Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

By Vildana Hajric
Observer Staff Writer 

Los Angeles Restaurants on the Hook for Fish Fraud, Says UCLA/Marymount Study

Consumers Swallowed Restaurant Falsehoods Hook, Line, and Sinker


January 26, 2017

What really ends up on your seafood plate?

Something fishy is going on in the Los Angeles sushi industry. Local diners might be shocked to find out that sushi restaurants have been casting a lie for years, serving yellowtail that might not be yellowtail at all. 

A new UCLA and Loyola Marymount University study examined the DNA of fish items at 26 Los Angeles restaurants over the course of four years. The researchers also tested fish sold at high-end grocery stores over the course of one year. The study appeared this week in the journal of Conservation Biology. 

Of the fish tested between 2012 to 2016, nearly half was found to be mislabeled. Although the sampled grocery stores had an overall mislabeling rate of 42%, slightly lower than the overall 47%, all sampled sushi restaurants had at least one case of misrepresentation. The similarity in mislabeling rates implies that "bait-and-switch" could be occurring earlier in the supply chain than the point of sale to consumers. 

The study listed red snapper, yellowfin tuna, halibut, and yellowtail as having consistently high instances of mislabeling. Only bluefin tuna was found to always be exactly as advertised, while salmon was mislabeled about 10% of the time. However, out of 43 halibut and 32 red snapper samples, the researchers were always served a different type of fish than what was labeled.

While previous studies have uncovered similar findings, they were frequently limited to a single sampling year, making it difficult to gauge the impact of governmental and environmental labeling regulations. 

The researchers utilized DNA barcoding for their examination and found consistent mislabeling year after year for the duration of their study. 

"Fish fraud could be accidental, but I suspect that in some cases the mislabeling is very much intentional, though it's hard to know where in the supply chain it begins," wrote Paul Barber, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior author of the study. "I suspected we would find some mislabeling, but I didn't think it would be as high as we found in some species," he added.

The U.S. imports about 90% of its seafood.

Last month, the Obama administration instituted a monitoring program to help prevent illegal fishing and seafood fraud across the country. The program comes as a result of years of work by the administration to repress fraud.

40% of seafood is mislabelled, says one study using DNA analysis.

Starting this month, seafood that is imported from outside the country and that is at risk of illegal fishing or fraud will be tracked from its point of origin to the U.S. border. 

"If we don't have accurate information on what we're buying, we can't make informed choices," Barber wrote.

"The amount of mislabeling is so high and consistent, one has to think that even the restaurants are being duped."

The UCLA researchers did not release the names of the restaurants associated with the study. According to Barber, "the goal is not to point fingers, but to make people aware of the larger issue."



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