The Fishy Business of Seafood Fraud

by Vins
Published: Updated:

A 2019 study by Oceana, a non- profit organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans, found that roughly twenty percent of fish bought and sold in the US are mislabeled. In other words, the fish sold are not the kind advertised—with vulnerable species like Atlantic halibut often falsely advertised as a more sustainable catch, for example. Seafood fraud, which Oceana studied in 24 states, not only affects consumers who purchase seafood, it also affects honest fisherman and seafood businesses. It can also pose serious health risks.

Oceana purchased 449 fish in 24 different states, and found that one-third of shops and restaurants were selling fish that had been mislabeled in one way or another. The study used DNA testing to compare the purchased fish with fish whose identity was known with certainty. Using DNA testing, Oceana found that 26% of the fish in restaurants were mislabeled, 24% in smaller markets, and 12% from supermarkets. Sea bass (55%) and snapper (42%) were the most commonly mislabeled fish.

Fish fraud is a global problem. Fisheries are regulated by national or international laws, agreements, and regulations intended to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Mislabeling often serves to mask illegal fishing practices, allowing dishonest fishing enterprises to profit from catches they could not otherwise sell.

Oceana called on the US government to tighten its regulations on the import and sale of fish, so that seafood can be tracked from boat to plate. Oceana warned that, under current regulations, it is nearly impossible to determine where in the supply chain false descriptions of fish shipments are made. Strong policies to control fish fraud have led to immediate and significant reductions in fish mislabeling in the European Union.

According to Beth Lowell, Oceana’s deputy vice president of US campaigns, Seafood traceability is “critical to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled.”

Source: Douglas Broom, “A Seafood Fraud Investigation DNA Tested Fish Sold in the US. Here’s What They Found,” World Economic Forum, August 20, 2019,

Student Researcher: Blake Bourelle (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (Sonoma State University)