Salt and vinegar on your shark and chips?

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 1 February 2019

Chip shops and fishmongers are selling endangered species of shark to unsuspecting consumers, according to a new study.

Spiny Dogfish / Spurdog
© Peter Duncan

This situation reinforces the MCS advice of knowing what you are eating which is what our Good Fish Guide does

Bernadette Clarke,
MCS Good Fish Guide Programme Manager

Although this may be a shock to consumers who like their fish and chips, and believe them to be eating fish other than shark – MCS has long made consumers aware of the traditional sale of spurdog (squalus acanthias), as rock salmon or spiny dog fish, a practice which this study shows is still occurring in some places in the UK.

Spurdog is IUCN listed as Vulnerable (2016), and is red-rated by MCS as Fish To Avoid. They spend most of their lives on or near the seabed, and feed on bottom-dwelling fish including cod.

Bernadette Clarke, MCS Good Fish Guide Programme Manager, says: “This situation reinforces the MCS advice of knowing what you are eating - which is what our Good Fish Guide is for. You can check out common and scientific names, as more than one common name can be used for the same species and in other situations the same common name can be used to describe more than one species. The Guide simplifies this and explains where the fish is caught and how.”

The majority of chip shop fish sold under generic names like huss, rock salmon and rock eel turned out to be spiny dogfish in the study. Scientists used DNA barcoding to take samples of shark products from fishmongers and chip shops, as well as shark fins from an Asian food wholesaler in the UK.

The fin samples included scalloped hammerheads, which are endangered globally and subject to international trade restrictions.

The research was carried out at the University of Exeter and the scientists are calling for more accurate food labelling so people know what species they are eating.

“The discovery of endangered hammerhead sharks highlights how widespread the sale of declining species really is - even reaching Europe and the UK,” said Dr Andrew Griffiths.

“Separate investigations focusing on Asia have commonly identified scalloped hammerhead in fin processing. Scalloped hammerhead can be imported under strict conditions, but the wholesaler had no idea what species the fin belonged to.”

The fins from the UK wholesaler, who intended to supply them to UK Asian restaurants and supermarkets, also included other threatened sharks such as shortfin mako and smalleye hammerheads.

The spiny dogfish found in many chip shop samples could have been sourced from more sustainable stocks elsewhere, but it highlights the problems of selling shark meat under “umbrella” terms that cover multiple species.

“It’s almost impossible for consumers to know what they are buying,” said lead author Catherine Hobbs. “People might think they’re getting a sustainably sourced product when they’re actually buying a threatened species.

As well as spiny dogfish, the researchers found species including starry smooth-hounds, nursehounds and blue sharks on sale in fishmongers and chip shops.

The study analysed 78 samples from chip shops and 39 from fishmongers, mostly in southern England, as well as 10 fins from a wholesaler.

It also analysed 30 fins seized by the UK Border Force on their way from Mozambique to Asia. These came from species including bull sharks.

Bernadette Clarke says the North East Atlantic spurdog stock was subject to high harvest rates for more than four decades, and fisheries were not managed during this time: “Management measures have only been restrictive for the entire stock area since 2009 and harvest rates have been below the Maximum sustainable yield – that’s the largest amount of fish that can be taken within scientific advice - since 2005. According to ICES scientists Spurdog is now showing some signs of increase from the historical lows in the mid-2000s, but this period is very short in comparison to the longer-term historical decline.

“Spurdog remains a bycatch in the mixed demersal and gillnet fisheries, and an unquantified amount of discarding now takes place in these fisheries.”

Actions you can take

  1. View the Good Fish Guide online
  2. Download our award winning 'Good Fish Guide App'.
  3. Download the Good Fish Guide .pdf

Did you know?…

Farmed fish and shellfish production will have to increase by 133% by 2050 to meet projected seafood demand worldwide

An estimated £1.1 billion is spent on fish and chips every year in the UK

1 billion people, largely in developing countries, rely on fish as their primary source of animal protein

What's your impact on our seas?

You can play a key role in securing the future of our seas and marine wildlife by making more environmentally responsible choices when buying seafood.

Make the right choice and reduce your impact - every purchase matters!

See our top tips