A few weeks ago a story broke in the news after a report conducted by advocacy group Oceana Canada found 44 percent of 382 seafood samples tested from five Canadian cities did not meet the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s labeling requirements.
We reached out to Julia Levin, a seafood fraud campaigner and an experienced environmental campaigner and grassroots mobilizer to ask How To Protect Yourself From Seafood Fraud.
What is seafood fraud?
Seafood fraud includes any activity that misrepresents the seafood being sold. A particularly harmful form of mislabelling is species substitution: swapping cheaper, less desirable or more readily available species for more expensive ones; farmed products for wild-caught; and black-market fish for legally caught varieties. Other types of seafood fraud include product adulteration, such as adding chemicals to preserve the appearance of the product or practices such as short weighting (claiming a product weighs more than it does by adding extra bread or water).
Why is it happening?
More and more of the seafood sold in Canada is imported — up to 80 percent, according to one recent estimate. This seafood often follows a long, complex and notoriously opaque path from the fishing vessel to the plate, with many opportunities for fraud and mislabelling along the way. The global seafood supply chain is obscure and increasingly complex. Once a fish has been caught, it can travel halfway around the world for processing, passing across many national borders before it ends up on your plate.
Why did Ocean commission this report?
Seafood fraud affects public health and food safety. It cheats consumers and hurts honest, law-abiding fishers and seafood businesses. It undermines the environmental and economic sustainability of fisheries and fish populations. It even masks global human rights abuses by creating a market for illegally caught fish.
Seafood fraud is a global problem. A 2016 review of more than 200 published studies from 55 countries found that one in five seafood samples were mislabelled.
To better understand the extent of seafood fraud in cities across the country, in 2017 and 2018 Oceana Canada staff collected 382 seafood samples from 177 retailers and restaurants in Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria. Of these, 44 percent (168 samples) did not meet the labeling requirements set out by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).
What does this mean for sustainability?
Thirty percent of the mislabelled samples that Oceana Canada found were endangered, threatened or vulnerable species. Eating these fish puts further stress on their stocks. In the case of another 38 percent of samples, the status of the fish isn’t clear. That’s because the relevant assessment body — the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) or the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) — either hasn’t made a decision yet or doesn’t have enough information to do so.
When a cheaper, more abundant fish is mislabelled as a more expensive, less-abundant fish, it can give consumers a perception that the stocks are healthier than they actually are. For example, the IUCN has listed red snapper as a vulnerable species. The current investigation found 29 examples of “red snapper” listed on menus, making it easy to believe the species is healthy and abundant. However, when those samples were tested, none of them turned out to be actual red snapper.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing operates outside of international and domestic rules and laws. It can include fishing in closed areas, fishing during prohibited times, using illegal gear or catching prohibited species. Global estimates suggest a minimum of 20 percent of seafood worldwide is either caught illegally or unreported, with an estimated value of $23 billion US annually. Seafood fraud allows illegally caught fish to enter the market by giving it a new “legal” identity. This undermines efforts to manage fisheries responsibly, prevent overfishing, deter destructive fishing practices and protect at-risk areas and animals. On top of that, illegal fishing is often tied to human rights violations, including modern slavery and child labour.
Can you give us tangible tips that people can use when shopping for fish?
In order to stop seafood fraud and ensure that seafood sold in Canada is safe, honestly labelled and legally caught, CFIA must implement boat-to-plate traceability requirements to protect consumers, conserve our oceans and give honest fishers and vendors the fair treatment they deserve. The European Union is leading the way with measures to track fish at every step from capture to consumption. These traceability regulations are working: fraud rates have declined significantly since they were put in place. The United States has recently taken important steps in this direction by implementing boat-to-border traceability for at-risk species groups.
Unfortunately, Canada lags behind. The most important thing Canadians can do is urge the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to implement full boat-to-plate traceability. Your readers can sign our petition to make their voices heard at oceana.ca/StopSeafoodFraud.
- KNOW THE FISH YOU EAT: Ask what species it is and where and how it was caught.
- BUY YOUR FISH FROM A TRUSTED, LOCAL FISHMONGER or support companies that have voluntarily introduced traceability systems like the Marine Stewardship Council.
- BUY THE WHOLE FISH: It is harder to misrepresent a whole fish than a fillet.
- CHECK PRICES: If the price is too good to be true, it probably is.
- INFORM YOURSELF about the seasonality of your favourite seafood: products sold out of season are more likely to be fraudulent.