What’s in a Name?

Canada’s seafood is commonly mislabelled — and re-branding isn't the only problem

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Seafood is confusing. Have you ever wondered about the difference between steelhead and trout? Chinook and king salmon? Black cod and sablefish? The list goes on, but these pairs of fish are the same species and can legally be sold in Canada under either name.

Seafood is frequently renamed to sound more appealing and marketable. Have you ever heard of goosefish, slimehead and Patagonian toothfish? These former names of monkfish, orange roughy and Chilean seabass were unpopular, but after their rebrand, sales skyrocketed to the extent that these species are now notorious for being historically overfished.

Which brings us to seafood mislabelling. Recently, there has been a lot of news coverage on this issue. Customers are outraged and rightly so –— people want to know what they’re eating and should get what they pay for. The truth of the matter is, while seafood substitution sometimes happens — where one species is swapped for another (for example, escolar for tuna) — most mislabelling occurs due to obscure rules around the legally acceptable name for a fish.

In a recent Canadian report on seafood mislabelling, one per cent of seafood sold was found to be a substitution and seven per cent was an error in labelling. One could assume that vendors are purposely duping consumers, but businesses take pride in reputation and customer trust — they are highly incentivized to be truthful. It’s also deceptively easy to make genuine mislabelling mistakes when it comes to seafood.

In Canada, the highest proportion of mislabelling comes from rockfish. There are 102 species of rockfish in the world and 36 are from British Columbia. Although multiple species are caught together as part of a mixed fishery and sold as a group under the label “rockfish,” only some of these rockfish can also be labelled as “Pacific snapper.” Therefore, when a supermarket receives an order of rockfish, its order is actually multiple species of rockfish, which are difficult to tell apart, especially if it’s already been processed into fillets. If they label these fillets as Pacific snapper, they could unknowingly be mislabelling those species.

It’s an easy mistake to make, especially when the two names are commonly used interchangeably — both verbally and at restaurants. As possible solutions, fisheries and/or suppliers could identify and separate B.C.’s 36 rockfish species before sale, but this would be time-consuming, costly and it’s not legally required. Supermarkets could also label rockfish as “rockfish” instead of Pacific snapper and thus avoid the whole mislabelling risk. However, one Ocean Wise retail partner did just that and sales slumped by 30 per cent, thus giving further credibility to the effectiveness of seafood rebranding.

Typically, people are biased to favour words such as “bass,” “cod” and “snapper,” which are associated with high-value fish. In fact, B.C.’s Pacific snapper is not related to true snappers, which originate in the Gulf of Mexico and aren’t even sold outside the U.S. The rockfish example is just one of many mislabelling complications.

So what can you do to cut through the confusion? If you love seafood, the best thing you can do is to learn the common names of popular items. Ocean Wise seafood partners are required to label sustainable items with the Ocean-Wise symbol and encouraged to provide as many details as possible on labels, including a fish’s scientific name. (There are multiple common names but only one scientific name per fish species.) Location of catch, method of catch and details about whether the animal is wild or farmed is also important to list. These details can help you make decisions about the seafood you are purchasing and, if you don’t see them, ask your vendor so they see the demand for more fishy information.

Claire Li is an Ocean Wise Seafood account representative

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