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Marine Environment Is Suffering as a Consequence of Seafood Mislabelling

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Media outlets, governments, academics, and NGOs are increasingly recognizing and documenting seafood fraud. Policies are being designed and revamped in an attempt to reduce seafood mislabeling. And, more and more groups are testing products for mislabeling. Despite the increased attention, however, we still know very little about the consequences of seafood mislabeling. Evidence for negative impacts has been largely limited to hypotheses and anecdotes.

A new paper by Advanced Conservation Strategies and colleagues provides a system-level analysis to show that conditions exist for seafood mislabeling to lead to negative outcomes. They combined multiple data sources to characterize the mislabeling landscape for the entire US seafood supply. Doing so allowed them to estimate how much mislabeled seafood Americans are consuming every year. That statistic, known as mislabeled apparent consumption, turns out to be a lot: somewhere between 420-550 million pounds of seafood, which exceeds total seafood landings of all but three ports in the United States. That's more than a pound of mislabeled seafood for every American.

By compiling lots of different data and analyzing it in new ways, we demonstrated that mislabeling rates for seafood products are often quite lower than what is commonly reported. However, when those rates are combined with how much of those seafood products are consumed, Americans are likely eating quite a bit of mislabeled seafood, says Josh Donlan, who co-led the research.

Much of that mislabeled seafood comes from products that are swapped out for what Americans eat a lot of - like shrimp, salmon and, crab. The study also revealed the complex global nature of seafood mislabeling. Substitute products are more likely to be imported than the product listed on the label. However, a substitute product is most likely to originate from the U.S. compared to any other single country. Products that are produced by aquaculture and those that are wild caught are both playing a in role in seafood mislabeling.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study's most concerning finding is that seafood mislabeling is having negative consequences on the marine environment. Approximately 60% of U.S. mislabeled seafood involves only products that are wild caught. For those products, the substituted products come from fisheries with less healthy stocks and greater impacts on bycatch species compared to the product on the label. Similarly, substituted products are from fisheries with less effective management and with management policies less likely to address impacts of fishing on habitats and ecosystems.

At a systems-level, it appears that the conditions are in place for mislabeling to be generating negative impacts on marine populations and to support consumption of products from poorly managed fisheries--which is an important finding that supports programs and policies that target seafood mislabeling, says Kailin Kroetz, lead author and Assistant Professor at Arizona State University and University Fellow at Resources for the Future.

The authors also caution that more research is needed, and their findings should be viewed through a lens of uncertainty. This is partially because fisheries, trade, and mislabeling data are often scarce and challenging to work with because of the ways they are recorded and reported. Nonetheless, the research provides the first systematic evidence of environmental impacts from food fraud and highlights the need for more holistic, and collaborative approaches to understand and design interventions to minimize seafood mislabeling.

Reference: Kroetz K, Luque GM, Gephart JA, et al. Consequences of seafood mislabeling for marine populations and fisheries management. PNAS. 2020. doi:10.1073/pnas.2003741117

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