Seafood Diet? Everything you Need to Know about Fish Fraud

fish fraud

Image: Libby Roach

Bait and switch. There’s something fishy happening in the seafood industry and if you find yourself fond of the pescatarian diet, you might want to read this. Vv Magazine’s Libby Roach has all the details. 

With global warming resulting in what is expected to be the hottest recorded year in all of our earthly history, fingers have pointed to the meat industry as one contributing factor to greenhouse gas emissions being on the rise. While veganism is gaining popularity, those looking to make less drastic diet changes are seeking out other proteins for their mains, namely; poultry, pork or fish. While all come with their caveats, those looking to stuff their gills with omega rich fish might be in for a shock – the fish you are eating most likely isn’t the fish you paid for.

Fish fraud is the latest stinging scandal facing the food industry. Experts have pegged that a whopping 28% of the fish bought in US supermarkets is mislabeled, with an even more worrisome 33% labeled incorrectly in restaurants. Like sushi? Hope you’re sitting down. Chances are that maki roll you’re stuffing your gills with isn’t the premium sushi grade tuna you ordered. A scandalous 74% of the portions tested during the Oceana study were false fish. Even worse? 95% of the restaurants were guilty of serving a fish under a different name.  

A scandalous 74% of the portions tested during the Oceana study were false fish. Even worse? 95% of the restaurants were guilty of serving a fish under a different name.

Restaurants are often just as unsuspecting as consumers. Fish are regularly caught and processed at sea – picture a massive net trolling the ocean, scooping up species after species indiscriminately. Similar to the giant claw game at the arcade, you typically seek out a specific prize, but often take whatever you get handed. The industry term is bottom trawling, a method of mass fishing which involves a large net anchored with heavy weights essentially vacuuming the ocean floor, scooping up everything arbitrarily, including the delicate coral that rests on the seafloor. Targeted fish – the catch of the day, often make up only a small portion of the yield, the rest, or bycatch, is sometimes thrown overboard, dead or dying, or quite often, processed and sold as whatever you just ordered in that sushi restaurant.

The practice of misleading consumers into buying fish has been intensified with the uptick in demand. The sheer amounts of fish being caught at one single time are completely daunting and the process of sorting through each catch is almost impossible. Processing is done en masse – heads, tails and most other features that distinguish one fish from another are removed, leaving lifeless bodies, a blend of fish parts that all resemble one another – like a raw mystery meat bouillabaisse. Once back dockside, fish mongers purchase by the pound, or sometimes ton, leaving buyers mostly guessing at what they’re actually buying.

While Thailand and Vietnam are duking it out for worst ocean offender, Canada has nothing to be smug about. Our loose labeling laws aren’t as stringent as the United States, leaving the door open for repeat wrongdoers to take advantage of the system. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency uses generic names for their fish and seafood, one type of fish can go by dozens of different monikers, making it difficult for consumers to identify what’s on their plate. Quite often, a more familiar name is given to the fish, hooking the consumer and further perpetuating the cycle. Over 100 different types of fish fall under the generic name Rockfish, instead of their proper name, which includes chili pepper fish, cowcod or yellowtail.

Overfishing and bottom trawling results in threatened species being put at risk, akin to hunting for cows, shooting a panda, and eating it anyways.

Grouper is one of the most fraudulent fish of all. There are 66 variant species of this fish, with unappetizingly named Asian catfish sounding not as clean sounding as gourmet Grouper. Snapper also falls victim to this trap, with several fish inheriting the popular name. Devious marketing methods aside, there’s more than just being duped at stake here. Overfishing and bottom trawling results in threatened species being put at risk, akin to hunting for cows, shooting a panda, and eating it anyways. Maybe that’s a titch extreme, but when you can’t be certain of what you’re eating, that’s the risk you’re taking.

Aside from eating a potentially endangered species, another ripple effect is eating fish that may not be fit for human consumption. A bycatch of tuna, escolar, sneaks its way into sushi menus under the alias white tuna or albacore. In reality, you’re eating a type of snake mackerel, a bottom feeder fish that’s stuffed to the gills with wax ester that mimics the highly sought after buttery texture in fish. Delicious, no doubt, and in small doses it will not a pose a health problem. But an AYCE situation may result in an AYCP condition, with ‘anal seepage’ being a terrible reminder of a meal gone wrong.

But who’s to blame? Supply can’t keep up with demand, creating a similar cycle as the beef industry. Sustainability is the cure, and governments around the world are stepping up to replace antiquated labeling laws and steps are being made to include country of origin labeling and harvest methods. Policies are only bound to their borders though, so even with stringent fishing laws if the import rules don’t match then consumers will still be left up river with no paddle.

But who’s to blame? Supply can’t keep up with demand, creating a similar cycle as the beef industry. Sustainability is the cure.

Traceability and buying fish from only reputable restaurants and fish mongers is a safe start. Grocers like Whole Foods often have the nitty gritty details on hand, but better yet, get to know your fish monger and ask the right questions. A trustworthy reseller will only stock their shop with sustainable fish, so look for retailers like John Bil who operates Honest Weight, a fish counter/restaurant in the Junction. Getting to know the person who is selling you fish gets you one step closer to knowing what you’re eating.

Another method is buying the whole fish. Cranking out the Google image search feature will help you match up your meal, look for distinct features like the tail, gills and eyes to ensure you’re eating what you’re ordering.

RELATED LINK: 10 Disgusting Things that Might be Lurking in your Food 

What do you think about the big issue the fish industry faces? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below or tweet us @ViewtheVibe

Libby Roach

Libby Roach

Libby Roach is a born and raised Toronto girl and subsequent mortified Leafs fan. When not eating, shooting or writing about food you can find her running around 416-land trying to burn those calories off.
Libby Roach