‘Would you like some shark with your mushy peas?’

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It’s Friday night, fish night. You’re sitting down to a great big hunk of battered fish and pile of chips, happily pretending that the omega-3 fatty acids in the fish are balancing out the saturated fats in the greasy chips. But what many of you probably don’t realise is that instead of being served good old-fashioned cod or hake, you may actually end up dining on shark flesh.

Surprised? Apparently ‘shark fish and chips’ has been sold in the UK for years, masquerading under the cover name of ‘rock salmon’ which was coined to make it sound like a more popular and more appetising fish. Scientists have long since known about this foul play, as has the government (or rather Defra – the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) but so far no-one has deigned to do anything about it. Perhaps this is because Joe Blogs of the ‘General Public’ has largely remained ignorant of the mislabelling, both at the consumer and retailer end of the market. In truth it was only earlier this year (after the rather horrific discovery of mutilated shark limbs in the otherwise peaceful Isle of Wight) that people started to question what was hidden underneath their golden batter.

So just what is being sold under the pseudonym ‘rock salmon’? The term itself was initially introduced as a commercial name for spiny dogfish, but today contenders for the title also include the common and shiny smooth-hound, black-mouth catshark and nursehound. All very much fish but definitely not any sort of salmon. Other names to look out for include ‘flake’ , ‘huss’, ‘steakfish’, ‘rigg’, ‘sea ham’ and ‘tofu shark’ (surely a vegetarian’s nightmare!); a rather imaginative array of names for something that remains resolutely shark.

Whilst many may be outraged at being misled for so long, a quick internet search does actually show that the information is out there; a different story altogether to the recent horse meat saga. Eating shark is not going to kill you – it has been a much loved speciality in Australia for years and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm (?!). However what shoddy labelling does create is a situation in which shark species may be unknowingly eaten to extinction all because of the fact that very few people know what they are buying or selling.

Populations of spiny dogfish, listed as vulnerable under the IUCN Red List, have been massively exploited in the Northest Atlantic and they are now protected under EU fishing regulations (so that in theory they cannot be caught in EU waters). However there always seems to be a loophole in the laws, and in this case it is actually legal to sell spiny dogfish in the UK so long as it has been caught outside the EU and imported. Other shark species sold under this very general label may not be currently endangered, but they soon will be if they continue to be caught (and without legal limit)in British waters.

The real irony of the situation is that at the end of the day not many Brits want to eat shark in the first place. In modern day society if you order a spade, you should get a spade – there is no longer any place for dodgy product labelling. As global fish stocks literally go down the pan it is more important than ever to be aware of how much (and what) we are removing from our oceans. So next time you go into a fish and chip shop go in with your eyes wide open, and really consider what you’re going to choose from the menu.

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Louisa Wood

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