That Snapper Dinner You Ordered Might Not Be Snapper!

Article Preview By David Gobeil


Researchers Discover Fish “Mislabeled” 50 Per Cent of the Time in Belize

I’ve often wondered if the Red Snapper dinner I was eating at various Belizean restaurants was really Red Snapper.  Being a seafood connoisseur, I’ve learned to differentiate the subtle flavor differences between a fillet of Snapper, and say, a fillet of Grouper (which I find to be equally delicious).

Sure enough, my suspicions have been confirmed with the publishing of a recent study by John Bruno and Courtney Cox, a PhD student at UNC.  Between 2009 and 2011 Bruno and Cox purchased several fillets from fish mongers throughout the country of Belize, and also ordered many “Snapper Dinners” at restaurants around the country.  They discovered, after genetically testing the samples, about 51 per cent of the fish was mislabeled!

They also make the conclusion that labeling fish that normally sells for $2 per pound as fish that sells for $6 per pound can be quite profitable…….

Here is the beginning of the article.  Click on the link above to read the entire article.


Our paper on seafood mislabeling in Belize is out in Conservation Letters (here).  This paper is the fist of several from our project designed to evaluate the effectiveness of Belize’s national ban on herbivorous fish harvesting as a coral reef conservation tool.  Recognizing that MPAs alone were not preventing the degradation of its invaluable reef ecosystem, the Belizean government passed a new regulation in April 2009 preventing the harvesting of any species of parrotfish (Scarids) or surgeonfish (Acanthurids) nationwide: No person shall take in the waters of Belize, or buy, sell or have in possession any grazers” (Statutory Instrument No. 49 of 2009).  This is the first legislation of its kind and, if effective, has the potential to globally revolutionize coral reef management.

Nearly all Belizeans claim they dislike and have never eaten a parrotfish, which given the severely overfished state of parrotfish populations, seems unlikely. The national grazer harvest ban also stipulates that fish fillet must be sold with a small intact skin patch, so that consumers can recognize the scales and coloration as parrotfish.  However, we only observed this at one vendor in 2011 over the course of three years of sampling. As a result, visual censuses will likely miss the presence of illegally harvested herbivorous fish. After a series of interviews, meetings, and workshops with local fisherman, MPA managers, marine reserve police, biologists from the Belize Fisheries Department, and our partners within several NGOS, we have come to the conclusion that the only way to accurately assess the degree of compliance with the ban, was to purchase fillet in the markets, restaurants, grocery stores and fishing cooperatives (mainly for export) and determine the actual identity using molecular genetics.

Genetic Testing Reveals some Mislabeling but General Compliance with a Ban on Herbivorous Fish Harvesting

Abstract: Overfishing of herbivorous fishes is one of the primary causes of Caribbean coral reef decline. In Belize, herbivorous fishes comprised 28% of the catch from 2005 to 2008. In 2009, the Belize Fisheries Department implemented a national ban on herbivorous fish harvesting to mitigate high macroalgal cover on much of the Belize Barrier Reef. However, compliance with this approach has not been evaluated. We assessed the proportion of herbivorous fish in local markets by genetically identifying fish fillets sold in five major towns in Belize from 2009 to 2011. We found that 5% to 7% of 111 fillets were identified as herbivorous fish and 32% to 51% were mislabeled. A 5% to 7% proportion of parrotfish in local markets suggests some ongoing parrotfish harvesting. However, our results suggest that the ban has reduced herbivorous fish harvesting and has the potential to help facilitate the restoration of coral reef ecosystems.