Don’t Get Catfished by the Catch of the Day

Not only can seafood fraud lead to diners getting sick, but it hurts conservation efforts too.
Bluefin tuna sushi. (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
Sep 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When diners in Brussels order bluefin tuna—an expensive, buttery, and increasingly rare fish—there’s a very good chance they’ll be defrauded by the restaurant where they’re eating it. Nearly all of the 69 samples of “bluefin” tested by Oceana researchers in 2015 were found to be a different species of fish—one that was likely far less expensive than bluefin.

It’s one of the more egregious examples of seafood fraud detailed in Oceana’s latest report on the topic, which the nonprofit released Tuesday. Unlike other common swaps—such as selling escolar, a fish that when eaten may cause acute intestinal distress, as “white tuna”—it would seem to be a good thing that Belgian diners aren’t eating a species whose population in the North Pacific is at just 2.6 percent of its historical level. But even when seafood fraud unwittingly keeps consumers from eating heavily overfished species, it can still do harm, according to Oceana’s Beth Lowell.

People “have this perception that it’s a very abundant and healthy stock” when fish are readily available at restaurants, said Lowell, a coauthor of the report. While those diners might not be eating bluefin, it’s hard to get public support for the kinds of strict catch limits that would make a rebound for it and other depleted species possible “because they think, ‘Oh, bluefin is everywhere, so how can it be in trouble?’ ”

While catfish, more than any other species, is often passed off as more expensive types of seafood, the reverse of the bluefin problem can happen too: Overfished species are sold under the name of a different, more common fish. “In Brazil,” according to the report, “55 percent of ‘shark’ samples tested were largetooth sawfish, a species considered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to be critically endangered” and is illegal to trade in Brazil.

Closer to home, American shoppers might seek out red snapper or grouper, fish that can, depending on the region and the method of fishing, be considered sustainable seafood choices. But fully 66 species of fish can be sold under the market name “grouper,” per the Food and Drug Administration, and by no means are all those fisheries healthy: About two-thirds are at risk, and 3 percent are critically engendered, according to IUCN.

“It’s really hard for consumers who are trying to make the right choice in terms of sustainability” if endangered species are being passed off as sustainable fish, Lowell said. “Whatever fish is being sold, the consumer has the right to know the fish that they’re buying and to be confident in what’s on the label.”

To that end, Oceana is pushing the U.S. government to go beyond the proposed Seafood Import Monitoring Program rule being considered, which would require that 13 species of fish subject to illegal and unregulated fishing be traced from their points of origin to the U.S. border. “The limited scope of the proposed rule leaves the door open for continued fraud and may even incentivize fraud and mislabeling of the species covered by the rule,” according to the report. Instead, Oceana said, the rule should cover all species. Considering that one in five seafood samples tested around the world was mislabeled, there’s a case to be made for more expansive regulation.