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Uncovering Fraudulent Fish and Crooked Crab

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced new efforts by the Obama Administration to cut down on overfishing and illegal fishing, which are severely depleting populations of marine species around the world.

“We need to double down on stopping illegal fishing, which has grown into at least a $10 billion-a-year industry,” Kerry said.  “We have to make illegal fishing harder and more expensive to get away with. And the way to do that is with more vigorous enforcement that puts as many thugs as possible behind bars.”

Kerry spoke at the international Our Oceans conference in Chile.  But the phenomena he described – including deception and fraud in the sale of seafood – is also common here in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit organization Oceana used DNA testing to examine the true origins of a food that is central to the identity of Maryland:  crab cakes.  Oceana bought 90 crab cakes that were described as “Chesapeake blue crab” from 86 different restaurants in Maryland – and found that 38 percent of them were mislabeled.

In Baltimore and Annapolis, almost half of the crab cakes were actually made from species of crabs from Asia – most often, the Indo-Pacific blue swimming crabs that were likely caught in places like Indonesia or the Philippines.

“There are a number of reasons it is a problem,” said Kimberly Warner, senior scientist in the Washington D.C. office of Oceana.  “In Maryland, it is in particularly hurtful to me because I went to school in Maryland, and I honor what the Chesapeake Bay provides, and respect the watermen who work very hard to produce local seafood.  So when we get cheated here in this region, we really take it hard.” 

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the crab cakes sold in restaurants were much more likely to be actual blue crabs, with DNA testing showing that only 9 percent were made from foreign species, according to the Oceana study.

“The ones that we got from the Eastern Shore, closer to where blue crab is harvested in Maryland, had far less mislabeling that what we found in Baltimore or Washington,” Warner said.  “It’s a very short supply chain (on the Eastern Shore) and probably people know who caught their crab that day.”

Last year, Oceana tested shrimp sold in sold in stores and restaurants nationally and found that 30 percent were incorrectly labelled. Often, seafood marketed as wild Gulf of Mexico shrimp was actually a different species – whiteleg shrimp – which is grown on farms.

From 2010 to 2012, Oceana tested more than 1,200 samples of fish sold across the country.  The organization found that 93 percent of the fish labelled as “red snapper” was actually something else (often, farm-raised tilapia).  And 59 percent of the tuna sampled was mislabeled, according to Oceana.

One problem with this kind of fraud is that some endangered species of fish are being killed and sold as if it were legal.   But another problem is that customers are sometimes eating mystery meats that are harmful to their health, Warner said.

“We found a lot of white tuna, which is popular in sushi restaurants, was not a species of tuna at all,” Warner said. “Actually 80 percent of what we tested labelled as white tuna was escolar, which is a snake mackerel species that has a toxin in it that can cause very disturbing gastrointestinal effects in people who eat too much.  And we found high mercury fish, which the FDA advises sensitive groups (such as pregnant women) to avoid eating.  But this high mercury fish was being sold under names that were of fish that have less mercury in them. “

Part of the solution to this problem may be the federal government’s stepped-up inspection of fishing vessels carrying shrimp, cod, and tuna that Secretary of State John Kerry said will start later this month.  The Obama Administration has a goal of tracing, by 2017, the origins of all fish entering the country, from harvest to port.

Improved labelling could then help protect both the health of consumers and the survival of endangered species.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.