in huge warehouses and sell it to retailers when there is demand. Retailers may then keep this fish frozen for weeks or months before it is thawed and sold to consumers. Fish from other countries may also travel quite a distance from the fishing grounds to our local supermarkets and dinner tables and must be frozen as it is transported. In fact, fish from overseas (especially Asia) is often treated with carbon monoxide, a gas that prevents the fish from discoloring as it ages and keeps it looking fresh once it is thawed. It is illegal in the European Union, Canada, Japan, and Singapore to sell fish treated with carbon monoxide, but perfectly acceptable here. Nothing against frozen fish; as long as consumers are not led to believe that it’s fresh.

What We Can Do: We need a system of seafood traceability that will tell us what fish we are eating, where it comes from, and when it was caught. Until then, educate yourself about local fishing seasons, and buy fresh, local seafood when available.