Sushi lovers may be eating Critically Endangered species without knowing it

Jeremy Hance
November 24, 2009

Restaurants sampled in New York and Colorado are serving up bluefin tuna without informing their customers know they are dining on an endangered species, according to a new study in PLoS ONE. Using DNA barcoding researchers from the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the American Museum of Natural History found that nearly a third of tuna sampled in one restaurant in Colorado and thirty restaurants in New York served bluefin tuna, and nine of the restaurants did not label the tuna as bluefin.

"When you eat sushi, you can unknowingly get a critically endangered species on your plate," says Jacob Lowenstein, a graduate student affiliated with the Museum and Columbia University. "But with an increasingly popular technique, DNA barcoding, it is a simple process for researchers to see just what species are eaten at a sushi bar."

It wasn't just endangered species that were on the menu: restaurants also served a fish called 'escolar', which is banned in Italy and Japan because it can cause gastrointestinal distress. Five of nine sushi samples that were labeled as "white tuna" were not tuna at all, but were in fact escolar.

"It is very difficult to get reliable information about the species you are eating, especially since the FDA's approved market name for all eight species of Thunnus is simply 'tuna'," explains Lowenstein. He adds that if the FDA required that tuna be listed as individual species, it would allow consumers to make an informed decision.

There are three species of bluefin tuna: Pacific bluefin, Northern bluefin, and southern bluefin. Both the northern and the southern bluefin are classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. The Pacific bluefin is considered Vulnerable. Scientists with the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) recently recommended that the fishery end harvesting of the Atlantic tuna, or northern bluefin tuna, due to overfishing. ICCAT, however, ignored the advice of its scientists and set a quota for this year of 13,500 tons of fish.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (November 24, 2009).

Sushi lovers may be eating Critically Endangered species without knowing it.