British Fast Food Fish Shops Are Serving up Endangered Shark Meat

Fish and chips is a British delicacy served across the UK in restaurants and fast food takeaways, but a new study from the University of Exeter finds that the fish customers are eating isn’t what they supposed. It’s actually endangered shark meat.

Writing in the journal “Scientific Reports“, the researchers outline how they used a form of DNA barcoding to identify the species of fish that were on sale from 78 different takeaway restaurants. The researchers also took a sample from 39 fish sold by fishmongers, 10 from UK wholesalers and a further 30 from the UK Customs Agency.

DNA barcoding is a method of looking at sets of genes that, like a supermarket barcode on a sale item, can tell us the identity of the fish or animal in question. In this case, the fish being tested were given generic names by wholesalers such as rock, rock salmon, huss and flake. However, the researchers found that these were not generic fish at all. Instead, they were masking the sale of meat from scalloped hammerheads, spiny dogfish, shortfin mako and smalleye hammerhead sharks, to name just a few.

Fishing for shark meat in the EU is expressly prohibited, however after a change in 2011 the sale of shark meat is allowed if it is caught as bycatch. Many fisheries now use this loophole as a means of boosting their sales.

The researchers point out that their study actually involved only a small sample size, but they were able to clearly demonstrate that the sale of shark meat was ubiquitous in takeaway fish and chip shops as well as at wholesalers. The likelihood is that this is a national problem. They believe that this is bad for both the sharks themselves and for consumers.

Several of the shark species are classed as “vulnerable” or “endangered”. For example, the spiny dog fish is classed by the IUCN Red List as “vulnerable” due primarily to overfishing. This study also looked at shark fins sold in the UK and found that many were not coming from common species but instead were from sharks like the scalloped hammerhead, which the IUCN Red List classes as “endangered“.

Obviously, in terms of species conservation this is a bad scenario because, at the moment, we don’t know just how many shark species are affected or what numbers we can put on this. That has to change.

For consumers, too, who believe they are getting a generic fish brand, this could be a major health worry.

“It’s almost impossible for consumers to know what they are buying,” lead researcher Catherine Hobbs of the University of Exeter told The Guardian. ”People might think they’re getting a sustainably sourced product when they’re actually buying a threatened species.”

“There are also health issues,” Hobbs explains. ”Knowing what species you are buying could be important in terms of allergies, toxins, mercury content and the growing concern over microplastics in the marine food chain.”

Simon Walmsley, Chief Marine Adviser at WWF, tells the BBC that this situation needs to change. “Endangered shark species shouldn’t be ending up on people’s plates as their weekend takeaway, particularly the spiny dogfish which is vulnerable and threatened with extinction.”

So how do we tackle this? There is one major point of action the UK can take.

The UK allows broad umbrella terms for fish sold within its borders. The researchers believe that these vague names need to be abandoned and replaced with species-specific names, or at the very least names that are descriptive of the meat that British consumers are really purchasing.

Many consumers would likely be aghast to know that they are eating a vulnerable species of shark, and even if they are not bothered about this there is clearly an abuse of trust going on when consumers are being sold shark meat under the guise of it being some kind of other fish.

The UK should immediately adopt better, more transparent labeling in order to end the sale of shark meat to unsuspecting consumers. It is bad for conservation, and it is terrible for public trust.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

100 comments

heather g
heather g2 months ago

A few years ago they tested what fish Sushi restaurants were serving - it turned out that most of them were lying. I think its very common amongst fishmongers and supermarkets as well because lots of the fish sold is coated. Needs to be re-tested regularly everywhere.

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Angeles M
Angeles M2 months ago

Thank you

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Sophie A
Sarah A2 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Maria P
Martha P2 months ago

Thank you for sharing

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Christine Stewart
Christine S2 months ago

shame on whoever thought of that loophole- okay to sell if it's caught "accidentally"- which pretty much means okay to sell anything and just lie, "oops, I didn't mean to catch that endangered fish- hey, I guess I get to sell it..."

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Michael F
Michael F2 months ago

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

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Ann B
Ann B2 months ago

please flag past member they are a spammer and may be in your friends list without your OK

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Ann B
Ann B2 months ago

if this has been proven then it needs to be stopped by LAW

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Linda Wallace
Linda Wallace2 months ago

This has to stop. There must be consequences severe enough to ensure that it does stop.

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Ingrid A
Past Member 2 months ago

Thank you

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