How would you feel if you found out the red snapper on your plate wasn’t red snapper at all, but instead something illegally fished or potentially unhealthy? A new Oceana study found that 31% of seafood we tested in South Florida is mislabeled, keeping consumers in the dark about what they’re really eating.
Our campaigners used DNA testing on seafood samples from grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi venues in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach areas. We’ve conducted studies like this in other cities, and the results from Los Angeles and Boston were even more striking—55% of seafood in L.A. was mislabeled and 48% in Boston.
But just because the numbers are lower in South Florida doesn’t mean that seafood fraud is any more acceptable. Some of the fish being served under a different name pose risks to health and sustainability. The study found that king mackerel, a high mercury fish with a health warning for sensitive groups, was being marketed as ‘grouper.’
Sushi restaurants were the biggest offenders, with 58% of samples found to be mislabeled. All the samples of white tuna collected from sushi vendors were actually escolar, a fish species that can make people sick.
The large amount of seafood coming into the U.S. market can make it difficult to trace each item to its source. Oceana is calling on the federal government to ensure that the seafood we find in our markets is safe, legal, and honestly labeled. By implementing a traceability system, consumers can make informed decisions about what they put on their plate.
Persistent Seafood Fraud Found in South Florida
Authors: Kimberly Warner, Ph.D., Walker Timme, Beth Lowell and Margot Stiles
In Florida, the state’s residents and its visitors enjoy eating and catching seafood. In fact, Floridians eat
twice as much seafood as the average American. At the same time, Florida has a long history of
uncovering and addressing seafood fraud, specifically the substitution of one species of fish for another
less desirable or less expensive species.
Oceana recently investigated seafood mislabeling in South Florida as part of a campaign to Stop Seafood
Fraud. The results were disturbing. Nearly a third of the seafood tested was mislabeled in some way,
leaving consumers with little ability to know what they are eating or feeding their families, and even less
ability to make informed choices that promote sustainable fishing practices, or even protect their health.
Overall, Oceana found 31% of seafood mislabeled in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale-area in this 2011/12
survey. Fraud was detected in half of the 14 different types of fish collected, with snappers and white tuna
being the most frequently mislabeled.
• Red snapper was mislabeled 86% of the time (six out of seven samples).
• Grouper, while mislabeled at a lower level (16% of the time), had one of the most egregious
substitutions: one fish sold as grouper was actually king mackerel, a fish that federal and
state authorities advise women of childbearing age not to eat due to high mercury levels,
which can harm a developing fetus.
• Atlantic salmon was substituted for wild or king salmon 19% of the time (one in five times).
Sushi venues had the highest proportion of mislabeled samples, with more than half of samples (58%)
mislabeled. Grocery stores had the lowest (8%) mislabeling, and restaurants were in the middle with 36%
(about one in three) of the fish fraudulently labeled.
• White tuna was mislabeled 100% of the time, as was white fish and yellowtail purchased in
sushi venues. Escolar, another fish with a health warning, was substituted for fish labeled
“white tuna” and “white fish.”
• Notably, the only correctly labeled red snapper sample came from a sushi venue.
Even though seafood fraud was exposed in Florida in the 1980’s, it continues to be a problem for many
fish, especially in sushi restaurants. Compared to fraud levels reported in Florida in the past:
• The overall seafood mislabeling levels appear to have remained fairly steady since 1985,
ranging from 15-31%. 2
• Grouper mislabeling dropped from a high of 40-50% during the height of the fake grouper
scam in the mid-2000s, but remains at 16% (about 1 in 6) samples in this study.
• Red snapper mislabeling levels, which apparently decreased from1988 to 2009, remain as
elevated in this study (86%) as those uncovered in the 1980s (79-90%).
This continued mislabeling demonstrates clearly that inspections alone will not fix the problem. Full
traceability of the seafood supply chain from boat to plate, combined with verification and accountability,
is needed to ensure that the seafood sold in the United States is safe, legal and honestly labeled.
Traceability also provides consumers with more information about the seafood they are serving their
The Miami/Fort Lauderdale region’s overall fraud levels were about 20% lower than those recently found
in other large metropolitan areas, such as Boston and Los Angeles, and may reflect the continued
reporting on seafood fraud in the local news and the policing, inspections and oversight of seafood
wholesalers and retailers by state officials since at least 1985. Nevertheless, consumers should not have
to tolerate being misled 31% of the time when buying certain types of seafood in South Florida, some of
which can lead to serious consequences for their health, wallets and the health of the oceans.
These findings show clearly that traceability, verification and accountability are needed as it is the only
way to be sure that Floridians and other Americans can truly know what’s on their plates, and the only
way to allow consumers to make sustainable and healthy choices about what they eat and feed their