Oceana Uncovers Seafood Fraud in Iconic Maryland Crab Cakes | Oceana
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If you’re a seafood eater, you’ve probably read about Oceana’s groundbreaking work on uncovering seafood fraud in the United States. Just last year, Oceana found a bait and switch in America’s favorite seafood, shrimp, with many species being labeled as wild and locally-caught when they were actually farmed and imported. Prior to that, Oceana found widespread mislabeling in 1,200 fish samples across the U.S., with one type of fish being swapped out for another. Now, Oceana has discovered fraud, yet again, in a prized seafood dish: Maryland crab cakes.

Today, Oceana released a new report that found mislabeling in Maryland crab cakes throughout the Maryland and Washington, D.C. region. Out of 90 crab cakes sampled, DNA testing revealed that 38 percent of the samples were mislabeled and contained imported crab species other than the local blue crab. Crab cakes labeled as “Maryland crab cakes,” followed by “blue crab,” were the most widely mislabeled options.

“Everywhere Oceana looks for seafood fraud, we find it,” says Oceana senior campaign director Beth Lowell. “Maryland crab cakes are a popular dish in the region and local blue crabs are the star. Unfortunately, we found that over a third of the crab cakes we tested were mislabeled and contained imported species from half way around the world.”

A map showing the mislabeling rates of crab cakes that Oceana uncovered. (Photo: Oceana)

A map showing the mislabeling rates of crab cakes that Oceana uncovered. (Photo: Oceana)

Oceana traveled to venues ranging from family-friendly eateries to fine dining establishments, and specifically set out to purchase only local blue crab. Instead of finding the local, sustainably-caught option, 38 percent were mislabeled, often containing swimming crab species, imported mostly from the Indo-Pacific region as well as a couple from the Mexican Pacific coast. 

Chesapeake Bay blue crab. (Photo: © Maryland Department of Natural Resources / Jay Fleming)

Chesapeake Bay blue crab. (Photo: © Maryland Department of Natural Resources / Jay Fleming)

“This type of seafood fraud, species substitution, disguises key details of the crab, including its species and origin,” says Lowell. “The imported crab could be illegally caught or irresponsibly fished, yet diners are told it is a local seafood dish. This crab swap rips off consumers, as local blue crab is often more expensive than its imported counterparts, and honest seafood businesses and local watermen are forced to compete with these fraudulently labeled imports.”

The blue crab, the official crustacean of the state of Maryland, is a cultural icon in the region and forms the backbone of the most profitable fishery in Maryland and Chesapeake Bay. Nearly 40 years ago, blue crab from the Chesapeake Bay supplied half of all blue crabs caught in the U.S. In recent years, however, heavy fishing pressure and habitat degradation have led to declines in the Bay’s bounty. Now, imported swimming crab species — many of which are listed as species to “avoid” on seafood guides because of unsustainable fishing practices — meet much of the crab demand in Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay area and elsewhere in the U.S.

Local chefs trotlining in the Chesapeake Bay. Seafood Watch considers Chesapeake Bay blue crabs caught on trotline as a “best choice” seafood option. (Photo: © Maryland Department of Natural Resources / Jay Fleming)

Local chefs trotlining in the Chesapeake Bay. Seafood Watch considers Chesapeake Bay blue crabs caught on trotline as a “best choice” seafood option. (Photo: © Maryland Department of Natural Resources / Jay Fleming)

Last month, the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud released its final action plan outlining domestic and international measures to stop pirate fishing and fraud including more transparency in the seafood supply chain. As the task force puts the words of the plan into action, Oceana will continue to advocate for traceability to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled.   

“Once again, seafood diners are fooled by the latest bait and switch,” says Lowell. “Oceana has found seafood fraud in fish, shrimp and now crabs.  It’s clear that we need a comprehensive solution that applies to all seafood to protect consumers, our oceans, fishermen and seafood businesses that play by the rules. ”