Fishy Business

A 2013 This American Life episode called “Dopplegangers” introduced many Americans to the murky world of seafood fraud. Listeners tuning in grew horrified as the radio producers investigated an Oklahoman meat processing plant that sells hog rectum earmarked for use in “artificial calamari.” White, chewy, deep-fried—how are consumers to know if they are eating what they thought they had ordered?

Luckily for Americans, most of the hog rectum used for imitation calamari, at least from this plant, is exported to Asia, so if you’re eating fried calamari in America, you’re most likely not getting duped. But the same can’t be said for all seafood. Seafood fraud, from port to plate, highly threatens both US consumers and fish stocks. In an age where few diners can trace every step of their food’s journey, eliminating seafood fraud requires a combination of consumer awareness and fishing regulation.

The environmental research nonprofit Oceana launched a campaign in 2013 to assess the gravity of global seafood fraud and raise consumer awareness of the issue. In the US, Oceana’s research team conducted DNA tests on over 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets, such as grocery stores and fish markets, in 21 states. The study found that one-third of samples were mislabeled according to FDA guidelines, meaning that the average American family can only know with 66% confidence that the seafood they eat is actually shrimp, tuna, salmon, or snapper.

Oceana’s DNA tests revealed that halibut is often passed off as other white fish like sea bass or hake. Bluefin tuna, which is used in high-end sushi, is substituted for cheaper, more common bigeye or yellowfin tuna. Red snapper is one of the biggest cons — it can be replaced by anything from two-foot tilapia, to four-foot mahi-mahi, to six-foot Atlantic Cod. To help eliminate such blatant swaps, Oceana recommends that consumers purchase whole fish instead of pre-cut fillets at the grocery store. However, this advice still renders restaurant diners unable to distinguish whether an entrée of white fish doused in sauce is fraudulent or not.

At first glance, blaming restaurants or grocery stores makes sense, as they represent the final link between fish and consumer. Unethically preying on unassuming consumers by rewriting labels in a Stop & Shop ice bed or passing off one species as another on a menu is quite simple. But, surprisingly, consumer outrage over low-quality seafood certainly is not widespread — even among those aware their fish may be fraudulent. A recent survey of Floridian consumers of grouper found that 62% were aware of the possibility of local restaurants swapping the fish for a less valuable species. But of those aware, only 39% said they were less likely to order grouper at restaurants. So, if consumers aren’t concerned about these products, why is seafood fraud such a problem? Maybe diners believe that fish is fish — the specific species of whitefish doesn’t matter, as there is little variation in taste or caloric content, at least compared to chicken or red meat.

However, different species can vary greatly in price, even if they are comparable in flavor. Consumers should expect to pay for exactly what they believe they are buying. When grocery stores and restaurants covertly substitute cheaper items for higher-value ones, these retailers gain an incentive to gouge prices. For example, sushi restaurants profit additionally by selling unaware diners a crab roll made out of cheap imitation crab, a combination of different fish ground into a paste and molded into a stick — the hot dog of the sea. For many Americans, going out to sushi is a treat. If consumers are going to splurge on bluefin rolls, which can cost $25 for a single piece, they shouldn’t actually be served $5 bigeye. Unfortunately, nearly half the time, this isn’t the case.

Fish fraud can and does happen at any level of the supply chain.

Getting shortchanged at the fish counter is unfair and irksome, but the harm to consumers runs far deeper than their pocketbooks. In some cases, mislabeling can result in consumers unknowingly eating a product to which they are allergic. For example, what’s labeled as monkfish can actually be pufferfish, which contains a harmful substance called tetrodotoxin. After receiving reports of two Chicago residents falling severely ill as a result of eating pufferfish, the FDA warned consumers that its consumption can cause severe food poisoning or even death. While cases of death by pufferfish are rare, if consumers reasonably avoid certain fish for fear of illness, the decline in demand for monkfish and other species could severely damage the seafood industry.

Since supermarkets and restaurants constitute the direct sources for most of Americans’ food, they do deserve a fair share of the blame for seafood fraud, but deception can and does occur at any level of the supply chain. Seafood buyers for grocery stores could be conned by wholesale fishmongers, who could be deceived by the fishermen themselves. Naturally, fishermen have the same economic motivations as restaurant owners to misreport their products. However, while fish retailer fraud leads to financial and health problems for consumers, mislabeling by fishermen has drastic and long-lasting environmental impacts.

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) directs eight regional fisheries management councils to set quotas, fishing seasons, and length requirements for each fish species that swims in their waters. These regulations seek to strike the difficult balance between maintaining healthy stock sizes capable of reproducing while also maximizing the economic interests of commercial and recreational fishermen. However, due to limited control over whether fishermen accurately record their catches on their federally required landings reports, these fishermen can abuse regulations for monetary gain. One method of this fraud is to overfish their quota for a higher-value fish by mislabeling the excess as another cheaper species, and then selling all the premium fish to wholesalers.

This was the case with Carlos Rafael, the most notorious of fraudulent fishermen. Also known as the “Codfather,” Rafael was indicted last spring for mislabeling more than 815,000 pounds of fish caught between 2012 and 2016. By so excessively violating his catch limits, Rafael might be almost singularly responsible for the recent depletion of New England cod stocks. Furthermore, because Rafael’s crew labeled cod as haddock or other species on their landings reports, knowing just how skewed current stock assessments are is nearly impossible, especially given the inability to corral and count fish. According to Ross Cheit, a Brown University political science professor conducting research on the politics of fish, “The idea that this one guy might require us to rethink basic data about fish populations in New England…is staggering.”

Since it will take years of limited fishing quotas and cod reproduction for the species to heal from Rafael’s actions alone, what steps can the federal government take to prevent fish fraud in the future? The National Marine Fisheries Service has been expanding their observer program, through which unbiased observers unaffiliated with the fishing crew travel on board fishermen’s boats to monitor and record their catches, in lieu of the fishermen recording it themselves. This program promotes sustainable and legal fishing through accountability to ensure fishing fleets catch within their quotas and do not overfish certain species.

Moreover, in response to Oceana’s report, the Obama Administration issued a Presidential Task Force in 2014 on Combatting Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. The task force recommended improving federal collaboration with regional fishery management councils to enhance electronic monitoring and collection of catch data. At-sea observer programs are seen as one of the best solutions to overfishing and mislabeling, but hiring an observer can cost over $1,000 a day. The Obama Administration’s recognition of these programs’ importance could help justify the cost to NOAA and the industry. The President’s interest in fish also takes on a global lens — as the US imports over 90% of consumed seafood, the US is signaling to other countries that it will not only no longer be the victim of fraud, but will instead be a global leader in ending IUU fishing.

Although the Obama administration’s commitment to tackling issues of fish fraud is important, fishing regulations are decentralized and regional, making the problem more difficult to solve. And given the international origins of most US seafood, it is more difficult for Americans to know their fisherman than to it is know their farmer. Observer programs and public awareness campaigns can make great strides for future fraud eradication, but for now, a cheap sushi place probably is too good to be true.