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New Oceana Study Finds 33% of Seafood Mislabeled

At Ocean Views, we’ve covered the specter of mis-identified seafood several times. Today, the conservation group Oceana released a new report that brings the issue into even more focus. Oceana collected fish samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states and used DNA testing to compare those products against U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seafood labeling...

At Ocean Views, we’ve covered the specter of mis-identified seafood several times. Today, the conservation group Oceana released a new report that brings the issue into even more focus.

Oceana collected fish samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states and used DNA testing to compare those products against U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seafood labeling guidelines. What they found was that one-third, or 33 percent, of the 1,215 fish samples collected were mislabeled. The results varied by type of seller and region of the country, with some of this alleged mislabeling reaching levels above 90%.

Salmon in stream. Photo: Aaron Dufault, MyShot

In a statement, Beth Lowell, a campaign director at Oceana, said, “Purchasing seafood has become the ultimate guessing game for U.S. consumers. Whether you live in Florida or Kansas, no one is safe from seafood fraud. We need to track our seafood from boat to plate so that consumers can be more confident that the fish they purchase is safe, legal and honestly labeled.”

Oceana suggests that mislabeling fish may throw a monkey wrench into well-meaning attempts by consumers to choose seafood that is both better for them and the environment. If someone is trying to reduce their mercury input by ordering fish that is traditionally low in that toxin, but they are given a substitution of tilefish, say, which is often high in mercury, their health could be directly impacted. Or if someone is paying more for “wild-caught salmon” only to be served farm-raised salmon, that could undermine the whole concept of sustainable seafood.

The fast-growing industry of sustainable seafood could also be harmed if consumers simply throw up their hands, and decide they’ll go back to ordering whatever is cheapest, figuring that they can’t trust any buyers any way.

Oceana reports:

Oceana found seafood fraud everywhere it tested, including mislabeling rates of 52 percent in Southern California, 49 percent in Austin and Houston, 48 percent in Boston (including testing by The Boston Globe), 39 percent in New York City, 38 percent in Northern California and South Florida, 36 percent in Denver, 35 percent in Kansas City (MO/KS), 32 percent in Chicago, 26 percent in Washington, D.C., 21 percent in Portland (OR) and 18 percent in Seattle.Oceana’s study targeted fish with regional significance as well as those found to be frequently mislabeled in previous studies such as red snapper, cod, tuna and wild salmon. Of the most commonly collected types of fish, snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates across the country at 87 and 59 percent, respectively. While 44 percent of all the retail outlets visited sold mislabeled fish, sushi venues had the worst level of mislabeling at 74 percent, followed by other restaurants at 38 percent and then grocery stores at 18 percent.

“Some of the fish substitutions we found are just disturbing,” said Dr. Kimberly Warner, report author and senior scientist at Oceana. “Apart from being cheated, many consumers are being denied the right to choose fish wisely based on health or conservations concerns.”

Among the report’s other findings:

  • Mislabeling was found in 27 of the 46 fish types tested (59 percent).

  • Only seven of the 120 red snapper samples collected nationwide were actually red snapper.

  • Between one-fifth to more than one-third of the halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean seabass samples were mislabeled.

  • 84 percent of the white tuna samples were actually escolar, a species that can cause serious digestive issues for some individuals who eat more than a few ounces.

  • Fish on the FDA’s “DO NOT EAT” list for sensitive groups such as pregnant women and children because of their high mercury content were sold to customers who had ordered safer fish: tilefish sold as red snapper and halibut in New York City and king mackerel sold as grouper in South Florida.

  • Cheaper farmed fish were substituted for wild fish: pangasius sold as grouper, sole, and cod, tilapia sold as red snapper and Atlantic farmed salmon sold as wild or king salmon.

  • Overfished and vulnerable species were substituted for more sustainable catch: Atlantic halibut sold as Pacific halibut and speckled hind sold as red grouper.

Does Fraud Impact Conservation?

Ocean Views reached out to Oceana and the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), the country’s largest seafood trade association, for comment. We haven’t been able to speak to Oceana yet, but Gavin Gibbons, a spokesperson for NFI, told Ocean Views via phone, “We suggest there is an enforcement issue that needs to be addressed. FDA is the primary agency that has the task of enforcing the laws that are already on the books. FDA needs to enforce those laws.”

When asked if new laws are needed, Gibbons said no. He said, “We have to ask the FDA, and if they say they need more funding or tools we need to put resources in place to make sure they have that. New laws and regulations will not provide the FDA with more tools or funding…We suggest that folks on Capitol Hill spend their time looking at the funding and resources that the FDA has.” 

When asked how seafood fraud may impact conservation, as in the case of farmed salmon sold as wild, Gibbons said, “In that case I could see where there would be consumer frustration.” But he added, “What Oceana has alleged specifically in the report is that if people see a species like red snapper on the menu more often they will have a misconception about the abundance of the fish. That is a theory, there is no market or consumer research, no science associated with that.”

Today, the NFI also released the following statement:

The Food and Drug Administration needs to fulfill its mandate to fight food fraud. That means enforcing laws that are already on the books,” said National Fisheries Institute President John Connelly. “Calling for new laws to fight fish fraud suggests groups don’t fully understand the issue at hand.  If drivers are accused of running a stop sign you don’t simply put up another stop sign, you station a cop on the corner and start cracking down.”

The FDA maintains a consistent and scientifically sound list of acceptable market names for seafood. For retailers and restaurants there should be no question as to what you can legally call any one fish.

Reputable members of the seafood community have been fighting seafood fraud, on their own, since 2007 through the Better Seafood Board (BSB.)

“Saying there is a problem is not the same as solving the problem,” said BSB Secretary Lisa Weddig. “Our members have been aggressive in rooting out bad actors and pushing regulators to enforce laws designed to stop this type of activity.”

How to Fight Seafood Fraud

The good news is there are a number of innovators in the seafood space that are working to empower consumers and the industry to have more information and more transparency with their seafood. (National Geographic is profiling such rising stars in our Ocean Innovations series.)

Jared Auerbach is one such innovator. The Boston-based entrepreneur has developed a software system that streamlines tracking of fish throughout the supply chain (and makes it much harder to introduce errors or fraud). Sean Dimin and his father Michael founded Sea to Table, a boutique distributor that delivers fresh seafood from artisanal fishers directly to chefs.

Oceana wasn’t able to determine the exact causes of the mislabeling in their report, but experts suggest it is likely a combination of outright fraud, honest mistakes, loose paperwork, and the difficulty in identifying some species of fish from others. New technologies like barcoding packets of fish, as pioneered by Auerbach, could go a long way to reducing those kinds of issues.

Asked about this approach, Gibbons of NFI said, “I think technology will help with transparency and accountability. We have to remember that from an investigative standpoint, these kinds of investigations aren’t that hard. All you need are a sample for DNA, a menu, and the invoice. If fish comes in the door as one thing and gets sold as another, you know where the problem is. There are some low-tech investigative tools that could help a great deal. Going forward technology will play a role in stamping out fish fraud.”

Check out NG’s Seafood Decision Guide, and read our series Ocean Innovations


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