Wild-caught Fraudsters: Seafood Mislabeling, Consumer Rights, and Sustainability

Seafood fraud made the news this week when MKG Provisions, a seafood company in Miami, was sentenced in a U.S. Federal Court for labeling farmed salmon from Chile as a “product of Scotland”. The company will be obliged to pay a USD 50 000 fine.

This case highlights the endemic challenge of falsely and mislabeled seafood. Between 25 and 70 percent of seafood products in Canada are “mislabeled due to counterfeiting somewhere along the supply chain”. We are not an aberration from the norm in this regard: on average, 30 percent of seafood products are mislabeled globally. Why so high? As fish markets have globalized so too have the supply chains for fish products, resulting in a “notoriously opaque” system in which weak governance provides a hospitable environment for seafood fraud.

Beyond being a consumer rights issue – if you buy salmon you probably want to know that you are receiving salmon – seafood mislabeling poses challenges for sustainability. An important piece of this puzzle is what’s called “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing” (IUU fishing, for short). IUU fishing is a global governance problem: weak governance systems in some countries, as well as fishing in largely ungoverned international waters, make it exceedingly difficult to regulate sustainable fish stocks.

A recent study estimated the amount of illegal and unreported seafood being produced in 10 top fish producing countries. The good news is that Canada had the lowest proportion of IUU fishing: under 7% of fish caught in Canada is estimated to be illegal or unreported, compared with upwards of one third of total catch in China, Thailand, and Indonesia. The bad news, of course, is that Canada imports a lot of seafood from countries with much worse records. So there is a good chance that the fish you eat is contributing to the depletion of global fish stocks (and maybe even slavery or forced labor).

Eco-labels with traceability standards offer a partial solution to this problem, although seafood mislabeling still happens under such schemes (but it happens a lot less). Of course, private regulation has its limits – accordingly, government-mandated traceability requirements will play an important role as well. For a good summary of traceability standards in the seafood industry, see this report. Finally, better tools are needed. DNA testing has generated research attention since it poses a potential solution to the deficiencies of current traceability best practices. For instance, the MSC published a report on the subject in March. 

15 Years of Marine Stewardship Council Certification: Not So Long, But Thanks for All the Fish!

When purchasing sustainable products most people rely on eco-labels: images posted on packaging that indicate that the producer of that item has adhered to a given set of criteria on the environmental impact of production. Not all eco-labels are alike, however, so it is important to ensure that the one you go by uses third party certification and has rigorous standards. 

When purchasing sustainable seafood there may be several different eco-labels available to you, but the one that is largest and most well-known is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC now accounts for about 10% of global wild caught seafood (as compared to aquaculture/farmed fish) but this proportion is often much higher in developed countries, where the demand for certified fish is higher. In Canada, for example, 67% of domestic wild catch seafood is MSC certified.

See that blue label? That's what MSC certification looks like!

See that blue label? That's what MSC certification looks like!

In addition to being the most widely used eco-label, MSC is also well-known for its rigorous standards (although it has been criticized for focusing too narrowly on the sustainability of fish stocks instead of the overall environmental impact of fisheries and the fish supply chain, as well as for having a process that is too burdensome for small fisheries and fisheries in developing countries). If you are looking for sustainably caught seafood, the MSC is probably your best bet: it is the most likely to actually be available in stores near you and has standards that are reasonably stringent and evaluated impartially, based on evidence. 

The MSC is noteworthy today because it just released its annual report documenting the eco-label's fifteenth year since the first fishery was MSC certified. Some of the highlights from the annual report are included below.

The Highlights of MSC's Annual Report


  • MSC certified 40 new fisheries -- which is pretty good when you consider that a total of 256 fisheries are MSC certified, in 36 countries. There are 34 500 businesses that sell MSC certified products (which came from those certified fisheries) to consumers in 97 countries. 
  • MSC added the first certified fisheries in China and India. Although most MSC certified fisheries exist in developing countries, the MSC emphasized the strides that it has taken to improve accessibility to developing country fisheries. A total of 19 developing country fisheries are certified, with a further 11 in assessment.
  • IKEA committed to sell only MSC certified seafood in all of its stores globally. MSC has previously grown the eco-label by securing similar pledges, for example from Unilever and Walmart.
  • For some species, MSC certification is now the norm: for example, nearly half of whitefish (i.e. cod, haddock, pollock) and just over half of wild-caught salmon is MSC certified.  


  • Lobster certification grew a lot this year, largely because key lobster fisheries in Canada became certified -- 97% of Canadian Atlantic lobster is now MSC certified!
  • MSC also highlighted the strides that the fisheries of the North Atlantic and the Arctic have taken since the 1992 collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery in Newfoundland. Now these fisheries are "world leaders in sustainability and good management", according to MSC.
  • Overall, 73% of Canadian fisheries (by value) are engaged in the MSC process.


  • This year MSC completed its review process of the Fisheries Standard after two years of consultations with experts, NGOs and other actors. 
  • Based on the new Standard, the cumulative impacts that fisheries have on non-target species must be taken into account during fishery assessments. So, if a fishery that catches fish A is sustainable for fish A but creates adverse effects for the population of fish B, that is now something that is taken into account.
  • The Standard introduces new measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems like cold water coral. 
  • There is now a clearer MSC policy against forced labor: companies that have been successfully prosecuted for forced labor violations cannot be MSC certified. This was a response to rising public concern about forced labour in the seafood industry, based on US government reporting and media attention on the issue.


  • MSC surveyed 9000 seafood buyers from 15 countries across Europe, Asia, Australasia and North America. 
  • 41% of respondents look for sustainably sourced fish products, up from 36% in 2010. 
  •  33% recognize the MSC label, up from 25% in 2010.


Well, they did, anyway. MSC was part of a campaign led by the World Wildlife Fund UK to celebrate Earth Hour 2015 through #fishface selfies. A brief search of the hashtag now suggests that it is no longer primarily associated with environmental solidarity, however....


  • 75% of MSC revenue came from licensing the eco-label, while most of the rest emanated from donations
  •  Expenditures were split in roughly even proportion between three activities: policy and maintaining the Standard; education and awareness; and fisheries servicing and outreach.