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.