You could be eating shark meat and not even know it.

South African fish shops are selling unlabelled or mislabelled shark products, which poses a threat to these endangered species and the unaware shoppers, according to the WWF’s Southern Africa Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI).

“We are getting more and more reports of fish shops selling products with strange sounding names like sokomoro and ocean fillet. (Some are) common or even made-up names that most consumers won’t recognise,” said John Duncan, a programme officer for the initiative.

Referring to the latest name on the market, sokomoro, which is another name for the shortfin mako shark, Duncan added, “Retailers are purposely mislabelling these species and lying about their origins because they know shark is unpopular with consumers.”

The shortfin mako is listed as “vulnerable” by the World Conservation Union. In addition to depleting the shark population, selling shark meat poses dangers to consumers with certain allergenic or religious food restrictions.

There are no regulations in South Africa to keep retailers from selling shark under different names like gummy, lemon fish and ocean fillet, a few of “thousands and thousands” of common names used to mask fish, according to Duncan. An exotic sounding name like sokomoro is just as mysterious.

“If you wanted to, you can call it peanut butter,” he said.

It is not illegal for retailers to sell shark, and concealing the identity of shark products has advantages. Selling shark under a different name gives fishers a way to catch and sell more sharks than the legal limit in a given year.

Mislabelling also attracts shoppers who normally avoid buying endangered animal products.

The anonymous meat can also make up shortages of a popular item that is similar, like swordfish. This was the justification put forward by Sidney Fishing director Sidney Moniz, whose employees at the Fish 4 Africa in Woodstock gave inconsistent answers about sokomoro yesterday.

One vendor said sokomoro was a fish from Spain and another vaguely described its origins as “from the coasts”. One manager said the shop carried, “no fish from Spain, as far as I know”.

Most shortfin mako are snagged near Japan when long-lining for tuna according to Duncan.

“I’m not sure if they knew it was from the shark family,” said Moniz, who added he was embarrassed, as he wrestled with reasons why the shop would be selling unlabelled fish. He said it was possibly done to bolster swordfish shortages or could have been a mistake because shark is difficult to distinguish off the bone.

“A big problem for me in the recent economic recession has been all these guys shipping these substitute fish,” Moniz said. “I didn’t even know it (sokomoro) was on the endangered species list. It’s not even a big portion of our business.”

Duncan said the SASSI programme was lobbying for government and NCIS standards to develop a list of acceptable trade names. For now he said a good policy for consumers is to avoid buying a product if they do not know what it is.

Article By Hunter Atkins

  • This article was originally published on page 8 of Cape Times on May 14, 2010

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