Q&A: Kimberly Warner, Oceana Senior Scientist and Lead Author of Oceana’s Latest Report on Seafood Fraud | Oceana USA
Dr. Kimberly Warner, Oceana senior scientist
Oceana senior scientist Kimberly Warner testing crab cake samples at Oceana’s headquarters.
(Photo: © Oceana / Melissa Forsyth)

Last week, Oceana released a report that uncovered seafood fraud in iconic Maryland crab cakes. Oceana found that 38 percent of 90 crab cake sampled from the Maryland and Washington, D.C. area were mislabeled, sometimes described as “Maryland” or “blue crab” when they did not contain actual blue crab.

This Q&A with Oceana senior scientist and report author Dr. Kimberly Warner detail some of the most interesting findings from Oceana’s latest seafood fraud report, as well as other information on seafood fraud and illegal fishing. Click here to learn more about Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign and other reports.

What are the main takeaways from the new Oceana report that you would like readers to know?

The signature dish of the Chesapeake region, the Maryland crab cake, is unfortunately another victim of seafood fraud. Instead of the delectable blue crab cake ordered, diners in Maryland and Washington, D.C. may be getting crab from as far as thousands of miles away.  Our testing revealed that 38 percent of the crab cakes we tested did not contain blue crab. What’s more, these imported substitutes may come from unsustainable and sometimes illegal fisheries. These imported crabs, from places like Indonesia, China and Thailand, are rated as ones to “avoid” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. But while the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, is a Seafood Watch “best choice,” if harvested by trot line or a “good alternative” if caught by a crab pot.

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You mentioned crab caught by a trot line. What is that?

A trot line is a 2,500 foot or so long weighted nylon rope baited every 4 to 5 feet and deployed by boat. Chicken necks are the usual bait. The crabs hold onto the bait as the line is brought up to the boat for catching by basket or hand net. This type of fishing gear has no bycatch and is why it is rated a best choice by Seafood Watch. I was lucky enough to go out with Captain James on his boat in Cambridge, Maryland and try my hand at trot lining last spring. It’s a lot harder than it looks!

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What were the most interesting findings in Oceana’s latest report on seafood fraud?

We found three new crab species that we didn’t know were being sold and eaten in the U.S.  Every time we get results from our mislabeling studies we find new species of seafood being sold here that are not on the official Food and Drug Administration’s Seafood List. This list has over 1,800 seafood species known or thought to be sold in the U.S.

Another puzzling finding to me was how untrustworthy the federal data on crab imports are. I say this because apparently we are importing more of the blue crab group than is fished outside U.S. waters. Neither I nor any crab experts or importers I spoke with could make sense of these numbers. It’s easy to see why seafood fraud is such a global problem, if crab or other seafood arrives at our border already mislabeled or misreported.

Were you surprised by the report’s results?

Honestly, not really. I’ve become a bit jaded by doing this research for the past five years and finding seafood fraud wherever I look.

Why did the seafood fraud team decide to look into Maryland crab cake?

What I’ve found is that many regional seafood delicacies, especially those in short supply, are often marked for this type of seafood fraud. So we decided to do a study in our neck of the woods with a dish that’s near and dear to many local diners. The Chesapeake Bay blue crab population has been struggling over the years and there doesn’t seem nearly enough of it to meet the demand.
 
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How did the results of this study compare with Oceana’s previous studies on seafood fraud in shrimp and fish?

The results we found for blue crab were right in the ball park for what we found for mislabeled fish in our big 2013 nationwide study (33 percent) and for misrepresented shrimp (30 percent) last year. The only difference is that this hits closer to home for me, since I’ve been catching blue crabs or eating local blue crab cakes for a long time. At least I thought I was eating it!

What are Oceana’s next steps in the seafood fraud campaign?

Oceana is working to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled. Most recently, President Obama’s task force on combatting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud issued final recommendations and its action plan in March.  We are focusing on putting the words in the plan into action.  Oceana wants a more transparent supply chain where key information follows seafood from the boat to the dinner plate to keep illegally caught fish and mislabeled seafood out of the U.S. market.

Are you optimistic about the future of honestly-labeled seafood in the U.S.?

I am more optimistic since the Task Force recommendations and action plan were released. We are a lot closer than we have ever been to that goal.

Is there anything else you want to tell Oceana readers?

Until we have full tracking of our seafood and better consumer labeling, the best thing to do if you are seafood lover is to ask questions when you buy seafood. Ask what species it is, where it’s from and if it’s farmed or wild. If the no one can answer these questions confidently, you may want to make another choice.

The next time you order a Maryland crab cake, be sure to check with the server if it’s made with real Maryland blue crab, if you want to make the sustainable choice. We hope that after this report, there will be more honest labeling and conversations about what is really being served.

Finally, you can also thank President Obama for the first step in stopping seafood fraud and illegal fishing and ask him to finish the job to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled. 

 

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