You might not know it by tasting it, but your favorite Friday night fish fry — or sushi, or crab cakes, or any other type of seafood — is more likely than ever to come from a fraudulent source.
A recent study published in the journal Marine Policy reveals that as much as 25% of all wild-caught seafood imports are part of a global illicit seafood trade.
This deceptive labeling and marketing of seafood — labeling foreign-caught fish as an American product to charge a higher price, for example — is far from being a victimless crime.
For the average restaurant diner, it could mean ordering, and paying for, an expensive fish like white tuna, but being served a much less expensive fish. For people with allergies to certain types of fish, it could mean unknowingly eating a fish that could trigger a reaction. It’s also a major concern for pregnant women, who should not eat fish products with mercury.
And for Maryland’s fishing industry, this illicit trade is taking an increasing toll on the fishers and crabbers who make their living off of seafood. Across the U.S., seafood fraud results in an astonishing $1.3 billion to $2.1 billion being sapped from the economy, according to the Baltimore Sun.
When that figure is distilled down to the individual fisherman struggling to get by, the impact is significant. Of the 1,071,932 bankruptcies filed throughout the U.S., it’s safe to say a good number were filed by American — and Marylander — fishing industry workers who have lost millions in revenue to rampant fraud in the worldwide seafood industry.
The rise in illicit seafood trading isn’t expected to slow down, either. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization, which is responsible for handling seafood fraud investigations, has been gradually cutting the number of investigators it allots to these types of tasks, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Currently, the number of agents investigating cases of seafood fraud is smaller than the population of Ocean City.
With fewer investigators comes fewer fraudulent fishers being taken to trial. Since 2008, there has been a 75% decrease in the number of civil and criminal cases for seafood fraud. Nor does the NOAA have any plans to increase its task force for investigations into the trade, according to the Baltimore Sun.
So it might be a while before Maryland fishers’ products and profits are protected by a government agency.
“If I was gonna be a criminal, I would be in the fish and wildlife smuggling business,” NOAA Special Agent Scott Doyle told the Baltimore Sun. “Nobody has any idea what’s going on. They just buy fish.”