EcoSystem Indicator Partnership Gulf of Maine Council Uses Social Media Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Google Plus Pinterest

March 2014 ESIP Journal

Title: What the Hake?! Fish Forensics in Maine Markets

A collaborative effort to use fish forensics for quality assurance testing of fish fillets in Maine markets.

Mislabeling of seafood is a widespread issue, not just locally but worldwide. Mislabeling is a multifaceted issue encompassing human health and consumer rights concerns—not to mention it is an illegal practice in the US. The most severe health concerns associated with mislabeling include exposure to allergens and toxins (e.g. tetrodotoxin in pufferfish and gempylotoxin in escolar) as well as high levels of mercury present in certain species of fish. The fraudulent substitution of lower-quality fish in place of higher quality (read: expensive) fish is also a frequent problem. While the extent of fish mislabeling varies substantially based on the product and location of sale, numerous studies, surveying both restaurants and retail markets, have reported over 30% mislabeling across samples tested. DNA testing for identifying mislabeling of seafood products has been used by a wide range of individuals from high school students1 to high-profile ocean activist groups2 and independent research labs.


Fish filets on display in a Maine supermarket. Photo:  Laura Whitefleet-Smith (2/2014)

Researchers at the University of New England are particularly interested in commercially sold hake and have developed a molecular method for identifying six species of hake and an additional five groundfish species common to the Gulf of Maine. Hakes are intriguing as the name “hake” describes a number of different species belonging to multiple families of fish. According to the 2013 FDA Seafood List, there are nine species of fish that may acceptably be labeled under the name “hake.” The use of this ambiguous label invokes a number of questions. Why are all of these species grouped together under one label? What are you getting when you purchase hake in the Gulf of Maine? University of New England graduate student Laura Whitefleet-Smith and Assistant Research Professor Anna Bass have embarked on a project to address these questions by working collaboratively with local markets to achieve two main goals: 1) quality assurance testing of fish fillets and 2) determining the species composition of hake sold in Maine markets.


Graduate student and co-investigator Laura Whitefleet-Smith isolating DNA from fillet samples donated by a local supermarket. Photo: Christopher Goodchild (3/2014)

The technique used by UNE researchers is a lower-cost alternative to popular DNA barcoding which relies on expensive sequencing. In the future, this technique could be used as a means of monitoring the species composition of hake in our markets over time. Interestingly, several hake species have shown distributional changes over the past 45 years that may be related to increasing water temperatures3. This could result in an alteration of the hake species composition in the Gulf of Maine. Detecting changes in the species composition of hake in our markets could represent a valuable indicator of possible distributional changes in wild hake stocks. The ability to detect spatial changes in mobile species’ ranges is crucial to our understanding of the ecological impacts of the warming waters in both the Gulf of Maine and our oceans as a whole.

Looking for more? Contact us at:



3.) Nye, J.A., Link, J.S., Hare, J.A., et al. 2009. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 393:111-129







Other News in the Gulf of Maine & Bay of Fundy

Past Journals

Febuary 2015ESIP releases new smartphone app connecting people in the Gulf of Maine and watershed to the science happening all around them.

November 2015The launch of a marine debris program in the Bay of Fundy.

September 2015Climate Change Products for Atlantic Canada.

July 2015An update from the April 2015 State of the Bays Symposium in Massachusetts.

June 2015Learn about NH Department of Environmental Services' work with 65 volunteers to improve beach grass coverage at Hampton Beach State Park.

May 2015Nova Scotia recently released risk ratings for storm serge and sea level rise for all portions of the Province - this journal summarizes the findings

April 2015Learn about an exciting project between ESIP and EPA that seeks to unravel upstream pressures on downstream estuaries

February 2015Meet the new Project Leader for the Gulf of Maine Coastal Program in Falmouth, Maine - Jed Wright.

January 2015New Smart Tour of Great Marsh - largest continuous stretch of salt marsh in New England, extending from Cape Ann in Massachusetts to New Hampshire

December 2014The American Lobster Settlement Index is an important project that assesses current lobster fishery condition in both Canada and the US. The dataset is current and available through the ESIP Indicator Reporting Tool

Click here for all past ESIP journals