Threatened species and chips? Other fish frequently sold as flake, Australian study finds

<span>A retail display including shark fillets bought during research showing widespread mislabelling of ‘flake’ sold in Australian markets and takeaway shops.</span><span>Photograph: Teagan Parker Kielniacz</span>
A retail display including shark fillets bought during research showing widespread mislabelling of ‘flake’ sold in Australian markets and takeaway shops.Photograph: Teagan Parker Kielniacz

One in 10 fillets of shark meat bought by Australians at fish and chip shops and markets – often labelled as flake – is from a threatened species, according to a study that has uncovered widespread mislabelling of shark sold to the public.

Nine of 91 fillets were found to be either scalloped hammerhead, greeneye spurdog or school shark – all considered threatened in Australia – after scientists at Macquarie University used DNA analysis to check what they were sold.

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Marine conservationists said Australians would be “appalled” that threatened species were allowed to be caught and sold.

The study calls into question the usefulness of the voluntary Australian Fish Names Standard after finding that 40 of the 59 fillets labelled as “flake” – which the standard says should either be gummy shark or rig – were a different species altogether.

Prof Adam Stow, head of the conservation genetics laboratory at the university and a co-author of the study, said: “It’s shocking and disappointing. Something needs to be done.

“I hope this puts on some pressure to make the labelling standards mandatory. Most people want to know what they’re eating.”

Stow said the mislabelling of “flake” was concerning because many consumers looking for more sustainably managed fish species would opt for fillets with that label.

Researchers visited markets and takeaways in Canberra, Sydney, the New South Wales south coast, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth to buy uncooked fillets.

Genetic testing revealed an array of sharks and fish being sold as “flake”, including the threatened scalloped hammerhead and greeneye spurdog, as well as mullet, barramundi, wobbegong shark and bull shark.

At 19 outlets researchers asked the retailer for more information about the fillets. Some 16 responses did not match the label, according to the study, which was published in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research.

When retailers identified the species they were selling, only two of those descriptions actually matched the fillet after genetic testing.

Teagan Parker Kielniacz, who led the research while at Macquarie University, said: “I asked [the retailer] if they knew what species of shark it was or if it was locally caught. More often than not, they didn’t know.

Related: DNA tests suggest more than 10% of seafood sold in Australia not what’s on the label

“Having unreliable labels takes choice away from consumers. If you want to make a sustainable choice, you can’t, because you cannot trust the labels.

“As shark species around the world start to plummet, we need to be more careful about what we purchase.”

Dr Leonardo Guida, a shark scientist at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said: “Australians would be appalled to know that our governments allow endangered species to be caught and sold for Aussies to eat. They would also be appalled to know that the fish they buy may not be what was written on the label.”

AMCS advised consumers not to buy flake because while gummy shark numbers were thought to be stable, “fishing for them puts threatened school shark at risk”, Guida said.

The two fillets of greeneye spurdog – a deepwater species unique to Australia – were bought in Victoria. Guida said NSW was the only jurisdiction in Australia where the species was allowed to be kept when caught.

He said NSW fishing records showed only 69kg of greeneye spurdog was caught in 2019, the year the samples were collected, compared with about 2,100 tonnes of shark caught and sold annually in south-east Australia.

“If fishing rules are being followed, the chance of finding endangered greeneye spurdog in a fish retailer are minuscule,” Guida said. “Finding greeneye spurdog in the 91 samples collected across the country is like finding a needle in a haystack.

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“The study suggests greeneye spurdog is being caught in NSW and shipped to Victoria or, even worse, illegal fishing is happening in Australia.”

AMCS and Humane Society International have released a report listing a range of changes to fishing rules they say would better protect Australia’s native sharks.

The two conservation groups have nominated greeneye spurdog for protection under Australian environmental law.

A university-led study last year found widespread mislabelling of shark at seafood outlets in South Australia.

A spokesperson for the fisheries minister, Murray Watt, said it was “always concerning when Australian consumers think they’re buying flake but instead are unwittingly eating an endangered species.”

The statement added: “It is also concerning when products are being mislabelled, either intentionally or otherwise. The Australian government is progressing two important initiatives relating to labelling and supply chains.”

Country-of-origin labelling would help retailers “to label seafood as either Australian, imported or mixed” and was expected to come into force in 2025.

The government is also close to finalising work “on the election commitment to consider a framework to prevent imports of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishery products”.

“This may provide for greater transparency and understanding of supply chains,” the spokesperson added.