There are various types of seafood fraud committed along the supply chain. NOAA Fisheries is committed to fighting fraud across federal agencies and the seafood supply chain to protect the sustainability and integrity of seafood in the U.S. marketplace.
Studies and investigations have found that various types of seafood fraud are committed along the supply chain. The types of fraud range from simple misunderstandings or lack of information, to blatant deception to increase profits and attempts to launder illegally harvested seafood. Regardless of the type of seafood fraud, our commitment to fight fraud is stronger than ever. With new and growing partnerships and evolving technologies, we are working across federal agencies and the seafood supply chain to safeguard the sustainability and integrity of seafood in the U.S. marketplace.
Types of Seafood Fraud
It can be difficult to determine the species of a fish once it has been fileted and skinned. Some sellers take advantage of this and substitute a low-valued species for a more expensive one (for example, marketing catfish as grouper).
In a 2012–2013 study, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conducted DNA testing on fish to determine the accuracy of the market names on their labels. Results showed that fish species are correctly labeled 85 percent of the time.
Although the “bait and switch” might be the most well-known type of seafood fraud, it is not the most common.
Less known, but far more common, is short-weighting. This is when processors misrepresent the weight of a seafood product through practices such as overglazing, soaking, and breading.
Processors will often add a layer of ice or a preservative to keep a seafood product fresh, a normal and legal practice. However, when a processor uses excess ice (overglazing) or additives (soaking) and includes that weight with the net weight of the seafood, that's fraud.
Consumers should pay for the weight of the seafood alone. Short-weighting charges consumers more for less seafood.
Sometimes other qualities of seafood are mislabeled in addition to the species name, such as the country of origin. This allows processors to avoid regulations and fees, or even to sneak illegally caught fish into the supply chain.
This can occur through:
- Transshipping—when seafood products are exported through different countries to avoid duties and tariffs
- At-sea transfers—when illegal fishing vessels transfer their catch to cargo vessels carrying legitimately caught seafood
- Falsifying trade documents
Mislabeling seafood and concealing illegally caught fish evades inspection fees, permits, and other business costs that affect the price of responsibly caught seafood.
Who Handles Seafood Fraud?
NOAA Law Enforcement
Determining whether seafood is accurately labeled is difficult for consumers, but also for the experts. With a growing suite of tools—from inspections and criminal investigations to traceability systems and genetic analysis—regulators and industry are cracking down on seafood fraud.
NOAA Law Enforcement, along with state and federal partners, combats seafood fraud by:
- Boarding fishing vessels at sea
- Inspecting fish processing plants
- Reviewing internet sales of wildlife products
- Patrolling land, air, and sea
- Conducting complex criminal and civil investigations
Enforcement agents and officers and the U.S. Department of Justice investigate and prosecute allegations of seafood fraud primarily under the Lacey Act. Action is triggered when someone illegally harvests, possesses, transports, or sells fish and then proceeds to channel that illegal product into interstate or foreign commerce.
The Lacey Act also makes it illegal to falsely label a product destined for commerce. NOAA Law Enforcement helps ensure that legitimately harvested and marketed seafood is not undercut by mislabeled products—protecting fish, honest businesses, and seafood consumers.
You can help combat seafood fraud. Report any suspected fraudulent activities on the NOAA Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964.
NOAA Fisheries Seafood Inspection Program
As a part of the Department of Commerce, the NOAA Fisheries Seafood Inspection Program provides a voluntary, fee-based inspection service to fishing boats, processing plants, and retailers. Our inspections ensure compliance with all seafood regulations, from whole fish to processed products. Inspectors verify label accuracy, including country of origin, net weight, and species identification.
NOAA's seafood inspectors see about one-fifth of the seafood consumed in the United States every year and find some kind of fraud in up to 40 percent of all products submitted to them voluntarily. Inspectors notify NOAA Law Enforcement of suspected fraud for investigation and serve as experts in the prosecution of cases.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
With a mission to protect public health, the FDA is concerned about seafood fraud because of the potential health risks associated with mislabeled seafood. The agency maintains The Seafood List, a list of acceptable market names for seafood sold in the U.S. market to aid in the proper labeling of seafood. They also maintain the Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia to help identify seafood species. The FDA runs a mandatory fish inspection program for all seafood processors and retailers, both domestic and international, with periodic inspections to ensure compliance.
Actions to Combat Seafood Fraud
Tracking and Tracing Seafood
Regulators and industry alike are implementing systems that track and trace products throughout the supply chain. This ensures consumer confidence in the safety and legality of their seafood along the way.
For example, Gulf Wild tags red snapper and grouper harvested in the Gulf of Mexico with unique numbers. Seafood buyers and sellers can track each fish all the way back to the fisherman who caught it. The system ensures that these oft-substituted fish are genuine and the exact fish they're paying for, resolving any fraud issues.
Another program, BlueTrace, pioneered an affordable and reliable means for digital shellfish tagging and tracking. Their Oyster Tracker app allows shellfish growers to input data through their phones to capture and share key information about their products as they move through the supply chain, from the point of harvest to the consumer. Their app also helps the aquaculture industry to comply with state and federal shellfish documentation and reporting requirements, ensuring confidence in the marketplace.
Using Genetics to Identify Fraud
An organism's genetic information (DNA) is contained in all of its tissues. Scientists can accurately identify a species of seafood from a tiny sample—a piece of filet, tissue, or even a scale—whether it’s raw, cooked, frozen, canned, or dried. Scientists compare DNA from the unknown sample to DNA from known species using a reference library of DNA sequences. This forensic species identification work is critical to NOAA Law Enforcement's civil and criminal investigations of seafood fraud. It also helps processors and distributors ensure the accurate labeling of products they are receiving and selling. One group cannot monitor the entire market on its own. That’s why collaborations to share knowledge and best practices are important.
Scientists at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Forensics Laboratory use advanced molecular genetics tools to analyze samples and accurately identify species. Scientists compare DNA from the unknown sample to DNA from known species using a reference library of DNA sequences. In addition, in collaboration with the University of Washington, the Northwest Center's lab has established a forensic voucher collection for marine fish. This collection is linked to the Barcode of Life, an international DNA barcoding effort, and is available to the public.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
The FDA shares an interest in seafood fraud cases that involve food safety concerns (as opposed to economic or resource management). Working with the Smithsonian Institution, the FDA has developed a regulatory database of DNA sequences for hundreds of popular seafood species. This library is also available to the public and outside laboratories. The FDA uses DNA testing when inspecting seafood suppliers.
Private labs are also getting into the niche business of DNA testing of seafood, as government agencies likely cannot monitor the entire market. And the seafood industry has started seeking out these services, especially as the technology improves, costs go down, and customer concern increases.