With so much fraud beginning overseas, U.S. regulators are turning their attention to foreign imports. Last December, a presidential task force made its first recommendations for how the government should fight seafood fraud. It advocated for more thorough international collaboration on labeling, and described an urgent need for better seafood tracking starting this year. The fish industry currently suffers from very little oversight and a non-transparent supply chain, says Warner. “What we ask for is electronic traceability that follows fish [through the chain],” she adds.
Seafood substitution violates the Magnuson-Stevens Act, a 1976 law that regulates commercial fisheries and controls overfished species such as speckled hind, a critically endangered fish that Oceana frequently found labeled as grouper. The law also covers the overfished Atlantic halibut, which is sometimes sold as Pacific halibut, its similar-looking but eco-friendlier cousin. Continued unregulated fishing can lead to the depletion of fish populations and the collapse of entire marine ecosystems.
This is not just an American headache. “There are over 100 studies where we have found seafood-fraud incidents. Studies have been performed in 29 countries, in all continents, except Antarctica. It’s a global problem,” Warner says.
One of the repeat offenders in the Oceana report was grouper—or, more accurately, the 66 varied species of fish that the FDA legally recognizes as falling under the loose term "grouper." Though the U.S. already grants the seafood industry this leeway, some fisheries will still try to pass off yet other species as grouper, including Asian catfish, perch, bream, weakfish, and king mackerel. “There are upwards of 400 species that could be mistaken for grouper,” according to Knotts.
And it’s not because groupers are just so spectacularly humdrum that they blend in with the other fish. Seafood fraud is most prevalent with filleted seafood, products where heads, tails, and other identifying features are removed from each fish. For decades, DNA sequencing has been the only tool that can make sense of anonymous fish parts.
And DNA sequencing is precisely what keeps Knotts’ lab at NOAA busy every day. By sequencing a specific gene, such as Cytochrome B, he can accurately map a seafood sample onto a digital tree of known species. If a fish labeled grouper is actually Asian catfish, its Cytochrome B sequence will be far removed from the grouper branches. But DNA sequencing takes at least 12 hours, which is too much time for most wholesale buying decisions. The seafood industry needs a faster way to differentiate between species, right on the dock.
One option that might hold promise is Grouperchek, a portable, commercial seafood identifier—for one species, at least. The unassuming device was designed by Robert Ulrich and John Paul, scientists at the University of South Florida, and it looks like an external hard drive plugged into a laptop.