Fraud, Crisis and Seafood

seafood crisis

The ocean may seem fine on the surface, but what’s happening below? Photo credit: Chrismatos via

NEW HAVEN, United States — The world is in a food crisis, but even more so a seafood crisis. Fish fraud, overfishing and black market sales are just a few of the issues that face today’s world. It may seem like a far off problem that you cannot influence nor can it impact on you but, without knowing, it likely affects you every day. It’s a global problem that will require a global solution. As global warming continues and droughts, floods and other natural disasters become more common, arable land is on the decline and the ocean becomes more important in the effort to feed the world’s ever-growing human population.

That’s not the right fish!

When you order from a restaurant menu or buy from the market, do you really know what you’re eating? As it turns out, restaurant owners and managers, may not even know what you’re eating. Recently in San Diego, California, USA, eight sushi restaurants were found to have been serving lobster rolls that contained no lobster — essentially, fraudulent lobster rolls. As it turns out, this sort of fraud in one form or another is more prevalent than we would like to think.

seafood crisis

Advertised to be halibut, but do you really know if it is? sporkist via

Fish fraud happens both wittingly and unwittingly. While businesses that clearly lie about the fish they are serving are taking risks, many other restaurants are unaware that they’ve been swindled. Mislabelling fish on the menu isn’t without consequence. Selling fish that is a lower quality than what consumers were told they purchased can cost an eatery its reputation. It also means consumers are paying millions of dollars for products that they never receive. Even worse, organisations like the United States Food and Drug Administration monitor restaurants and randomly test the fish being served, and if it is found to be a different species than advertised, the establishments can be subject to fines. They’re responsible for such fines even when they unknowingly commit fraud. In turn, a business’ reputation can also be on the line. No one wants to pay hard earned money to dine on questionable products. The Atlantic Magazine estimates the cost of this deceptive behavior at upwards of $25 billion dollars a year in America alone. In 2013, Oceana found that one third of the seafood in the United States was mislabelled.

Black market mayhem and illegal fishing

As you may imagine, there is a very profitable black market for ocean life. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that “85% of the world’s fish stocks are at risk” to be illegally fished. Illegal fishing impacts on many species around the globe. Snow crabs, bluefin tuna and mackerels are all being illegally fished every day. In the Summer 2015 issue of World Wildlife Magazine, Michele Kuruc, Vice President, Ocean Policy says: “Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing depletes fish stocks, complicates fisheries management, disrupts or destroys marine habitats, disturbs market conditions and threatens the livelihoods of many coastal communities.” The impact on fisheries, marine life and the ocean is high. In turn, everyone suffers from these activities but the cost can be particularly high for restaurants who are at the mercy of their suppliers. Food markets and eateries are not the only victims of this behaviour. Fisherman also suffer. Their livelihoods are threatened by illegal activity as well.

seafood crisis

Fishing Trawler Photo credit: Kumaravel via

In many places around the world, it’s difficult to police these illegal activities. Corruption, greed and ignorance to laws put the oceans in a precarious position. Africa Geographic reports that the SA National Biodiversity Institute predicts that 47% of South Africa’s coast and marine habitats are in jeopardy and the same article states that the World Wildlife Fund reported 70% of the country’s commercial fish species were considered “collapsed,”¹ meaning potentially irreversible damage to the population and others supported by it.

Legal overfishing and exploitation

While it may seem easy enough to blame sinister businessmen willing to bribe and break the law to make money, this often isn’t the case. In many places, there are simply no laws to protect fish populations. Other problems come in the form of bycatch – fish caught while fishing for another fish. This bycatch is often young, not yet mature fish or at times endangered species such as turtles. Destructive fishing practices also play a part and can range from fishing in hatchery and spawning areas, damaging habitats to any other practice that puts a species at risk. The World Wildlife Fund gives some disturbing unsustainable fishing statistics:

  • The global fishing fleet is 2-3 times larger than what the oceans can sustainably support.
  • 53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited and 32% are overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion.
  • Unless the current situation improves, stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse by 2048.

These practices affect everyone from boat to plate. It’s not just a rise in prices or an inconvenience, in the long term, it means that the most plentiful food source may not exist.

Health risks become business risks

The health risks of unchecked fish can be great. These fish aren’t inspected and are commonly of lower quality than the species they’re masqueraded as. They can contain high levels of mercury and other toxins, such as banned antimicrobial agents. Tuna is often replaced with escolar, which causes digestive issues in humans.

These are just a few of the many health risks that come from fish fraud. In turn, the risk is passed on to unsuspecting business owners. For them, it translates into lost sales and injured reputations due to low quality as well as the potential to sicken customers. Ill customers come at quite a price. Restaurants can be subject to investigation and closure resulting in lost revenue. In the long term, many restaurants and consumers alike will suffer from the negative impacts of overfishing, illegal fishing, fraudulent species and uninspected fish.

What’s at stake and who benefits

All this talk of seafood fraud must be making you wonder who really benefits. Many countries import a large amount of fish, including the United States, which imports about 90% of the fish Americans eat each day.

Fish fraud allows imported fish from many places to escape anti-dumping tariffs as well as higher tariffs on more regulated fish. It also allows some to benefit from the high dollar price tags of desirable fish, which are oftentimes harder to catch and in short supply while actually selling a species that is much easier to obtain. An example of this is the Asian catfish being sold as grouper. This allows the catfish to be sold at approximately four times its actual market price. One United States Food and Drug Administration case recounts the story of a perpetrator who saved more than $60 million in tariffs by mislabelling fish.

Tariff evasion and greed fuel a trend that no one can afford. Species are fished into extinction, delicate biomes are damaged and food chains are collapsing. These unsustainable practices are doing damage that affect human and marine populations alike. Many populations rely on fish for their protein intake, and without it have nothing to take its place.

What can businesses do to save the Ocean and preserve the industry?

The good news is that there is something that can be done. Jackie Savitz, marine biologist and Vice President of Oceana’s United States branch, gives hope in her May 2014 TED Talk. In it she paints a picture of hope and the possibility of stamping out much of world hunger by preserving our oceans. Savitz tells us that the world catch has declined by 18% since 1980, and it’s not getting better. Her solutions to the fish problem include better regulations and international agreements that limit the number of places that fisherman can fish in order to give fisheries time to rebound. She also describes quotas and reduction of bycatch as ways to protect populations and bolster numbers. She goes on to say that protection of spawning and nursery areas as well as habitats would help rebuild fish populations. Part of this philosophy would include traceability in which a species could be traced and monitored from ocean to plate. None of these ideas are new to the industry, but thus far they have been difficult to implement and carry out.

On the restaurant and market level this translates to buying from known sustainable sources. Beth Lowell, Campaign Director for Oceana says:

Restaurants and markets can support sustainable fishing practices by sourcing responsibly caught seafood. Programmes like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch rank seafood from best choices to those to avoid. Buying green list seafood is a good way to support sustainable fishing. Additionally, seafood that is traceable is less likely to be mislabelled.

seafood crisis

Image of freshly caught fish. Photo credit: Vincent-Lin via

Supporting sustainable fishing often includes attempting to buy locally sourced fish (in areas where local regulations are more stringent than internationally). Lowell also points out: “The best way [to avoid buying fraudulent fish is] to only buy traceable seafood — fish that can be tracked back to the fishing vessel or farm. Other than that, ask questions of the seafood supplier, including what fish is this? Is it farm raised? Where was it caught? How was it caught? If the seafood provider, can’t answer these types of questions, find a new person to buy seafood from.” These two practices help restaurants and markets protect the ocean and their customers, but there is more that can be done.

Sustainability and traceability are part of the solution, but buying only green-listed fish is also important. These fish are not in danger, and serving these fish rather than red-listed ones is vital to the oceans’ survival. Lowell reports: “As fishery management improves or populations shift and change, a fish may change from red list to green list or in the other direction. It’s not as easy to list one species to keep off menus forever to fix the problems of the oceans.” The Seafood Watch programme is a good way to make healthy choices for restaurant menus and market offerings.

Joining organisations and initiatives that pressure countries to do better, supporting fisherman that fish the right way and being ever conscious of the potential environmental cost of the seafood you’re putting on a consumer’s plate. It can be difficult and at times discouraging, but the payoff for everyone is big.

If you’re wondering what the top 10 most consumed seafoods are, then check out About Seafood’s statistics.

As a restaurant or business owner, what are your biggest challenges when it comes to seafood? Tell us in the commentary section below!


Collapsed species defined: A collapsed population or species of fish is one that has been reduced in size to the point where the likelihood of recovery and rebuilding of the population is unlikely due to factors such as reduced genetic diversity, spatial disaggregation (reduced mating ability) and changes in the food chain structure from the fishing of other predator and prey species. The collapse can happen on a local or global scale depending on many factors including migratory habits, economic marketability, fecundity, oceanic weather trends, etc. Due to the intricately woven web that each population of fish fits into within the larger aquatic ecosystem, the loss of a singular geographically or morphologically distinct population has potentially catastrophic ramifications throughout the ecosystem. If the population is made up of a keystone species, or one which is of critical importance in the survival of the aquatic ecosystem as a whole, then the loss of that population could mean the loss of every other species in the ecosystem. If the species is not a keystone species, it could have second or third-order effects ranging from the loss of that population’s predator species or the loss of a critical economic opportunity for fishermen. This in turn could lead to the seeking of an alternate or replacement population to fill the economic niche, meaning the inevitable decline of that species or population. In short, the loss of a fish population is likely to have irreversible negative consequences on the rest of the aquatic ecosystem and potential negative effects on humans and the economy of fishing and/or aquaculture.

Shire Lyon About the author

Paid Search advertiser by profession and writer by passion. She also owns the blog, It's the Small Stuff, She holds a Bachelor’s in Communication and a Web Design Certificate. Her delight in fine cuisine and new gastronomic trends coupled with her obsession for writing help her bring cuisine trends to an international audience.