Oceana Finds Seafood Fraud in Maryland Crab Cakes

04/02/2015 09:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

When it comes to seafood options, many residents in the Chesapeake Bay area know there's nothing quite like a delicious, Maryland crab cake. The blue crab at the heart of this dish is a cultural icon throughout the region, and popular with locals and tourists alike. But what many seafood eaters don't know are that their prized crab cakes are often not what they seem.

This week, Oceana released a new report that found mislabeling of this tasty dish throughout Maryland and Washington, D.C. Through DNA testing, Oceana discovered that 38 percent of 90 crab cakes were mislabeled -- meaning crab cakes listed as "Maryland" or "blue crab," for example, did not contain the actual local blue crab species but imported crab species instead.

Nearly half of the tested samples consisted of swimming crab species found thousands of miles from the Chesapeake Bay, such as from the Mexican Pacific Coast or the Indo-Pacific region. Oceana found eight species other than blue crab in these crab cakes -- many of which are listed as species to "avoid" on seafood guides, while domestic blue crab is listed as a "best choice" or "good alternative," depending on the gear type used and location where it was caught.

Nearly 40 years ago, blue crab from the Chesapeake Bay supplied just under half of the United States' catch. In recent years, heavy fishing pressure and habitat degradation caused significant declines in the blue crab population. Since then, blue crab from other states and countries has been used to meet the growing demand for crab cakes, yet diners are often misled because they are still seeing crab cakes described as "Maryland" or "blue crab" when there's a good chance they are not.

The species substitution of crab that Oceana uncovered has implications for consumers, fishermen and local businessmen. Consumers, who think they are supporting local businesses and ordering a sustainably-caught product, are deceived and pay inflated prices on crab cakes, while local fishermen and crab processors' livelihoods are impacted.

Oceana's findings are consistent with our previous studies that found a bait and switch in seafood across the U.S. In a report released last year, Oceana found that 30 percent of 143 tested shrimp products were misrepresented, such as by selling imported shrimp as local wild-caught Gulf shrimp. In a 2013 groundbreaking report, Oceana found that one-third of the more than 1,200 fish samples it tested in the U.S. were mislabeled, where one species of fish was sold as another, according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

The latest report on crab cakes comes on the heels of the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud releasing its final action plan on addressing these issues. Since launching a seafood fraud campaign in 2011, Oceana has played a significant role in raising the awareness of seafood fraud and calling for national solutions to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled.

Now, the Task Force needs to put the words of the final plan into action. Oceana will continue to push for transparency in the supply chain, including traceability for all seafood sold in the United States, and providing consumers with more information about their seafood choices.