The science of sustainable seafood, explained

The sustainability implications of mislabeled fish in the U.S.

In November 2020, an essential addition to the seafood mislabeling discourse was published, Kroetz et al. Consequences of seafood mislabeling for marine populations and fisheries management. The paper determined if mislabeled seafood products in the U.S. could be directly linked with negative impacts on marine populations and poorly managed fisheries. These associations have been inferred in previous seafood mislabeling literature but were never based on empirical evidence. Kroetz et al. found that substituted products often came from fisheries with less healthy stocks and more significant environmental impacts.

Seafood mislabeling or “seafood fraud” is a subject we have covered before. However, the studies we referenced were primarily concerned with defining the issue at the consumer level and identifying culprits from mislabeling rates. For example, Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign focused on sampling particularly untrustworthy fish from restaurants and retailers, not a randomized, comprehensive sample.

We criticized Oceana for their biased methodology, which magnified the few species with high mislabeling rates, but also wondered what the endgame was for this type of research. Oceana gets flashy, clickbait headlines touting a high mislabeling rate, but adds little data that can be used to solve the problem. Fortunately, a group of scientists have taken seafood mislabeling literature in a more pragmatic direction, making one of the first empirical attempts to connect this issue back to fisheries management and sustainable seafood.

We covered previous work which put together a database to determine an accurate mislabeling rate (8% of seafood is mislabeled), but a more recent paper (Kroetz et al.) investigated whether or not seafood mislabeling rates are representative of sustainability. The core of their analysis focused on 264 mislabeling pairs, which were defined as a properly labelled seafood species paired with its most common substitute(s). These pairs were associated with approximately 190,000 to 250,000 tons of mislabeled seafood in the U.S., which equated to While most pairs had low mislabeling rates and low rates of consumption, outliers drove the aggregate. The authors identified giant tiger prawn/whiteleg shrimp as the pair responsible for more apparent mislabeled consumption than any other pair in the analysis, followed by farmed Atlantic salmon/wild salmon, and blue swimming crab/blue crab.

“Focusing solely on seafood products with high mislabeling rates obscures the substantial quantity and potential impacts of seafood mislabeling with relatively low mislabeling rates but substantial apparent consumption of products.” (Kroetz et al.). In other words, Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign could be detrimental as it obscures true sustainability information and confuses consumers.

Though Kroetz et al. found that on average, substitute species performed worse in terms of impacts on the target fish stock and on other species, substitute species actually received higher fishery management scores than their replacements. A substitute species was not automatically a less sustainable species by all traditional metrics, further challenging previous assumptions about mislabeling incentives (nefarious retailers) and the way we measure sustainability as a snapshot in time versus a projection into the future.

Kroetz et al. conceded that further research will be needed to reexamine their results with different lenses. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program assessment scores were utilized for this study due to their broad coverage, but other standards may yield different conclusions.

This study took seafood mislabeling research in a practical new direction that calls for a more holistic approach to this issue. Seafood mislabeling should not be characterized as “fraud” and associated with one duplicitous actor at the final link in the supply chain. Doing so would proliferate a siloed perspective on seafood mislabeling and limit more effective programs to reduce it.

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.

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