Human Journey

Exposing Fish Fraud: 20/20 Reveals Why We Need Traceability in Seafood

According to a recent report on ABC’s 20/20, Americans consumed more than 4.7 billion pounds of fish last year. “But an ABC News investigation reveals consumers don’t often get what they pay for,” said the report. (Note that the fish part starts at 3:42 in the above video.)

The program went on to explain that about 85% of fish eaten in the U.S. is imported, while less than 2% is inspected by the FDA.

National Geographic fellow Barton Seaver told 20/20 on camera, “That’s the problem, there is no traceability in the system.”

Seaver related his account of recently buying what he thought was Maryland blue crab, only to find out it was actually sourced from Indonesia (he detailed his experience in a recent Ocean Views post).

Following up on that account, 20/20 bought fish marketed as white tuna in New York City and sent it to a Florida testing lab. Overall, 86% of that fish was actually escolar, not tuna at all, according to scientist Mahmood Shivji. 20/20 called escolar the “Ex-Lax fish” because some people can have digestive trouble with it.

“If you eat red snapper for 30 days in LA you will never see red snapper,” said Michael Hirshfield of Oceana. “You put a nice cream lemon sauce on it, I don’t think anybody can tell the difference.”

Seaver added that while 40,000 Copper River salmon were sold last year, only 12,000 fish were actually caught in Alaska’s Copper River during that time.

Click here to learn about how National Geographic’s Ocean Initiative is helping to identify and support individuals and organizations that are using creative and entrepreneurial approaches to marine conservation.


Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science,,,, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.

  • Moriaelini

    This is why you read any and all labels…

    • Hi thanks for reading. Label reading is clearly important, but evidence suggests the very labels may not always be accurate, so that makes it really hard for consumers.

  • Troutnut

    The number Seaver gave for Copper River salmon is either very far off, or very misleading. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has those records on their public website.

    Typical commercial harvest for that population is in the several hundred thousands to low millions. I don’t know where Seaver got the 12,000 number from — it might be from subsistence or personal use harvest statistics, which aren’t the same fish that feed the market in the lower 48. It’s also a reasonable number for the king salmon harvest in that basin, which is orders of magnitude lower than the more famous sockeye salmon harvest. It’s also worth knowing that, unlike subsistence and personal use fisheries, the commercial fishery doesn’t take these fish “in Alaska’s Copper River” at all, but in the ocean near the mouth of the river. They’re still Copper River fish, but the perhaps this was one of the sources of confusion.

  • Rich Gautier

    Yes – the labels are wrong – and because fish can be so similar in appearance, the buyer may not even realize they’re getting the wrong fish. Recently, there have been developments to produce simple and inexpensive DNA testing kits for consumers (especially restaurants) to be able to test what they’re getting to ensure they have the right stuff. There’s no guarantee that they will, but higher end restaurants and chef-named restaurants may want to invest to ensure their reputation is not besmirched.

  • Jimmy Cracks Capricorn

    These kinds of stories make it even harder for those of us who play by the rules. Every container of frozen processed fish MUST be accompanied by a certified certificate of origin and a health lab certificate. I visit every factory and farm, and I make sure they have received BAP and Global GAP certification and verify this by reviewing the certifying report. Is there “some” outright fraud in the system? Yes, but a vast majority, a VAST majority of product imported onto the US is AS LABELED. You make it sound as if the industry is rife with fraud.

    National Geographic online is becoming as bad a program filler as they are on TV. Hyped up headlines to attract viewers to pay for your website. Go figure…I grew up having a tremendous amount of respect for the world of NG and this “article” or is it just a “blog”? above lacks even the basic amount of info that should be required for publication. It’s a “He said so Imma parrot” real squawker.

    I will bet you 20/20 program was sponsored by the American Beef Institute (Lobby)

  • Owen P

    @Troutnut: Perhaps he was talking about Chinook? I see that in 2011 the catch was indeed 12,000. He should have made that distinction, though.

  • Tbone

    The 12,000 Copper River fish is from Chinook salmon (or King salmon). That distinction should have been made in the article.

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