What you eat may be endangered

April 2, 2019

By Katie Stannard

It’s no secret that fish laundering happens frequently in the high sea, the open ocean that is not part of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or internal waters of any state. But lack of traceability in the supply chain can occur at multiple stages.

Corporations and individuals can fish in the high seas without oversight and then hide illegal activity by transferring catches onto different ships on unregulated water. This leads to underdeclared catches, as well as fishermen mixing illegally caught fish with legally labeled fish. Fishermen may process their catch in Southeast Asian countries that have limited port controls or export it to North America as a product of a processing country rather than the country it was caught in. As a result, illegal activity can occur at multiple steps of the seafood supply chain before it hits a grocery store.

The complexity and limited transparency of the global seafood supply chain contribute to the mislabeling of seafood, one of the most common food fraud issues in the world. Mislabeling not only generates an economic loss to the food industry, governments, and consumers but it can also weaken consumers trust in the industry and government oversight agencies. Additionally, it can lead to potential health risks when consumers with food allergies unknowingly purchase seafood that they may be allergic to. Other potential health risks include pathogen contamination or poisoning.

This issue has brought Wall Scholar alumni together to work across disciplines in an effort to improve transparency of the seafood supply chain and reduce mislabeling and seafood fraud.

Xiaonan Lu (Food, Nutrition, and Health) met William Cheung (Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries) when they were both Wall Scholars in 2017. During their residency, the two scholars found that their work was seamlessly interconnected since Lu focuses on the traceability of seafood fraud and Cheung’s research is on seafood sustainability in relation to global changes.

Using available funding from the Wall Scholars program, Cheung and Lu were able to connect the impact of unsustainable fishing practices and mislabeling to the greater sustainability of the seafood system by forming a partnership with Peter Klein (UBC Journalism and 2015 Wall Scholar). Klein is currently leading a group of students on a project focused on the topic of seafood supply chains, and had recently returned from collecting fish samples in fishing communities in China.

Lu and his team are working to detect the species of the fish brought back by Klein’s students by using an innovative DNA barcoding concept that can match sequencing. Prior to this project, Lu had successfully used this tool to identify falsely labeled cod that was actually sutchi catfish, an endangered fish that contains heavy metal contaminants.

“My team is familiar with using the DNA barcoding detection tool, but in collaboration with a marine scientist and a journalist, we have an improved understanding of fish ecology, economic gain, and other elements that are related to seafood mislabeling,” said Lu. “We need a multidisciplinary approach for such a complex issue.”

Once the tests are completed, Cheung will incorporate the findings around mislabeling to his work on the sustainability of fish stalks. He will also examine the consequences of eating mislabeled seafood, as well as the effects of this practice on the overall fishery system and endangered species.

Cheung added that consumers can play a powerful role in seafood sustainability since they are key drivers in what fish is desirable for fisheries to catch and restaurants to sell. Cheung also plans to determine what fish is most sustainable by using the UBC Institute for Oceans and Fisheries renowned database that contains information on current fish stalks, where fishing occurs, and the number of fish species being caught.

The scholars hope that this project can encourage consumers to make more sustainable choices in the grocery store. They suggest that individuals who want to reduce their impact on seafood stalks should purchase seafood in season, buy whole fish rather than processed fish, and be cautious of low prices.

“Individual actions are important, but we also need governments to make transformative changes,” said Cheung. “In a democratic society, what we need is for people to vote.”