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Snapper stocks sold short

July 14, 2004 By Amanda Leigh Haag This article courtesy of Nature News.

Consumers lulled by mislabelling of rare fish.

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

Although there are various anecdotal reports of the fish being sold under 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, and distorts 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 selling red snapper for half the price,” says Marko.

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

It is unclear whether such mislabelling is deliberate, and whether it is done at the time of catch, on the docks, or down the line by grocers and restaurateurs. But either way the practice creates a false sense of security about red snapper stocks, say the researchers in this week’s Nature1. “Even if you think you’re buying one of these fish, you’re very likely not getting what you’re paying for,” says Marko. “And the reason is that they’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 Gulf of Mexico. In the United States, it came under strict management in 1996 after its populations had been grossly overexploited. But the restrictions have created an incentive for vendors to substitute less valuable species for the real thing.

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

Experts say other fish run the same risk of not being what you ordered for dinner. Consumers like to buy fish they are familiar with, so when these species become rare it creates an incentive for mislabelling across the board, says Michael Sutton of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a US organization 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
Peter Marko
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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

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

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


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


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