Why fish fraud is hard to reel in

By Tim Alamenciak - Published on November 6, 2015
display of fish
It’s difficult to assess exactly how common and widespread mislabelling is in Canada, but industry experts say it’s a problem.

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Most people don’t know about the dead spot in Ontario’s pickerel season. Every year, when temperatures skyrocket, the fish get lazy and stop biting. So the fishing boats take a break — just for a couple weeks.

Which is why Dan Donovan was surprised to hear about customers buying fresh Ontario pickerel from major grocery stores in the dog days of summer. The co-owner of Hooked Inc., a Toronto fishmonger, knew something was afoot.

“We initiated a complaint with regulators and they went back and traced it. It's a fish called zander, which is a wild fish from eastern Europe that was being imported by a pickerel supplier and being sold to their customers,” says Donovan, whose 2013 complaint resulted in the supplier being fined. Zander is almost identical to pickerel, but Donovan says an experienced fishmonger would know the difference.

Fish mislabelling is a widespread problem in the industry in both Canada and the United States, according to experts and advocates. Most recently, a study this year by Oceana in the U.S. found that 43 per cent of salmon labelled as wild and sold in five major U.S. cities was mislabelled and was in fact farmed or a lower-value species of salmon. It’s a problem that has been publicized for more than five years, but that has seen little remedial action.

The work south of the border echoes results from Canada in 2011, when a consortium of media outlets tested fish samples from across the country and found 41 per cent were mislabelled, presenting lower value fish (like farmed salmon) as the higher value type (wild salmon). The Canadian study found that Red Snapper was the most frequently mislabelled variety of fish.

There is some debate over whether farmed or wild fish is healthier for people, but many opt for wild out of environmental concerns over fish farming. It’s difficult to assess exactly how common and widespread mislabelling is in Canada because limited research has been done, but industry experts are confident saying it’s a major problem.

“In all the studies that have been done, including some in Canada, you come up with roughly the same results,” says Josh Laughren, executive director of Oceana Canada. “Every indication is that it's widespread, systematic. It's something that happens. There's an incentive to do it and it happens fairly often all over the world.”

There’s no requirement in Canada to document the chain of custody for fish, and it’s an industry where many hands touch your food before it reaches the table. Certification programs like the one run by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) do exist, but cost fish producers money and aren’t mandatory by law. Also the nature of fishing and fish processing creates opportunities for both error and tampering.

“It is a global commodity and one that's easily mixed. Even in Atlantic Canada, here in a developed nation with a long history and strong regulatory systems, you have hundreds or thousands of owner-operators out there catching fish, so you get several species mixed in on a fishing vessel, then you bring it to the dock and it gets mixed in at the processing plant, then it goes to secondary processing, then out to distribution, then to the restaurant or grocery store,” says Laughren.

The 2011 study analyzed 254 samples from Canadian retail establishments across five metropolitan areas. It used DNA barcoding to determine whether or not the fish inside matched the package. The 2015 Oceana study looked at samples from Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York and Virginia. It found the biggest risk of fraud occurring in restaurants, where 67 per cent of the mislabelled fish were bought.

Bill Wareham, science projects manager for western Canada with the David Suzuki Foundation and one of the founders of Ocean Wise, a sustainable seafood organization, said the chance of being fooled in a restaurant is greater because the fish may be covered in sauces, making it more difficult to discern.

“The telling feature is really, in farmed salmon the fat bar between rows of meat is quite wide - you'll see it's a white strip throughout meat where the muscles meet. You don't get that same fat content in wild fish in the same way,” says Wareham.

Wareham says one of the reasons why the problem is so intractable is because, while dishonest, mislabelling fish is not a health risk.

“Whether you eat a piece of wild salmon or farmed salmon, it's not a health issue — you're not going to die from some disease. It's fraud — people making more money than they should,” says Wareham.

Market and international trade forces are pushing the Canadian fishing industry towards a more transparent supply chain. Startups like ThisFish offer boat-to-table tracking technology and fishmongers such as Hooked, which Donovan and his wife Kristin started five years ago, are giving consumers the ability to know exactly where their fish came from.

There are also international pressures to change. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the EU will open up fish markets that demand a high level of traceability from fish.

“Everywhere people are starting to pay more attention to the food they eat and want more information on it. I really see this only as a growing need for the industry to tackle,” says Laughren.

In the meantime, Laughren and others in the industry recommend asking questions about the origins of the fish being bought. Certifications such as MSC can give reliable information about a fish’s source, but Donovan says the best source is the person handing you the package.

“Know your fishmonger,” says Donovan. “If you go back and you read cookbooks from anywhere prior to 1980, you get to the fish or seafood section, invariably that section opens with that comment. I don't know that that's really changed. I think having that relationship with your fishmonger or butcher is important because there are a lot of nuances in the market that those professionals could help you with.”

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