The Beacon: Meghan Bartels's blog
Consumer Reports is following the trend of recent exposes on fish fraud. In a new investigation, the magazine uncovered that one in five pieces of fish for sale are mislabeled.
The findings complement our own: Earlier this week, Oceana found a similar fraud rate in the Boston area, and in a separate Boston study, the Boston Globe found that almost half of tested fish samples were being sold under a false name.
Here’s what Consumer Reports discovered by doing DNA testing on fish samples from restaurants and grocery stores in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut:
- Out of 14 sampled fish species, only four were correctly identified every time
- 18 percent of samples were incorrectly labeled
- None of the 22 samples they took of “red snapper” could be positively identified, and half were found to be other species of fish
- One “grouper” sample was actually tilefish, which is known to contain levels of mercury that could be dangerous, especially to pregnant women
- Coho salmon masqueraded as more expensive king salmon
It’s easy for dishonest businesses to pull off fish fraud. Rules about labeling leave wiggle room, and hardly any seafood is inspected for fraud. Investigations like this one are crucial for raising awareness about the issue and making sure government officials know we care about what’s on our plates. After all, seafood fraud hurts our wallets, our health, and our oceans.
Oceana is calling on the government to stop seafood fraud by enforcing current laws, inspecting more fish, and making sure agencies work together to stop dishonest businesses from ripping consumers off. You can help by telling your Senators to fight seafood fraud!
We’re down to the last sea turtle in our trivia series, and it’s the least understood species of all – the flatback.
Flatback sea turtles nest only in Australia, and as a result of their limited range they are are poorly understood and at serious risk. Fortunately, Australia is working hard to protect large portions of the flatback’s habitat.
In addition to their namesake flat shells, flatbacks can be recognized by their olive-grey tops and yellow bellies. These turtles are known to float on the surface of the ocean, sunning their shells, often with birds on their backs. Flatbacks eat primarily fish, mollusks, and sea squirts.
Flatback turtles are caught accidentally in fishing nets, and they made up the majority of turtle bycatch in the Northern Prawn Fishery until turtle excluder devices – i.e. escape hatches -- were introduced. Other threats to flatbacks include coastal pollution and habitat degradation.
Oceana’s sea turtle campaign focuses on preventing sea turtle bycatch, protecting habitat, and promoting legislation that keeps turtles safe. You can learn more about flatback sea turtles from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia.
If you can tweet us the name of every type of sea turtle, you could win a tote bag. That’s it for our sea turtle themed trivia! We’ll be back next week with more fun facts about other ocean animals.
Every year, our research vessel, the Oceana Ranger, explores new areas of the ocean and collects scientific data – and incredible photos! -- to help protect vulnerable marine habitats.
This week, our colleagues in Europe presented their findings to an environmental rule-making body in the Northeast Atlantic, and we’re hopeful that it will lead to exciting new ocean protection measures.
Europe’s Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR) offers guidelines about threatened species and habitat types that should be protected. However, these principles rely on old and incomplete data, so countries have had trouble using them effectively.
Although Norway, the UK, and Germany have already taken steps to explore and protect their seafloor communities, Spain and Portugal have had much less information about their oceans and so have been less active in preserving it.
But thanks to our expedition findings, that might change. Oceana presented OSPAR with findings about coral gardens, deep sea sponges and seapen communities from our expeditions in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean. In total, our scientists presented 28 previously unknown areas that have these types of habitats.
These habitats are home to some of the most diverse and unique communities in the oceans. Creating marine protected areas to preserve them can go a long way in keeping the oceans and everything that lives in them healthy.
Here’s hoping that today’s presentation will pave the way for both continued scientific study and additional protections.
Oceana in Chile has been working for several years to keep bottom trawlers out of the most vulnerable marine ecosystems in the nation’s waters.
Back in 2009, we proposed a bill that would close all 118 seamounts in Chile to bottom trawlers, and this week our staff participated in a discussion of the bill by the Chilean Senate’s Fisheries Committee.
Bottom trawling, one of the most destructive forms of fishing, uses a huge, heavy net to scrape the seafloor. Trawlers are indiscriminate, which results in overfishing and the accidental entanglement of animals including sea turtles and marine mammals. And these heavy nets destroy everything in their paths, including coral reefs.
Chile’s seamounts are home to jewel-toned coral reefs and fish, mammals such as fur seals and sea lions, and many more beautiful and unusual creatures. Some of these seamounts are home to species that can be found no where else in the world. Every pass of a bottom trawler turns swaths of these seamounts into barren wastelands.
Oceana’s 2009 proposal would ban bottom trawling on all 118 seamounts until this fishing technique is scientifically proven not to damage the ecosystems in question. Estimates suggest that this ban would have affected only 0.09% of Chile’s seafood exports in 2009.
Alex Muñoz, Oceana’s Vice President for South America, said about the bill, “Protecting vulnerable marine ecosystems that are threatened by trawling not only is important from an ecological point of view but also enhances the productivity of the fisheries that depend on these habitats.”
South America has been making important strides to protect their vulnerable ecosystems. Last year, Chile created a 150,000 square kilometer no-take marine reserve around Sala y Gómez Island and Belize banned bottom trawling throughout its waters.
Editor's note: October is National Seafood Month, and to celebrate, we’ll be featuring a series of blog posts about seafood, sustainable fishing and health. Today we’re taking on mercury.
Maybe when you think of mercury you think of old thermometers. But did you know that mercury in seafood can affect your health?
As a result of antiquated manufacturing techniques, a few chlorine factories release mercury pollution into nearby rivers and streams, which ends up in the ocean, where it travels up the food chain, becoming more and more concentrated in larger and larger fish, including favorites such as tuna and swordfish.
What’s the danger of mercury in fish? Mercury is a neurotoxin and can cause symptoms such as headaches, foggy thinking, muscle stiffness, dizziness, nausea, and hair loss. Mercury is dangerous for women who are or may become pregnant because children are particularly susceptible to the effects of mercury poisoning.
The best way to protect yourself and your family is to learn what kinds of seafood have high mercury levels and to consume these only in moderation. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide contains information about mercury levels as well as about sustainability.
We’ve made progress over the years, both in requiring stores to provide information about mercury and in getting companies to switch to less dangerous ways of producing chlorine. However, mercury in fish remains an issue. Just this summer, Oceana was instrumental in convincing the Spanish government to release a study finding that more than half of mako shark and swordfish samples had dangerous levels of mercury.
You can learn more about mercury and you can also take action by asking Walmart and Sam’s Club to post safety notifications about mercury in fish.
Today’s trivia post is about an animal we talk about a lot: the loggerhead sea turtle.
Loggerheads are named for their broad heads and strong jaws, which they use to force open even large hard shellfish like conchs and giant clams. Loggerheads are found throughout tropical and warm temperate waters, and are the most common sea turtle in the Mediterranean. Loggerheads have a redder hue than most sea turtles, and they are often coated in barnacles and algae.
Because they drink salty sea water, they have developed glands near their eyes that can get rid of this salt, which makes females onshore to nest look like they’re crying. Scientists theorize that adult loggerheads use the Earth’s magnetism to navigate – how cool is that?
Loggerheads, which are considered endangered, are frequently caught accidentally by the fishing industry; other threats include beach erosion and development, pesticides, and oil spills. Oceana’s sea turtle campaign focuses on preventing sea turtle bycatch, protecting habitat, and promoting legislation that keeps turtles safe.
You can learn more about loggerhead sea turtles from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia.
Who doesn’t love the unicorns of the sea?
Narwhals, like dolphins and whales, are cetaceans, although they are found almost exclusively in the Arctic Ocean. Because narwhals spend so much time in icy waters, about a third of their weight is blubber to stay warm.
Narwhals are known for their unicorn-like tusk — which is actually a tooth! All narwhals have two teeth, but in most male narwhals, one of these teeth grows through the upper lip and can be as long as ten feet. Sometimes males will have two tusks or none, and occasionally females grow tusks.
Scientists aren’t quite sure why narwhals grow tusks. One idea is that males use them to prove their worth as mates and compete with other males. Another theory is that narwhals use their tusks to skewer food or mix up bottom sediments, but this doesn’t explain why female narwhals typically don’t have horns.
Just like human teeth, narwhal tusks contain blood vessels and sensory tissue—but on the outside of the tusk, so other scientists think they may be used to figure out where ice is forming, how salty water is, or what prey is nearby.
Narwhals eat squid, octopus, fish, and shellfish. Because they have only two teeth (and one usually can’t be used to chew), they usually swallow their food whole. They have also developed a special hunting technique that uses suction and water jets to pull fish and mollusks off the seafloor.
These mammals can live for as long as 50 years. They spend most of their time in small groups of less than ten narwhals, typically of only one gender, but these small groups can join forces in herds of hundreds.
Scientists believe there are about 80,000 narwhals in the Arctic right now, but are not sure whether these animals are thriving. In addition to subsistence hunting by Inuit for their skin and blubber, narwhals are also hunted for their horns. And climate change could cause serious disruptions to their lives, which are based around pack ice.
Learn more about narwhals and other fascinating sea animals at Oceana’s marine encyclopedia.
Editor's note: October is National Seafood Month, and to celebrate, we’ll be featuring a series of blog posts about seafood, sustainable fishing and health. Today we’re schooling you on bottom trawling.
When you’re enjoying a tasty seafood meal, you’re probably not thinking about habitat destruction and accidentally caught marine animals. (Or at least I hope you’re not, it might give you indigestion.) But unfortunately, in many cases, before seafood gets to your plate, those two things may have been part of the equation.
Take bottom trawling, which is the most destructive commercial fishing method on the planet. Bottom trawlers scrape huge, heavy nets across the seafloor, destroying everything in their path. Trawling destroys more seabed habitat each year than the world’s annual loss of tropical rainforest. One study found that trawling destroys 16 pounds of marine animals for every pound of sole brought to markets.
Trawling is designed to catch as many fish as possible, and is used particularly to target shrimp, cod, haddock, flounder, and rockfish. Dredging, which is a similar practice, is used to catch shellfish like scallops and clams. Currently, more than half the fish eaten in the US is the product of trawling.
Fishermen have been trawling for years, but in the 1980s, technological advances allowed them to begin trawling through coral reefs, which they previously had to avoid to protect their fishing gear.
Unfortunately, we know now the huge damage that even one pass of a trawler can cause reefs. In one study in Alaska, as much as two-thirds of some sponges damaged by one pass of a trawler had not recovered a full year later.
Reefs are an important home for fish, so trawling can also ruin fish stocks into the future – even for responsible and recreational fishermen.
Recently, we’ve seen important measures to stop trawling. Earlier this year, a group of North Pacific nations, including the US, agreed to protect more than 16.1 million square miles of seafloor from trawling. Just a month later, Belize banned trawling from its waters.
We’ve made a lot of progress to stop this destructive fishing method. You can help by paying attention to the seafood you buy. Check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch site to get their guide to sustainable seafood, also available on paper or your smartphone, and tasty recipes to make with these fish.
Leatherback sea turtles are the largest species of marine turtle and the only one to lack a hard shell made of scales.
Instead, these gentle giants have a softer shell made of bone and skin with seven ridges along their backs. Also unlike other sea turtles, leatherbacks do not have claws on their front flippers.
Even more unusual is that leatherbacks, unlike most reptiles, have some control over their body temperatures, making them warm-blooded. They have a thick layer of fat under their skin and a special blood supply system in their shoulders that can keep them warmer than the water around them, which means they can live both further away from the tropics and in deeper waters than other sea turtles.
Leatherback sea turtles eat mostly jellyfish, and are equipped with special spikes in their throats to keep the slimy creatures from escaping. Their jellyfish-heavy diet probably contributes to reports of leatherback turtle flesh sometimes being toxic to humans.
Like other sea turtles, leatherback turtles lay their eggs on sandy beaches, however, about 20% are “vanos,” or small, yolkless eggs that will never hatch. All the eggs in a clutch are either masculine or feminine—do you know what determines the gender of the eggs? It’s this week’s trivia question on Twitter, so if you live in the US answer now for your chance to win!
Leatherback sea turtles are classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. Threats include being entangled in fishing gear; human collection of eggs and hunting of adult turtles for meat and shell; ingestion of plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish; and the effects of climate change on nesting behavior and success. Atlantic populations are considered slightly healthier than Pacific populations, which have seen several important collapses since scientists began tracking sea turtles.
Oceana’s sea turtle campaign focuses on preventing sea turtle bycatch, protecting habitat, and promoting legislation that keeps turtles safe.
You can learn more about leatherback sea turtles from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia.
Unsurprisingly, the Caribbean reef octopus is found throughout the Caribbean, deep within coral reefs. It can grow up to 40 inches long, including its tentacles. As a defense mechanism, it can change color—from blue-green and brown to shimmery red—as well as texture.
Caribbean reef octopuses establish lairs in the reef, which they often disguise with rocks and coral. Although they move their dens regularly, they protect them fiercely. If a strange octopus does not retreat, the defender will sometimes even strangle and eat it.
The same fate awaits unlucky male octopuses who try to mate with uninterested females. If attacked when hunting, the Caribbean reef octopus can pull water into itself, then shoot it out to speed the other way, often also releasing a cloud of ink to confuse predators.
Octopuses hunt at dawn or dusk, which is typical for crustaceans like crabs and shrimp. These cephalopods are fished locally, but not on a large scale, and they are not believed to be at risk of extinction, although they may struggle if the reefs they call home disappear.
Learn more about the Caribbean reef octopus and other fascinating animals at Oceana’s marine life encyclopedia.
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