A Food Web of Lies: How Misinformation in the Seafood Supply Chain Affects our Role as Top Predators

By Megan Fluit 

16 August 2022


Fish for sale at a market


When you walk through the doors of your local grocery store on your way to purchase some tuna for lunch, you might be thinking about this week’s meal plan or trying to remember your grocery list. What you probably aren’t considering is your role as a top or apex predator within the global seafood system.

Research by Dr. Carling Bieg and Dr. Timothy Bartley describes how our role as top predators in nature’s food web impacts global seafood sustainability and marine biodiversity. Bieg, a recent PhD graduate, and Bartley, a teaching instructor, are both alumni from Dr. Kevin McCann’s ecology lab in the Department of Integrative Biology.  

“Food webs” are what ecologists use to describe the interconnectedness of different food chains within an ecosystem. Generalist predators that consume different types of prey are a common feature of food webs, but these predators are often doing more than just finding their next meal – they are connecting different parts of the food web.

Bieg uses the example of a reef habitat to explain. "Species higher in the food chain will eat from one reef habitat, but they also move broad distances and will eat in different habitats. Top predators like sharks, for example, can travel very large distances between these communities.”

This is how apex predators “couple”, or connect, different habitats. It’s also what makes the global seafood industry mimic the role of top predator – but with an important difference.  

In the wild, top predators help maintain balance and structure in food webs by essentially “playing whack-a-mole with their different resources”, says Bieg. When one fish species is in decline, the intelligent generalist predator will focus its hunting efforts on species or locations with higher prey abundance, allowing the struggling species to recover.

When it comes to the fishing industry, however, misinformation in the seafood supply chain prevents consumers from knowing which fish species they are consuming, and where they are coming from. This keeps us from making the necessary decisions to protect ecosystem structures and overfished species.

"With the way that fisheries and supply chains are structured and organized, you actually lose information. Vague labelling requirements allow different fish species to be thrown together under one common name so you can’t be totally confident in what you are purchasing, especially if there isn't traceability throughout the supply chain," says Bieg.

Misinformation can result from intentional fraud, from unintentionally incorrect labelling, or vague labelling requirements. Either way, lack of transparency causes the generalist predator model to fail and could contribute to the long-term problem of overfishing and declining fish populations.

Understanding our responsibility as the apex predator should motivate us to be more conscious of our food choices and our role in maintaining nature’s stable structure. In the EU, for example, seafood labelling requires the common and scientific names of fish species, geographic origin, and method of harvest. Tighter labelling regulations such as these might be a step in the right direction towards improving the misinformation problem.

When asked what changes she’d like to see in response to this issue, Bieg is quick to respond. "I would love to have better access to knowledge about where the fish that I'm eating was caught, and how it was caught. I would like to see better labeling requirements and legislation so that people, whether they are consumers, managers, retailers, or anyone else in the supply chain, are able to make conscious decisions about what they are purchasing and consuming.”

This study was funded by the University of Guelph's Canada First Research Excellence Fund project ‘Food from Thought’ and support from the Arrell Food Institute. Doctors Kevin McCann and Robert Hanner, Department of Integrative Biology, also contributed to the study.

Read the full study in the journal Food Webs

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