Thoughtful Thursdays: Understanding Seafood Fraud

Published June 20, 2013

by Laura Bankey, Director of Conservation

We all know that the seafood choices we make directly affect the health of our oceans. How the fish is fished or farmed, where it is fished or farmed, if it is overfished, if other species are accidentally caught along with the desired species: all of these issues make a difference in the overall health of our marine ecosystems. Fortunately, there are tools that are available to help us make the right choices both in grocery stores and in seafood restaurants.

What happens, though, when make the effort to make the right choices, but we are sold mislabeled fish and we end up eating something completely different from what we ordered? This is one of the major aspects of Seafood Fraud, and it happens more often than we think. To raise awareness of this important conservation issue, seafood fraud was the chosen theme of last night's Fresh Thoughts dinner at National Aquarium, Washington, DC.

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According to a study done by our partners over at Oceana, close to 33 percent of the seafood purchased in the US is mislabeled.

This is not necessarily the fault of the restaurant or grocery store. Mislabeling can happen anywhere in the supply chain. A vast majority of the seafood we consume in the US is imported. There are several steps involved in getting a fish caught or farmed in a foreign county onto your dinner plate. Many folks are involved (fishermen, farmers, distributors, importers, exporters, etc) and there are limited resources available to inspect seafood imports. Further more, generally consumers have a limited ability to truly recognize what fish we're eating. The situation is ripe for us to be taken advantage of.

This hurts us as consumers and as concerned citizens of our blue planet. Often, we are sold cheaper fish in place of premium species that we desire. This trend also hurts honest fishermen, distributors and chefs that are doing their best to make responsible business decisions while providing for their families. Just as importantly, though, is the harm this is causing to our marine ecosystems. Knowing the growing trend for choosing sustainable seafood, sustainable choices are often swapped with seafood that is "red-listed" to take advantage of the willingness to pay a little bit more for seafood that supports healthy oceans.

“The best way to combat seafood fraud is to require traceability – or the ability to track our fish from boat to plate.” said Beth Lowell, campaign director for Oceana, during last night's event. We as consumers need to be assured of the source of our seafood. In the US, fishermen already provide much of this information upon landing. Unfortunately, there is no accountability in making sure it then is kept intact throughout the rest of the supply chain. And for the vast majority of the seafood that we consume that in imported, there are almost no checks and balances in place to protect the consumer.

So, what can we do? Here are some simple ways you can help combat this issue:

  • We have to let our elected officials know that we are aware of this issue and are concerned about how it is affecting our families, our economy and our oceans. Tell your Senator you want to help them fight seafood fraud!
  • Take steps to understand and decrease the number of steps it takes for the seafood that you consume to get from the boat to your plate. In Maryland, for example there is a True Blue program that identifies restaurants that are selling locally sourced crab meat. Many Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs) are also developing across the country. These programs make a direct link to consumers and local fishermen, allowing us to purchase healthy, local seafood while supporting our local economies.
  • Spread the word to friends and family. Awareness is the first, and arguably most critical, step to harnessing real change!

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Laura Bankey

Director of Conservation

National Aquarium - Laura Bankey

About Laura Bankey

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