Bait to Plate: Avoid the Fishy Business of Seafood Fraud

By Beth Lowell Campaign Director at Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans Learn more about Oceana’s Campaign to Stop Seafood Fraud.

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If you order filet mignon at your favorite steakhouse, you would be upset if you were served horsemeat instead. Similarly, a seafood lover who orders red snapper would expect to receive the fish she pays for. Unfortunately, recent testing by Oceana revealed that seafood purchased from grocery stores, restaurants and sushi bars may be a completely different fish from the one on the label, and this type of seafood fraud is more common than you may think.

Seafood fraud comes in many forms, from falsifying documents, to labeling a fish a different species than what is sold, to adding too much ice to packaging, and it is a widespread problem in the US. In fact, recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70% of the time for commonly swapped species like Atlantic cod, red snapper and wild salmon. For the past two years, Oceana’s Stop Seafood Fraud campaign has focused on species substitution, which happens when one fish is swapped for another that is often cheaper, less desirable or more readily available. Not only does this type of fraud rip off consumers, it can have potentially dire consequences for public health and the oceans.

As part of our campaign, Oceana conducted DNA testing of seafood meals in multiple cities across the country to get to the bottom of how much bait and switch was occurring. What did we find? Everywhere we tested, we found seafood fraud: 39% of seafood tested in New York, 55% in Los Angeles, 31% in Miami, and 48% in Boston (including testing by The Boston Globe) were mislabeled as entirely different types of fish than listed on the label.  

This bait and switch cheats consumers and can also be harmful to your health. In multiple cities, fish that sensitive groups like pregnant women and children should avoid due to their high levels of mercury were disguised as safer choices. Tilefish was labeled as red snapper and halibut in NYC and king mackerel was masquerading as grouper, a popular and local choice in South Florida. Another commonly swapped fish was escolar for “white tuna,” primarily in sushi venues. Escolar is a type of snake mackerel, not even a tuna at all, whose oily flesh can cause unpleasant digestive upset to some people who eat more than a few ounces.

How does this bait and switch happen? Seafood can follow a complex path from the fishing boat to your dinner plate, with your fish passing through many different hands. Without tracking your fish from bait to plate, it is easier to swap out one fish for another. The more steps and the more processed your seafood dinner, the more chances for fraudulent activity.

Beth Lowell

Article written by Beth Lowell
Campaign Director at Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans