Let’s face it. A lot of fish fillets look the same and taste the same. But when you buy, say, snapper fillets from the local market, you probably assume that they’re indeed snapper. Don’t feel so confident. At least not in Belize.

Click to read photo caption. Abel Valdivia

Carolina graduate student Courtney Cox was in Belize, a tiny Central American nation with a strong fishing industry, to study the fate of parrotfish species. In May 2009 the Belize government banned fishing for parrotfish. “This was an extremely progressive move by Belize,” Cox says. “It’s one of the only countries in the world to do this kind of thing.” What Belize did was crucial, she says, because there’s been a decline in coral health throughout the entire Caribbean, including in the Belize Barrier Reef. Parrotfish are key species on the reef; they help keep it healthy.

Click to read photo caption. Albert Kok

To study the ban’s effect, Cox couldn’t just observe what markets and restaurants were selling: it’s not always easy to tell the difference between certain kinds of filleted whitefish, and false advertising has long been a concern in Belize. So Cox conducted genetic analyses of fillets sold at eighteen markets, co-ops, supermarkets, and restaurants in six coastal towns. In particular, she analyzed more than 150 samples of filleted fish, much of which had been identified as grouper or snapper—two very popular species among Belizean consumers. Cox found that some of the fillets were actually parrotfish. Only a small percentage of the grouper was actually grouper. And none of the fillets advertised as snapper were snapper. She did find lots of cobia, snook, hogfish, triggerfish, and catfish.

Click to read photo caption. Courtney Cox

Press reports out of Belize pointed the finger at Belize’s fishing industry, not individual markets or restaurants. But Cox says she’s not sure who’s at fault. “There’s extremely high demand for snapper,” she says. “Fishermen, supermarkets, or restaurants could all knowingly sell other species as snapper. Restaurants in Belize pay twice as much for snapper and grouper than they do for other whitefish. Snook is a good fish to eat, and so is hogfish. But consumers want snapper. People are just trying to make a living and I understand that, but consumers also want to get what they pay for.”

Click to read photo caption. Courtney Cox

Cox says she’s received a number of phone calls from people thanking her for proving what they had long suspected. “But I’ve also gotten calls from fishermen who are upset because they say they are not doing this kind of thing.” Fishers often sell directly to restaurants, and some restaurant managers were not willing to give Cox any samples. For those who did, Cox says they likely wouldn’t tell her if they were lying to customers.

There’s little a customer can do when ordering fish at a restaurant. But for purchases in markets, Cox has a simple solution. “Buy the whole fish,” she says. Fillet them yourself. “That would be the safest way to know what you’re actually eating.”

Click to read photo caption. Abel Valdivia

As for parrotfish, before 2009 they were commonly sold at markets. But after the ban, Cox found that Belizean markets sold far fewer parrotfish in 2010 than in 2009. And her surveys of the barrier reef showed that there were many more parrotfish in the waters off the coast of Belize a year after the ban took effect. “This was very encouraging,” Cox says. “It shows that fishermen are doing a good job at complying with this law. The parrotfish are still being sold in the markets, but to a lesser degree.”

Click to read photo caption. Courtney Cox

Cox’s work has gained attention by the Belize media, and she’s using her new soapbox to ask the people of Belize to help expand her research. “I would like to have a greater sample size, so I’m asking anyone from restaurants—anyone who is selling fillets—if they would be willing to provide me with a very small piece of fish,” she says. “I can test it genetically and I can supply them with a report that’s telling them what fish they are actually selling.”

This would help sellers determine where some of the misidentified fillets originated, and it would help Cox keep tabs on parrotfish that might make unexpected—and illegal—appearances in fish markets and restaurants throughout Belize. She also says that her work’s exposure in Belize could decrease the demand for filleted fish. “And if fewer people are buying it, then there will be less parrotfish in the markets sold as fillets.”



Courtney Cox is a graduate student in the Department of Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Rufford Small Grants Foundation funded her research.