Study Finds that Many UK Fish and Chip Shops Sell Endangered Shark Meat

If you’re buying fish called 'rock salmon' or 'flake,' it’s probably shark.

|
Feb 4 2019, 3:00pm

Photo: Getty Images

“Shark and chips” might not sound as tempting as fish and chips, as far as snacky, pub food is concerned. However, that might be a more accurate way to describe what Brits are actually eating when they head to the chip shop, according to a study published this week in Scientific Reports.

Almost 90 percent of the fish and chip takeaway shops analyzed were selling a species of shark called Squalus acanthias, or spiny dogfish, which is currently considered endangered in Europe by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The spiny dogfish used to be abundant worldwide, but overfishing has caused huge population decline since the 1920s.

The reason diners might not know that, though, is because spiny dogfish is often sold under other names like huss, flake, and rock salmon, as The Guardian reports. In the United Kingdom, those labels are allowed by EU legislation for a variety of shark species, but they don’t make it clear that what you’re ordering is, in fact, endangered shark.

For that reason, the study points to a need for better transparency in seafood supply chains, Catherine Hobbs, first author of the paper and researcher from the University of Exeter, told The Guardian. “People might think they’re getting a sustainably sourced product when they’re actually buying a threatened species,” Hobbs said.

The researchers analyzed DNA samples of products from 90 different fishmongers and fish and chip takeaways, and found that the majority of them were selling endangered sharks. The most sold shark species for both fishmongers and takeaways was the spiny dogfish, but sales of nursehound and starry smoothhound were also common. Compared to the spiny dogfish, those are facing fewer concerns of population decline: The nursehound shark is currently considered “near threatened,” and the starry smoothhound is of “least concern.”

As Hobbs told The Guardian, the lack of specific labeling regarding sales of shark meat can pose a threat to humans, too, since different species can have different types of allergens and mercury content. Terms like huss and flake make it hard to tell what’s what.

Now that this study is making the rounds in major publications such The Guardian, BBC, and CNN, some Brits might be surprised by the contents of their favorite “fish” treat. But it’s actually less a revelation, and more a corroboration of what experts have been saying for years. Back in 2008, Ted Danson (yes, the Good Place actor is apparently also big into ocean conservation) said that the fish-and-chip-related decline in spiny dogfish populations indicated a need for better guidelines on shark fishing. The Daily Mail covered the phenomenon in 2014, and in 2015, the use of shark in fish and chips was discovered in Australia.

Much of the discussion around eating sharks tends to focus on China’s shark fin soup, and the researchers did include shark fin imports into the UK in their analysis. Shark fin soup surely threatens shark populations, but the study does suggest that the centering on Chinese food might be a little misguided, since plenty of people in England are apparently eating shark as fish and chips, anyway.