Seafood Fraud

Studies and investigations have found that various types of seafood fraud are committed along the supply chain. The types of fraud range from simple misunderstandings or lack of information, to blatant deception to increase profits and attempts to launder illegally harvested seafood. Regardless of the type of seafood fraud, our commitment to fight fraud is stronger than ever. With new and growing partnerships and evolving technologies, we are working across federal agencies and the seafood supply chain to safeguard the sustainability and integrity of seafood in the U.S. marketplace.

Types of Seafood Fraud

Seafood Substitution

  • Once fish is filleted and skinned, its species can be difficult to determine. Some sellers take advantage of this and substitute a low-valued species for a more expensive one (for example, passing off catfish as grouper).
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration conducted DNA testing on fish to determine the accuracy of the market names on their labels and found that fish species are correctly labeled 85 percent of the time.
  • Although the “bait and switch” might be the most well-known type of seafood fraud, it is not the most common.

Seafood Short-Weighting

  • Less known, but far more common, is short-weighting—when processors misrepresent the weight of a seafood product through practices such as overglazing, soaking, and breading.
  • Processors will often add a layer of ice or a preservative to keep a seafood product fresh, a normal and legal practice. However, when a processor uses excess ice (overglazing) or additives (soaking) and includes that weight with the net weight of the seafood, that's fraud.
  • Consumers should pay for the weight of the seafood alone. Short-weighting charges consumers more for less seafood.

Mislabeling Seafood

  • Sometimes other qualities of seafood are mislabeled in addition to the species name—such as the country of origin—to avoid regulations and fees, or even to sneak illegally caught fish into the supply chain.
  • This can occur through:
    • Transshipping—when seafood products are exported through different countries to avoid duties and tariffs.
    • At-sea transfers—when illegal fishing vessels transfer their catch to cargo vessels carrying legitimately caught seafood.
    • Falsifying trade documents.
  • Mislabeling seafood and concealing illegally caught fish evades inspection fees, permits, and other business costs that affect the price of responsibly caught seafood.

Who Handles Seafood Fraud?

NOAA Law Enforcement

Determining whether seafood is accurately labeled is difficult for consumers, but also for the experts. With a growing suite of tools, from inspections and criminal investigations to traceability systems and genetic analysis, regulators and industry are cracking down on seafood fraud.

  • Along with state and federal partners, NOAA Law Enforcement boards fishing vessels at sea; inspects fish processing plants; reviews internet sales of wildlife products; patrols land, air, and sea; and conducts complex criminal and civil investigations—all to combat seafood fraud.
  • Enforcement agents and officers and the U.S. Department of Justice investigate and prosecute allegations of seafood fraud primarily under the Lacey Act, which is triggered when someone illegally harvests, possesses, transports, or sells fish and then proceeds to channel that illegal product into interstate or foreign commerce.
  • The Lacey Act also makes it illegal to falsely label a product destined for commerce. With several convictions under their belt, NOAA Law Enforcement helps ensure that legitimately harvested and marketed seafood is not undercut by mislabeled products, protecting fish, honest businesses, and seafood consumers

You can help combat seafood fraud—report any suspected fraudulent activities on the NOAA Enforcement Hotline at 1.800.853.1964.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

With a mission to protect public health, the FDA is concerned about seafood fraud because of the potential health risks associated with mislabeled seafood. The agency maintains The Seafood List, a list of acceptable market names for seafood sold in the U.S. market to aid in the proper labeling of seafood, and the Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia to help identify seafood species. The FDA also runs a mandatory fish inspection program for all seafood processors and retailers, both domestic and international, with periodic inspections to ensure compliance.

NOAA Fisheries Seafood Inspection Program

As a part of the Department of Commerce, the NOAA Fisheries Seafood Inspection Program provides a voluntary, fee-based inspection service to fishing boats, processing plants, and retailers to ensure compliance with all seafood regulations, from whole fish to processed products. Inspectors verify label accuracy, including country of origin, net weight, and species identification.

NOAA's seafood inspectors see about one-fifth of the seafood consumed in the United States every year and find some kind of fraud in up to 40 percent of all products submitted to them voluntarily. Inspectors notify NOAA Law Enforcement of suspected fraud for investigation and serve as experts in the prosecution of cases.

Learn more about seafood inspection.

Using Genetics to Identify Fraud

Because an organism's genetic information (DNA) is contained in all of its tissues, scientists can accurately determine the identity of a species from a tiny sample of a fish in a variety of conditions—raw, frozen, or cooked fish fillets, canned fish, dried tissue, and even fish scales. To identify the species, they compare DNA from the unknown sample to DNA from known species using a reference library of DNA sequences.


  • NOAA scientists have been using advanced molecular genetics tools to analyze samples and accurately identify species for the past two decades. The Northwest Fisheries Science Center's Forensics Unit on the West Coast and the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science's Marine Forensics Lab on the East Coast work together to cover the forensic identification needs of NOAA Law Enforcement's civil and criminal investigations of seafood fraud. Their genetic analysis of evidence requires databases of DNA of known species. Since many public DNA databases lack the verification and critical sample information necessary for forensic casework, these labs have developed their own in-house databases for marine species. In addition, in collaboration with the University of Washington, the Northwest Center's lab has established a forensic voucher collection for marine fish. This collection is linked to the Barcode of Life, an international DNA barcoding effort, and is available to the public.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

  • The FDA shares an interest in seafood fraud cases that involve food safety (as opposed to economic or resource management) concerns. Working with the Smithsonian Institution, the FDA has developed a regulatory database of DNA sequences for hundreds of popular seafood species. This library is also available to the public and outside laboratories. The FDA uses DNA testing when inspecting seafood suppliers.

Private Laboratories

  • Private labs are also getting into the niche business of DNA testing of seafood, as government agencies likely cannot monitor the entire market. And the seafood industry might start seeking out these services, especially as the technology improves, costs go down, and customer concern increases.

A Self-Policing Seafood Industry

Members of the National Fisheries Institute, the leading trade group promoting seafood in the United States, have pledged to abide by "industry principles of economic integrity by not selling seafood that is short in weight or count, that has the wrong name, or that has been transshipped from one country to another to circumvent duties and tariffs."

The National Fisheries Institute set up the Better Seafood Board in 2007 to support the commitment of its members to stamp out seafood fraud. The Board provides a self-policing mechanism for the seafood industry, enabling buyers of seafood (restaurants, retail operations, producers, and processors) to report suppliers committing seafood fraud. The Board documents these issues, and the government and consumers can use this information to ensure seafood sold in the United States is safe, legal, and properly labeled.

Tracking and Tracing Seafood

Regulators and industry alike are implementing systems that track and trace products throughout the supply chain, ensuring consumer confidence in the safety and legality of their seafood along the way.

For example, Gulf Wild™ tags red snapper and grouper harvested in the Gulf of Mexico with unique numbers so that seafood buyers and sellers can track each fish all the way back to the fisherman who caught it. The system ensures that these oft-substituted fish are genuine and the exact fish they're paying for, resolving any fraud issues.

Another program, Gulf Seafood Trace, integrates an electronic Trip Ticket system with an electronic traceability system to capture and share key information about fisheries products as they move through the supply chain, from the point of harvest to the consumer. The system’s data check and confirmation components verify this information and the seafood's origin, ensuring confidence in the marketplace.