DNA Barcoding has revealed which species are sold under the commercial term 'ray wings' in Ireland and the UK. The research was conducted at the University of Salford and University College Dublin, as part of an international project called "LabelFish" that is currently investigating seafood labelling and traceability within the European Union (EU).
The findings showed that none of the ray wings analysed originated from endangered species that were prohibited from being landed in the EU. Good news for the conservation of groups of skate that are of most critical conservation concern. However, the results were not all positive; the most commonly identified species in the study was the blonde ray (Raja brachyura), a large-growing species that has a decreasing population trend and which the marine conservation society (MSC) awards its lowest sustainability rating, suggesting consumers should avoid purchasing it. In fact, size has previously been suggested as a good proxy for risk to overfishing, and the blonde ray was just one of three large growing species identified during investigations. All three are associated with declining abundance and concerns over sustainability.
The study concludes that the use of ambiguous or amalgamated sales terms makes it impossible for consumers to exercise the right to choose species of lesser conservation concern helping to protect these declining species. According to the authors the EU generally requires skates to be identified to species level when landed, but this information is not being passed onto consumers. This remains a real obstacle in allowing those to make informed choices. Interestingly, some supermarket chains have already made commitments to supply smaller growing species that are viewed as more sustainable. One retailer even went as far as labelling its ray wings as originating from these smaller growing groups. Analysis of a limited number of wings purchased from this supermarket showed a third were actually mislabelled; they really belonged to a more vulnerable larger growing species. This highlights the importance of on-going efforts to improve labelling of foods, not only to protect consumers, but also to allow informed choice and promote the conservation of vulnerable species.