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December 5, 2017

You probably aren’t actually eating the fish you paid for

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A fish merchant's stall in an indoor market.


Originally published on Huffington Post 

Canadians love seafood, and it is part of our national identity. But do we really know what’s on our plate?

Seafood fraud runs rampant globally, and Canada is no exception. Considering that more than 900 different species from all over the world sold in Canada, it’s impossible for Canadian consumers to know exactly what fish they’re buying without effective traceability from boat to plate.

Seafood fraud, which takes many forms, includes any activity that misrepresents the product being purchased. Of major concern is species substitution, when one type of fish — generally a cheaper species — is sold as another, often pricier option.

Oceana Canada recently conducted independent seafood testing in restaurants and grocery stores across Ottawa, using DNA testing to match labels to the true identity of the fish. This was the first time such testing has been done in the nation’s capital. We uncovered seafood mislabelling in some of the city’s most popular restaurants, including those known for serving sustainable seafood. Nearly half of the samples collected were mislabelled, with one third considered species substitution. A whopping 68 per cent of the sushi tested was mislabelled.

When one species of fish is substituted for another, or when correct species information is not provided, consumers risk exposure to parasites, allergens, contaminants, aquaculture drugs and pesticides used in industrial farming operations, or natural toxins found in certain fish species and not others. In some instances, this can lead to serious health issues, such as when an oily fish called escolar, also known as the “laxative of the sea,” is substituted for white tuna or butterfish.

These fraudulent practices also hurt local, honest fishers who are trying to catch fish legally and label it correctly, as well as chefs, restaurants, grocery stores and seafood companies looking to purchase sustainable seafood. Seafood fraud hurts businesses that play by the rules by creating an unfair marketplace and undercutting prices. It also leads to industry-wide reputational damage and lost consumer confidence. Seafood fraud creates a market for illegally caught fish, by allowing these products to be laundered into the market as legally caught species.

Illegal fishing has been linked to egregious human rights violations, including modern slavery, child labour, human trafficking and other illegal activity. Seafood that is caught with forced labour enters a complex global supply chain, and a lack of traceability makes it easy for these products to enter the Canadian marketplace and end up on our plates.

Mislabelling can alter perceptions of the true availability of seafood and the state of our marine environment. We are, in effect, depleting a renewable resource that could be invaluable to the world’s growing population. Our oceans provide significant employment and economic returns for industries and communities. Seafood is an important, sustainable source of protein that many rely on, and if managed properly, we have the incredible opportunity to restore our oceans to abundance.

Full traceability, paired with comprehensive consumer labelling, can help our oceans, wallets and health while restoring consumer confidence. Canada does not currently have such a system of documenting and tracing seafood from boat to plate. We lag behind the European Union, which has the most robust traceability standards, as well as the United States.

We are calling on the federal government to make combatting seafood fraud a priority by tracing seafood from boat to plate. But we need your help. Add your name to our petition and call on The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to take action. Let’s fight this fishy business.