Unsuspecting British customers are being sold endangered shark meat in their fish & chips and at their local fishmongers. A new study using DNA barcoding has shown the problem is much more common than you might think.
Fish & chips are about as British as it gets when it comes to take away food. But if you regularly treat yourself to the iconic dish you may have accidentally eaten something you didn’t intend to. Multiple endangered shark species, but most commonly spiny dogfish, are being sold under generic ‘umbrella’ labels such as rock, huss and flake. The new study from the University of Exeter analysed the DNA of ‘fish meat’ across the South of England and revealed an alarming rate to be shark instead. The endangered animals are caught as unintended bycatch and sold to wholesalers and retailers across the country. Due to mislabelling and dishonesty your local chippy might not even know that they’re serving it up to you. Not only is this a big problem for unaware consumers but also for shark conservation efforts.
The faux fish
The main species being sold under false generic names is the spiny dogfish, Squalus acanthias, also commonly known as spurdog. They grow to a max length of around 1m in males and 1.25m in females and have slender bodies that are brown and grey on top and white underneath. Dogfish spend a majority of their lives on the seafloor feeding on smaller bottom-feeding fish such as cod. As a result they are commonly caught as bycatch along with their prey by mixed demersal and gillnet fisheries. Because of this the species are currently listed as endangered in Europe by the IUCN red list, the world’s leading database on conservation threats. However they were not the only species to be identified, others included blue sharks, nursehounds, shortfin mako sharks and smalleye hammerhead sharks.
Tracking the meat
The study that identified the shark meat was carried out by a team from the University of Exeter led by Catherine Hobbs. They used a technique called DNA barcoding where they genetically analysed the meat and compared it to an online species database. In total 117 tissue samples from 90 different retailers in the South of England were collected and analysed. 78 of those came covered in batter directly from fish & chip shops and the rest from fishmongers and wholesalers. The most common species found was spiky dogfish found in 77 samples, mainly from take-away shops. The more exotic species such as mako and hammerhead came from dried shark fins from wholesalers, some of which were seized by UK border authorities. What makes things worse is that almost none of the samples were labelled properly. As a result lead author Catherine Hobbs says “it’s almost impossible for consumers to know what they are buying”.
Is it illegal?
Because of all this you may be surprised to realise that this practise is actually completely legal in the UK. This isn’t even the first time allegations like this have been made against the industry. Before 2011 it was illegal to catch spiny dogfish in Europe but since then those caught as accidental bycatch can be sold to anyone. The sharks have also been imported into the UK from Canada and America, where populations are healthier. For a long time generic umbrella terms such as rock, huss and flake have not only been permitted by the government but can also apply to multiple species. As well as this not all fishermen are completely honest about what they have caught, often removing fins or other distinguishing features, especially when bringing in endangered species. This all leaves consumers and sometimes distributors in the dark about what they’re actually buying. As a result the researchers are calling for more accurate and specific labelling of products so people know what they’re purchasing.
People not realising exactly what they’re buying and eating can obviously have some serious consequences. Firstly there are health issues as pointed out by Catherine Hobbs who explains “knowing what species you are buying could be important in terms of allergies, toxins, mercury content and the growing concern over microplastics in the marine food chain”. It’s not just an issue of health but also ethics and conservation. A lot of people would be very upset to find out what they’re actually eating is an endangered animal. If people were aware of the issue it is a good bet that sales of the shark meat would significantly reduce as people went for the more sustainable choices. This would be hugely beneficial to the continuation of a key ecosystem predator such as spiny dogfish. Sharks are long lived species that reproduce few offspring compared to commercial fish which “makes them very vulnerable to overfishing as they simply cannot replace themselves very quickly” according to Andrew Griffiths, another researcher on the project.
Watching what you eat
Studies like this emphasise the importance of knowing where your food comes from and making sustainable choices. But until labelling laws change you’re going to have to seek out the truth for yourself. Ali Hood, director of conservation at the Shark Trust, says “many retailers pride themselves on their sourcing, so hold them to account”. She recommends asking as many questions as possible and if a retailer can’t answer them properly then make a different choice. There is also resources out there to help you make sustainable decisions such as the MCS Good Fish Guide.
But alternatively if you really are put off by the idea of eating or purchasing endangered species then maybe stop ordering the fish & chips outright. Because sharks aren’t the only threatened species being served up, Atlantic cod and haddock are also both vulnerable to extinction. They have been historically overfished for food and unless trends change are both unlikely to see out the century. A lot of places may claim to sell sustainably sourced fish. But the fishing industry as a whole is not sustainable and sharks will continue to be killed as bycatch even if you don’t end up eating them. So maybe the only way to truly keep a clean conscience may be to give it up altogether.