As a relatively new Floridian, I’ve quickly learned that the waters off our coasts represent much more than a relaxing day of sun bathing or cruising along the coastline. Instead, these waters drive our local economies, from the tourists they attract to the fish they provide.
Local fishermen and restaurant owners are proud of the seafood products they supply us with. But today, their livelihoods are being threatened by the risk that consumers may be receiving a completely different species than the one they paid for.
Having just celebrated World Oceans Day,
on June 8, we should ask ourselves this: Is that $6 cod sandwich too good to be true?
Unfortunately, as seafood continues to gain popularity in the United States, consumers are provided with little or no information about what they are eating. And, when information is provided, it can be misleading or fraudulent. This is in part due to the increasingly complex path that our fish take from boat to plate, given that more than 80 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is now imported.
Recent studies suggest that the notion of seafood mislabeling is not a new concept to the state of Florida. In fact, seafood in this country may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for commonly swapped species such as red snapper and Atlantic cod, disguising those that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.
For example: Without the skin, head and tail, can one truly tell the difference between wild and farmed salmon? What about Mako shark and swordfish?
With approximately 1,700 species of seafood available in the U.S., it’s simply unrealistic to expect consumers to determine exactly what they’re eating.
The complex part of seafood mislabeling is that it can happen at any point in the supply chain — whether it’s on the boat, at the processing plant or even at the restaurant. While there should be a traceability system in place for seafood, our government does very little to protect us from seafood fraud. Today, only 2 percent of seafood is currently inspected, and less than a fraction of 1 percent specifically for fraud.
There are several reasons why this should worry us. Not only does seafood fraud rip us off by causing us to pay inflated prices for something we didn’t want, but it also hurts local and responsible fishermen who lose heard-earned profits due to unfair competition.
We must not forget about the potential health risks too, given that some fish contain toxins or allergens. Plus, the lack of traceability in the marketplace makes seafood recalls virtually impossible. Last, but not least, seafood fraud undermines conservation efforts by disguising illegally caught fish and mislabeling overexploited species, making them appear more widely available.
So, the next time you’re buying seafood, know your prices, try to buy the whole fish when possible, and always ask where, when and how your fish was caught. Florida is no place for fishy business. Dustin Cranor is Florida Representative at OCEANA, an international advocacy group working to protect marine wildlife and habitats, stop ocean pollution and promote responsible fishing.