Published online 14 July 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040712-10


Snapper stocks sold short

Consumers lulled by mislabelling of rare fish.

Red snapper is rarer than it might appear.Red snapper is rarer than it might appear.© Image100

Three-quarters of fish marketed in theUnited States as red snapper are mislabelled and belong to other species,researchers have discovered.

Although there are various anecdotal reports of the fish being soldunder false pretences, this study reveals the shocking scale of the problem.The authors warn that the practice creates the impression that red snapper(Lutjanus campechanus) is much more abundant than it actually is, anddistorts the counts for other species.

Peter Marko and his colleagues from the University of North Carolina,Chapel Hill, suspected that the reef fish was often being wrongly labelled.“You’ll hear grocers and restaurants complaining about somebody else sellingred snapper for half the price,” says Marko.

To test how often this was happening, he and his fellow researchersselected fillets of red snapper from nine major grocery store chains in eighteastern and central states. When they analysed the DNA of the fillets, theyfound that 75% of them were not red snapper at all, but other, less well-knowntypes of snapper.

It is unclear whether such mislabelling is deliberate, and whether it isdone at the time of catch, on the docks, or down the line by grocers andrestaurateurs. But either way the practice creates a false sense of securityabout red snapper stocks, say the researchers in this week’s Nature1. “Even if you think you’re buying one of these fish, you’re verylikely not getting what you’re paying for,” says Marko. “And the reason is thatthey’re actually much rarer than they appear to be on the market.”

Scraping the barrel

Red snapper is a reef fish found off the Atlantic coast and in the Gulfof Mexico. In the United States, it came under strict management in 1996 afterits populations had been grossly overexploited. But the restrictions havecreated an incentive for vendors to substitute less valuable species for thereal thing.

The demand for red snapper is driving the fishing of other species aboutwhich less is known and which may not even be monitored, says Marko. “I worrythat it means we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes tofishing these reef species,” he says.

Experts say other fish run the same risk of not being what you orderedfor dinner. Consumers like to buy fish they are familiar with, so when thesespecies become rare it creates an incentive for mislabelling across the board,says Michael Sutton of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a USorganization that funds fisheries conservation.

“If you’re buying one of these fish, you’re very likely not to be getting what you’re paying for”


In another case of mislabelling, retailers co-opted the name ‘ChesapeakeBay-style blue crab’ for crab that was actually imported from the Philippines,says Sutton. There are also anecdotal reports of vendors using cookie cuttersto stamp meat out of skate wings, creating imitation scallops. And there is thewell-known case of the Patagonian toothfish, a slow-growing fish from cold,southern seas that is often sold as ‘Chilean sea bass’, although it isunrelated to the true sea basses. Roughly 80% of Chilean sea bass sold has beenfished illegally in one part of the world or another, according to Sutton.

Three-quarters of fish sold in the United States are imported fromoverseas, so the consumer has no way of knowing where a fish was caught, saysSutton. And although L. campechanus is the only snapper species that canlegally be labelled red snapper in the United States, “by the time theseanimals are reduced to a fillet, who can tell?” he asks.

Sutton wants to see fish labelled with their country of origin, and toeducate consumers about which fish species need to be conserved. He hopesconsumers will then put pressure on the industry to move towards sustainablefisheries and away from “market names that have no bearing on what the animalreally is”. 

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

  • References

    1. Marko P. et al.. Nature 430, 309-310 2004. doi:10.1038/430309b | Article | PubMed |