Fish Fraud Investigation Exposes ‘Sustainable’ Seafood Distributor

Being an ethical consumer can be a real challenge sometimes. The world of seafood is no exception, where growing concerns about slavery, overfishing and a variety of sustainability issues have led consumers to call for better governance over where fish comes from and how it’s handled.

Consumers want reassurance that they’re not contributing to environmental harm or human suffering, and a growing list of sustainable seafood certification programs are stepping up to meet demand. Even McDonald’s has gotten involved.

Many people rely on sustainable seafood recommendations from organizations and individuals they trust, including chefs with innovative approaches to this issue. Since consumers usually can’t actually go out to watch fishing in progress or monitor the origins of their fish in person, they rely on third parties who claim to evaluate the source of fish, as well as the practices used out on the open ocean.

And that’s why many people were dismayed by recent research on fish fraud, showing that one in five fish samples was mislabeled. Even more unsettling was the discovery that people were occasionally consuming endangered species without knowing it. Fish fraud is a documented issue, and the struggle to get mislabeling under control highlights the extent of the problem; it’s a big ocean out there.

A recent AP report shows that fish fraud goes even deeper than consumers realize. They investigated a company called Sea to Table, which claims to provide customers with sustainable, wild-caught seafood from traceable, domestic sources. Sounds like the dream, right? Certainly consumers agreed, because the small company has spread across the U.S. to consumers who want a reliable source of ethical seafood.

But as the AP soon learned, the real story was quite different. Using investigators at multiple points, they uncovered signs that the company was supplied farmed fish, seafood from overseas and non-local fish. Sea to Table even misleadingly claimed that their fish came from specific boats, to the surprise of the fishermen who worked on these vessels.

AP reporters were able to trace the supply chain back to overseas producers known for using slavery and forced labor, a practice exposed quite graphically in a 2014 investigation by The Guardian. They also showed that the same boats catching fish for Sea to Table were involved in practices like shark finning and whaling.

The company fired back at the AP, contesting most of the explosive claims in the story. Among other things, the founders dismissed claims by suggesting they could have “communicated better” and insisting that the deceptive practices identified by the reporters were just evidence of a mixup.

The company also disputed claims about the foreign origins of some of its seafood, casting doubt on the DNA tracing tactics used by the investigators. Sea to Table tried to spread the blame to suppliers, rather than taking responsibility for thoroughly auditing its supply chain, something the organization packages as part of its promise to consumers.

Organizations like the AP invest substantial resources in investigating and fact-checking stories like these, so it’s unlikely their work contains as many errors as Sea to Table claims it does. The story should definitely be cause for concern amongst consumers worried about eating sustainably. It demonstrates that — despite years of documented fish fraud and attempts on the part of a variety of organizations to stop it — opaque, confusing, and sometimes actively deceptive practices are still part of the seafood industry.

Researchers have also cast doubt on the prioritization and rating systems used by entities like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, saying their system doesn’t account for larger sustainability issues. Employees are constantly refining and adjusting the project, so hopefully they’ll respond to these critiques with some reforms to put consumers at ease.

In the meantime, if you want to keep eating fish, how can you make sure it’s ethical? Short of going out and catching it yourself, you may have a tough time, but there are a few steps you can take. If possible, try to get close to the source; buying directly from boats in the harbor, if that’s an option for you, can allow you to meet the people who do the fishing and inspect the conditions.

If that’s not possible, don’t rely on one source for information about sustainability. Look up information about given fish species in multiple places to learn more. Closely read over policies and procedures at third party certification and recommendation programs. Try to buy whole fish, if possible, which makes it harder to fall prey to fish fraud. Ask the people at the fish counter about their sourcing practices. If markets aren’t receptive to your questions, buy your fish elsewhere!

Photo credit: Marco Verch

53 comments

Kathy G
Kathy G11 days ago

Thank you

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John W
John W12 days ago

Thanks

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Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan H14 days ago

How is ever eating another living creature sustainable?

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Cindy S
Cindy S14 days ago

ewwwwww I never eat animals

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Greta L
Greta L16 days ago

Thanks for posting

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Janis K
Janis K17 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Toni W
Toni W17 days ago

TYFS

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Toni W
Toni W17 days ago

TYFS

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Carol C
Carol C18 days ago

Very discouraging. Thank you for bringing this information to light.

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Dave fleming
Dave f18 days ago

Signed

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