Not a Joke: Oceana Study Reveals Mislabeling of Iconic Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab | Oceana

Not a Joke: Oceana Study Reveals Mislabeling of Iconic Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab

Press Release Date: April 1, 2015

Location: Washington, DC


Anna Baxter | email:
Anna Baxter

Oceana released a new study today that reveals mislabeling of the iconic Chesapeake Bay blue crab. Out of the 90 crab cakes Oceana collected from 86 restaurants throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C., DNA testing confirmed that 38 percent were mislabeled. Instead of using locally caught blue crab as advertised, the crab cakes contained imported substitutes, most of which are fished unsustainably.   

“It may be April Fools’ Day, but this is no joke. Not even the prized Maryland crab cake is safe from seafood fraud,” said Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana. “When diners purchase a Maryland crab cake, they don’t expect to get an imported substitute. This type of fraud, species substitution, inflates the price for consumers, parades imported and sometimes illegally caught crab as local, prevents consumers from making sustainable seafood choices, and harms the livelihoods of local watermen and seafood businesses.”

Oceana found mislabeled crab cakes in every city it tested, including rates of 47 percent in Annapolis, 46 percent in Baltimore, 39 percent in Washington, D.C., 38 percent in Ocean City and 9 percent on the Maryland Eastern Shore. Crab cakes were considered to be mislabeled if they were described on the menu or confirmed by the server as containing blue crab or as sourced from Maryland or the Chesapeake Bay region, but were comprised of completely different crab species.

“We found that consumers trying to order blue crab from the Chesapeake Bay are often getting an entirely different species from half way around the world,” said Dr. Kimberly Warner, report author and senior scientist at Oceana. “Consumers simply don’t know enough about what they’re eating and substituting imported species for local blue crab can cost them a premium.”

Among the report’s other key findings include:

  • Although Oceana attempted to purchase only local blue crab, 48% of the crab cakes tested used swimming crab species from the Indo-Pacific region (44%) and the Mexican Pacific coast (4%).
  • In total, we found eight species other than blue crab present in crab cakes purchased in Maryland and D.C.
  • The most frequently mislabeled crab cakes were those labeled as “Maryland,” followed by those referred to as “blue crab.”
  • Nearly half of the species found in the crab cakes we tested are listed as species to “avoid” on seafood guides, while the real Maryland blue crab is considered a “best choice” or “good alternative” depending on where and how it was caught.
  • Import data suggests that much of the crab destined for the U.S. arrives at the border already mislabeled. 

Oceana’s crab cake samples were collected during the 2014 Maryland crab season. Crab cakes were not considered mislabeled if “local” or “blue crab” was not explicitly stated on the menu or confirmed by the server. Crab cakes that did not contain blue crab, but were labeled as “Maryland-style,” were also not considered mislabeled, as “Maryland-style” could simply refer to a recipe or a certain type of seasoning rather than where the crab was actually caught.  

In March, a presidential task force released its action plan and final recommendations to crack down on seafood fraud and illegal fishing. The announcement reaffirms President Obama’s commitment to stop these crimes that provide profits to pirate fishermen, rip off consumers and hinder ocean conservation.

“Without traceability that requires important information to follow blue crabs from the Bay to the dinner plate, this type of fraud will continue to occur,” said Lowell. “Oceana is now calling on the task force to put its words into action to require traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S., including blue crabs, to ensure that it’s safe, legally caught and honestly labeled.”

In 2014, Oceana released a study revealing that America’s favorite seafood – shrimp – was misrepresented in 30 percent of the 143 products tested. In a similar study in 2013, Oceana found that 33 percent of the more than 1,200 fish samples it tested nationwide were mislabeled, according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines. Seafood fraud not only cheats consumers, but can also impact public health and global ocean conservation by allowing illegally caught fish to be sold in the legal marketplace.

Last year, Oceana also conducted the most current and comprehensive review of seafood fraud literature to date by compiling more than 100 studies from 29 countries and every continent except Antarctica. While the percentage of seafood fraud found in these studies varies from 1.5 to 100 percent, the average level is 22 percent (weighted based on sample size).

To access Oceana’s full report and other materials, please visit