The science of sustainable seafood, explained

The Irony of Oceana’s Seafood Fraud Campaign

Seafood fraud/mislabeled seafood is a permanent topic in the sustainable fisheries space. Since 2015, news sources such as The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and the Economist have published stories on the topic of seafood fraud. Nearly every ocean conservation NGO has commented or contributed to the discourse, but Oceana has led the conversation. Oceana has an entire campaign aimed at exposing and reducing seafood fraud globally. Since 2011, they have published sixteen reports on seafood fraud—most recently, a report from Oceana Canada.

There are important differences between seafood fraud and fraud in other food systems. Language barriers, multiple acceptable market names, the sheer quantity of seafood species compared to other animal proteins, and the simple fact that wild capture adds a slew of complications compared to controlled terrestrial farming, should set a different expectation level for seafood labeling standards. There are so many chances for mistakes or miscommunication to happen—far more than any other food supply chain. But the seafood fraud discourse (largely led by Oceana) often excludes these realities and instead points fingers at fishermen, restaurateurs, and retailers for duping their customers.

In this post, I take a look at Oceana Canada’s methodology for determining “fraud” in its most recent report. I consider the results of Oceana’s report through the lens of the seafood and restaurant industries and attempt to illustrate the difference between legitimate fraud and unintentional mislabeling.

Oceana’s methodology & general results

Oceana defines Seafood Fraud as, “the practice of misleading consumers about their seafood in order to increase profits.” This is an important distinction from the term “mislabeled” because it assigns an intent to deceive. Fraud is on purpose, whereas mislabeling could be an accident. Most reports on this subject today infer that the seafood industry is actively deceiving consumers on a broad scale, across the most commonly consumed species, both domestically and internationally.

Oceana’s methodology for conducting its seafood fraud reports is suspect. In this post, I focus on the most recent Canadian study, but my criticisms apply to all seafood fraud reports that use the same methods. Generally, Oceana collects seafood samples, DNA tests them, then matches the DNA results to outdated government guidelines. The samples they collect are purposefully not representative of seafood consumption habits. In Oceana Canada’s 2018 report, 382 seafood samples from 177 restaurants and retailers across the country were tested. The aim was to focus on cod, halibut, snapper, tuna, salmon and sole because these species historically, “have the highest rates of species substitution.” The specific species sampled were chosen because of past studies on seafood mislabeling, i.e. they were not randomly sampled. DNA testing then determined if these samples met the minimum labelling requirements as defined by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), an equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

This nonrandom sampling is consistent with previous seafood fraud studies from Oceana. A key parallel across Oceana’s seafood fraud investigations is that “targeted fish of interest” are the focus. Oceana Canada encouraged participants to aim for species that are often marked in other fraud studies, meaning the sample in these studies is not indicative of national seafood consumption rates on average, but instead represents very specific species that have proven to present high rates of mislabeling in previous research.

Of the 382 seafood samples tested in Canada, 168 (44%) were found to be fraudulent, meaning the names of the species did not align with the acceptable market names determined by CFIA standards.

The most commonly mislabeled species (not all species tested) results were presented as follows:

Oceana Canada

While the study promised to focus on cod, halibut, snapper, tuna, salmon and sole, the table also featured yellowtail (Seriola lalandi), butterfish (sablefish aka black cod – Anoplopoma fimbria) and Sea Bass (specific species unclear). These species were included because they displayed very high rates of mislabeling.

None of the red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) tested was appropriately labelled. Most of it was instead tilapia, some kind of rockfish species, or a different species of snapper that may have been red in color, but was not Lutjanus campechanus. The CFIA Fish List allows over 200 fish species to be labeled “snapper,” but if you label a fish “red snapper” it must be Lutjanus campechanus, else it is mislabeled.

The most common substitutions for the top mislabeled species in this study were presented as follows:

Oceana Canada

In the impact column, Oceana added indicators to mark the category of concern for that particular species substitution. Of the mislabeled seafood tested, 60% “could have potential health consequences for consumers.” Highlighted in these results was a fish called escolar, which was substituted for all 10 samples of butterfish (sablefish; Anoplopoma fimbria) and 10 of the 15 samples of white tuna (unclear what species white tuna is when labelled correctly). “Escolar can lead to gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea or nausea,” according to Oceana. Second in the health concerns category was farmed fish over wild. Oceana cited CFIA reports that explained, “farmed tilapia, salmon and Asian catfish may contain drug residues, antibiotics and contaminants that pose health hazards.” Lastly, ciguatera is a concern for Oceana because it can occur in some species of snapper and amberjack. Yellowtail, a species of amberjack, was replaced by Japanese amberjack 100% of the time in this study, raising those concerns of possible ciguatera risk.

Seafood fraud with “economic impacts” was when a cheaper species was substituted as a more expensive species. The loser here is the consumer who must pay more money for a product they did not intend to purchase. In this study, Oceana determined that 74% of the mislabeled samples were cheaper than the intended species. A few examples highlighted in the results include: whiting as Atlantic cod; haddock as halibut; crayfish as rock lobster; farmed Atlantic salmon as wild salmon; catfish as seabass.

The final category of impact was environmental, meaning that seafood fraud increases the rate of unsustainable, threatened or endangered species sold in Canada. According to Oceana, mislabeling of this kind can lead to damaging misconceptions about sensitive species. For example, red snapper is rated as a “vulnerable” species by IUCN. 29 samples of “red snapper” were tested in this study, all of which turned out to be another species; consumers might think red snapper is prevalent and thus sustainable because they see it on menus so often. Theoretically, that misunderstanding could negatively impact conservation efforts for red snapper.

My critique of Oceana’s methodology & fraud campaign as a whole

I have eight years of experience in different facets of the restaurant, seafood wholesale, and seafood sustainability/traceability fields. My experience is comprehensive, but it has also taught me how much more I have to learn about the seafood supply chain, specifically how many blind spots are built into the global seafood supply chain and cannot be resolved by unilateral policy changes. Oceana Canada’s 2018 report exposed some important shortcomings in the Canadian seafood system and offered constructive, achievable mandates for reducing seafood fraud domestically. But the study collected data from an exaggerated sample and only presented results that supported a narrative of rampant fraudulence. The conclusions were skewed to reflect the most troubled segments of the seafood supply chain in Canada, not the entirety of the seafood industry that actually reflect national consumption trends and patterns. Recommendations to the CFIA and consumers were helpful in some cases, but unrealistic in others. My analysis to follow aims to contextualize the methods, results and conclusions of this report through the prism of foodservice and seafood industry realities.

Fundamental to the interpretation of the Oceana Canada 2018 study’s results is the understanding that the samples were selected to find fraud, not to measure the actual extent of fraud across the entire Canadian seafood supply chain. Oceana disclosed this in the report:

The investigation focused on types of fish prone to being mislabeled because of their economic value, availability or popularity. Past studies from both Canada and the United States have shown that cod, halibut, snapper, tuna, salmon and sole have the highest rates of species substitution.

However, Oceana did not disclose it in the press release it issued. The heading of the report read, “Oceana Canada tested for seafood fraud in five cities across Canada and found widespread mislabeling.” This was plainly misleading and led to news coverage that spread misinformation. The author of the Oceana Canada report also recently published a paper with similar methodology (target fraudulent fish instead of getting a representative sample of seafood) that led to patently untrue headlines like, “At least one quarter of the seafood you buy is a lie” being shared on social media over 3,400 times.

How ironic that studies meant to uncover fraud lead to more misrepresentation.

Aside from the sampling and contextual critiques, I want to address a few species-specific errors made in the results of this report. Snapper, yellowtail and butterfish were all reported to be mislabeled 100% of the time in this study. For snapper, the results should have specified “red snapper,” because this species name has caused considerable confusion in many countries. Dozens of species of snapper are red in color, but only Lutjanus campechanus is considered to be the true “red snapper” by CFIA (and FDA) standards.

NOAA – Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, 2015. All of the above are snapper, and many are red, but none are true red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus).

High rates of red snapper mislabeling must be qualified by the fact that there are numerous snapper species in the market with red skin. The CFIA Fish List has over 200 species in the “snapper” category—that alone should tell us that it’s a tricky species to track. It is not realistic to expect every link in the supply chain to understand the nuances of all 200 snapper species and to label their product correctly every time, especially in international restaurants where translation issues may add another layer of confusion (particularly high levels of red snapper mislabeling were reported in sushi restaurants). For this reason, categorizing 100% of snapper tested as “fraudulent” –which implies intent to deceive– is an unfair conclusion. That is not to say that tilapia, rockfish or other non-snapper species switched in for snapper is not fraud, but Oceana counts snapper-on-snapper fraud with snapper-on-tilapia as the same offense.

Semantics plague the other most commonly mislabeled species in this study. “Butterfish,” known more commonly in the US as sablefish or black cod (Anoplopoma fimbria), was shown to be mislabeled 100% of the time in this study. It is peculiar and unclear why Oceana only uses the name “butterfish” in this study to identify this species, especially when “butterfish” is known as Peprilus triacanthus in the US, not even a remotely similar fish. In fact, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) refers to this species as “sablefish” on its official website.

American butterfish (Peprilus triacanthus) on the left, Canadian “butterfish” (aka black cod or sablefish – Anoplopoma fimbria ) on the right. ThisFish.com

If Oceana Canada can’t even use the same terminology as the Canadian government for this species, can we really expect every seafood business to be correct in its labeling of Anoplopoma fimbria? This species is a major fishery on the Pacific Coast of Canada, landing around 2,000 tonnes annually; 10 samples across 5 major Canadian cities, only one of which was taken in Vancouver, is not representative, to say the least. Furthermore, all 10 of the butterfish samples tested were found to be escolar (Lepidocybium flavobrunneum), but escolar is synonymous with butterfish in some parts of the world, e.g. Hawaii.

18 samples of yellowtail, a species I think is referring to Seriola lalandi, but cannot say for sure since scientific names were never referenced in this study, were found to all be mislabeled. In each instance they were substituted with Japanese amberjack (Seriola quinqueradiata). These are indeed two different, albeit very similar, species. But for Oceana to split hairs in the case of yellowtail, and then to refer to Anoplopoma fimbria only as “butterfish,” a name only associated with this species in Canada and a name that applies to a far different species, Peprilus triacanthus, in the US, is irresponsible. Furthermore, in the case of yellowtail specifically, it is safe to assume many of the yellowtail samples were taken from Japanese restaurants where this species is very common, referred to as “hamachi” in most cases. Claiming fraud for financial gain when a restaurant is operating in its second language, on a species difference as subtle as this, is unfair and unrealistic to other, more legitimate instances of fraud reported in the study. Seafoodsource.com begins its description of yellowtail by explaining this species name causes common misunderstandings even in the English-speaking world:

Yellowtail is a confusing name, as it can apply to flounder, tuna and sole. It’s also the common name for several species of amberjack, sleek migratory tuna-like fish found off both U.S. coasts. The most valuable member of this family is the yellowtail farmed in Japan and featured in U.S. sushi bars under the name Hamachi.

The scientific name referenced on this yellowtail page on Seafoodsource.com is Seriola quinqueradiata for Japanese amberjack, not Seriola lalandi for “true” yellowtail. Which one is correct is beside the point. The conclusion Oceana should have drawn here was not 18 examples of deceit, but instead 18 samples of a species that a majority of the market legitimately refers to as “yellowtail”.

“Sea bass” is another species commonly mislabeled in this study, but at no point did Oceana establish which species of sea bass they were expecting to find. Catfish was shown to be a common substitute for sea bass, but 50% of the time labeling was correct for sea bass. If that was the case, what species were they finding to be correctly labeled: white sea bass (Atractoscion nobilis), black sea bass (Centropristis striata), Chilean sea bass (Patagonian toothfish; Dissostichus eleginoides), Mediterranean sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax)? This study was extremely specific about what constituted yellowtail, but was extremely vague about what constituted sea bass.

Across multiple studies, Oceana described the impact of seafood fraud in three major categories: health, economic and environmental. The economic impact to the consumer when seafood fraud occurs is considerable and well documented in these studies. The incentive to relabel a species for a more profitable species is strong given rising seafood costs and the realities of a competitive foodservice industry. Oceana Canada found 74% of the mislabeled samples in its study to be examples of cheaper species being substituted and relabeled as more expensive species. Oceana’s conclusions correctly acknowledged that such fraud not only hurts consumers, but law-abiding fishermen, processors, and suppliers who are not collecting greater profits by mislabeling cheap species.

However, concluding that seafood fraud in Canada is a matter of public health is not consistent with the results.

For example, the health analysis focused on a misconception about escolar—its reputation as the “laxative fish”. This species can cause gastrointestinal problems when consumed in large amounts, but the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rescinded a ban on the importation of the species in the 1992, “after it determined that the fish was not toxic and did not pose a public health risk…possibly embarrassing, yes; health risk, no.” If consumed in 6oz portions or less, there is no concern for any gastrointestinal symptoms. Some of the world’s most celebrated chefs have served escolar for its succulent flavor and texture. That list includes Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin, Charlie Trotter of the Charlie Trotter’s, and Laurent Gras of L20—all Michelin star recipients for excellence in fine dining. I agree that escolar must be labelled with an extra alert to consumers about the hazards of consuming this species in excessive quantities, but I feel that Oceana once again did not explain this species fairly, and instead focused on the most sensational interpretation.

This choice to communicate fear leads to news and media stoking public angst and propagating misinformation. The clip below comes from a popular TV show, Adam Ruins Everything. How much money did fishermen, fish mongers, and chefs lose because of the millions of consumers that watched it?  

Farmed fish was considered to be inherently less healthy than wild in both studies’ conclusions. Whether this is true across all farmed-wild comparisons is debatable, but overall, I agree that this is a legitimate concern, especially considering imported farm-raised species like tilapia and catfish are common substitutes. However, suggesting Japanese amberjack is particularly prone to ciguatera toxin, as the 2018 Canadian study did, is false. A few sentences prior, the report admitted that ciguatera is inherent to “reef fish.” Japanese amberjack are not reef fish; they occupy a range of oceanic and coastal ecosystems. Japanese amberjack in the market are also typically farm raised or ranched (a detail overlooked in this study) in net pens in the open ocean, nowhere near reefs. Furthermore, ciguatera poisoning has been associated with warm surface water temperatures. At or above 29° C, the rate of ciguatera poisoning increases dramatically. Japanese amberjack ranches operate best at temperatures below 30 degrees Celsius, dropping as low as 15° C to control feeding. If anything, Japanese amberjack is a safer choice.

In multiple reports, Oceana attributes mislabeled seafood to perpetuating IUU fishing and exposing endangered marine species to increased fishing effort. IUU fishing is another important issue I do not want to dismiss but placing it in this context directly contradicts the economic incentive put forward on the previous page of this report. The incentive for labeling threatened, rare species as readily-available species doesn’t make economic sense. Furthermore, a recent peer-reviewed study disputes these conclusions. Generally, mislabeled fish have a slightly better conservation status than the fish they are passed off as, though not in every case.

Critique of Oceana’s Recommendations for Policy Makers

The 2018 study offered recommendations for the CFIA to improve seafood traceability in Canada, focusing on “more transparency into our seafood supply chains.” Some of the implications were practical and should be expected, though others were too vague and probably not as realistic.

“Species-specific names available at the point of sale, along with production method, gear type and geographic origin,” were Oceana Canada’s recommended labeling mandates. While I completely agree with these choices, I do wish the study explained why these are critical pieces of information. I know why, but the average consumer probably does not. Furthermore, what are some of the challenges presented with these recommendations, i.e. why does Canada not currently require these data points on seafood packaging? Seafood products are not always labeled with the landing point, but rather the processing location; such nuances may pose barriers to implementing these policies. To require these data points is to ask something more complicated than it would originally seem. Oceana framed this process unfairly and this contextual omission reduced the quality of its recommendation.

DNA testing was recommended as a verification method to become industry standard. I agree with Oceana but felt that they did not elaborate enough. DNA testing in the seafood supply chain is still an emerging technology and is far from mainstream in any country’s seafood supply chain. Current systems are expensive and only reliable if the entire supply chain has invested in this technology. The study recommended implementing DNA testing, “at levels high enough to deter fraud,” but contradicted itself earlier in the report by admitting no one could say exactly where fraud occurs in the supply chain:

Given the complex nature of global seafood supply chains and the lack of traceability requirements, it’s impossible to determine from these results at what point in the chain seafood fraud takes place. Substitutions or mislabelling can take place on the boat, during processing, at the retail level or somewhere else along the way. In fact, in a 2016 global review of seafood fraud investigations, mislabelling was detected at every stage of the supply chain.

DNA testing in the supply chain would definitely be helpful. But that technology is a long way from being commonplace (if ever) and current systems are usually too expensive or simply not applicable to smaller-scale/rural fisheries. Investing in DNA testing has yet to demonstrate value to most of the restaurant industry in any country, further diluting its effectiveness as an industry-wide solution. I agree with Oceana’s recommendation to expand DNA testing, but I disagree with the way the issue was framed and the implication that DNA testing could be a practical solution anytime soon.

The Oceana Canada study also recommended, “one name, one fish” to help eliminate synonyms and some of the issues surrounding species like red snapper described earlier. I completely support this mandate and think it is the best recommendation in the report. It is practical, and applies to imported fish just as effectively as domestic fish. Including a scientific, Latin, name on every seafood package or invoice would reduce mislabeling tremendously and be particularly useful for imports in foreign languages. This study points to the successful implementation of these standards in the EU and the effect that seems to have had on mislabeling rates. I agree that Canada and the US should copy EU seafood packaging standards as soon as possible.

However, this is a bit easier said than done and the study does not contextualize this request. Oceana Canada cited 100 species of rockfish as an example where scientific names could help mislabeling—I agree. But rockfish fisheries operate mostly bottom trawl gear and usually pull multiple species of rockfish in one tow. Pacific rockfish species are notoriously similar in appearance and are often processed into fillets immediately after landing. Determining exact species names for each Rockfish landed would require extensive DNA testing, and even then, it wouldn’t be practical to expect a high level of accuracy at every facility.


This study from Oceana Canada, and all other reports of seafood fraud, are important lights being shown on a particularly murky global industry. It is extremely important to push the industry forward and challenge consumers to question the source of the seafood they buy. I do not want to discourage investigations on this topic going forward, and I want to applaud Oceana for making the subject of seafood fraud a primary campaign. My constructive criticism is comprehensive because I believe with the proper context and scope, studies like these could be extremely useful for policy makers and consumers alike.

But there needs to be a distinction between seafood mislabeling and seafood fraud, and to that end I want to speak up for those in the seafood industry who are not committing seafood fraud. The lack of nuance in Oceana’s campaign has obstructed law-abiding participants from claiming more value from their efforts.

The seafood industry is unlike any other food system for a variety of reasons, see other pieces in Seafood 101 for some examples. There are aspects of wild capture, highly perishable products, unique processing standards, and a heavy emphasis on imports, that make it impossible to operate a profitable seafood business with zero chance of mislabeling. Oceana does not appreciate these unique challenges and is wrong to suggest all examples of mislabeling are malicious or avoidable with a stronger moral compass.

Mislabeling and fraud should not be synonyms.

For the fishermen keeping that escolar because it was bycatch on their tuna longlines and they hope to bring it back to port for some kind of value rather than pitching it overboard; for the rockfish processor that fillets ton after ton of sustainable, but multi-species rockfish, who cannot afford DNA testing on every fillet; for the Japanese restaurant owner who offers “red snapper” because the snapper they bought is indeed a snapper that is red and they are writing a menu in their second language and don’t know any better—this is not fraud, it is symptomatic of a complex global economy at work. Oceana Canada has conducted a non-random, convenience sampling study and used it to unfairly vilify everyone in the seafood industry and sow distrust in consumers. Oceana’s campaign will not shift demand to sustainable seafood as it intends. Instead, it will shift demand away from seafood entirely, disproportionately hurting operators who are unable to afford expensive chain of custody certification and/or DNA testing.

Who benefits from a study like this? Is it consumers? They are now afraid of certain seafood species and have been told to combat this by “asking questions” to their fishmonger. They are unaware of the scope of seafood mislabeling in the entire country and just know the worst bits, meaning they aren’t sure how this affects their lives personally.

Above all, Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign is unhelpful.

  • It clearly doesn’t benefit the seafood industry.
  • Policy makers receive some good suggestions for improvements, but with no context for practical implementation and a short-sighted implication that policy changes are simple fixes, decision-makers don’t benefit.
  • Consumers/the public are deceived by biased sampling and misleading communications that portray seafood fraud as rampant and particularly problematic when it is neither.

Yet, flashy, fearmongering headlines have certainly raised Oceana’s profile. It is a shame they focus their considerable power and resources (in the marine conservation world) on issues that should take a back seat to much more pressing ocean threats like excess carbon dioxide from fossil fuels causing climate change and ocean acidification. Working towards solutions to those problems benefit everyone.

Picture of Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 10 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to increase traceability into supply chains and educate consumers, chefs and retailers on the value of environmentally sustainable seafood. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

Editor’s note: Oceana responded in a post here.

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