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Oceana Magazine Summer 2010: From Hook to Plate

Do you know where your seafood comes from?

By Emily Fisher

Every summer my family spends a week on the coast of North Carolina. Along with the usual activities – swimming, sand castling, board gaming – no Fisher beach vacation would be complete without a daily dose of seafood. It’s practically in our name, so it must be our prerogative, goes the unspoken wisdom. 

Last summer, my dad and I were in the local fish market, and I waited while he picked out the evening’s fare. As we were leaving, I asked what he bought. He looked at me sheepishly, holding up his fragrant filet. “I know grouper is bad,” he said. “But it’s what everyone wants to eat.”

While I count myself among the increasing number of sustainable seafood card-toting conservationists, the truth is that there’s a lot we may not have known about that grouper, including where it came from, how it was caught, how long it was left out in the sun – and if it was even a grouper at all.

While seafood awareness and education efforts can be an important part of protecting seafood species from overfishing, they are weakened if the seafood itself is mislabeled.

“You don’t find people substituting tomatoes for eggplants, but it happens a lot with fish,” said Margot Stiles, an Oceana scientist and campaign manager. “It undermines a lot of the conservation work we are doing.”

Seafood is the last wild-caught food that Americans eat regularly. And despite the fact that many global fisheries are fully or overexploited, United States citizens now consume almost five times more fish than they did 100 years ago – and over 80 percent of it is imported. The lack of serious standards for seafood imports to the U.S. means that consumers are often hard-pressed to determine their seafood’s identity, to say nothing of its country of origin, whether it is fresh or thawed, farmed or wild, or how it was caught or grown.

Seafood is one of the worst examples of false advertising when it comes to what we eat, which can have serious consequences for both human and ocean health.

After testing seafood over the space of a decade, the U.S. National Seafood Inspection Laboratory reported that more than a third of fish tested were labeled incorrectly. Another study found that around three-quarters of the “red snapper” on the marketplace was another species, and in 2008, New York City restaurants and markets were found to have substituted cheaper fish in 14 of 56 samples.

“We know where our clothes are made and not where our fish are from,” said Jennifer Jacquet, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Sea Around Us Project at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre and author of a recent paper on seafood fraud.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture developed mandatory country of origin labeling rules in 2005. These were intended to inform consumers about where seafood comes from, and whether it’s farm-raised or wild-caught. But the program’s effectiveness is severely limited. “Processed” seafood and restaurants are exempt, leaving the source of more than two-thirds of the seafood sold in the U.S. unspecified. And enforcement and fines for violating the rules are minimal.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing makes up an estimated one-fifth of the global catch each year. While the U.S. has worked to restrict illegal seafood from entering the U.S. market, some companies may deliberately mislabel fish, or ship their seafood through a third country to avoid scrutiny.

And even if the country of origin is labeled correctly, the distinction between farm-raised and wild-caught fish is often misrepresented or omitted. A 2006 analysis by Consumer Reports found that during the off season for salmon fishing, more than half of the salmon  labeled “wild” is actually farmed. This is a critical distinction for a sustainability-minded consumer. Farmed salmon kept in open-water pens create massive amounts of pollution that harms ocean habitats and wildlife, and many farmed salmon are dosed with pesticides and antibiotics.

Mislabeling is likely to increase as overfishing produces even more shortages of valuable species. “Ultimately what it comes down to is the shortage of the products that people want,” says Jacquet. “It’s a symptom of overfishing. If there were plenty of cod there wouldn’t be a need to rename other fish as cod.”

And if restaurants and fishmongers aren’t telling you the truth about your seafood’s identity, what else might you be missing?

The Food and Drug Administration inspects 2 percent or less of seafood imports each year. So you might unknowingly end up eating a fish you are allergic to, or you might order tuna that sat on the dock too long, leading to scombroid food poisoning, which can cause symptoms similar to severe allergy attacks.

You may blithely ask for the “super white tuna” at your favorite sushi restaurant, only to receive escolar, a deep-sea snake mackerel with a buttery texture. Unfortunately, its tasty oils are not digestible by humans and can cause gastrointestinal distress, causing escolar to be dubbed the "Ex-Lax fish."

And the fish themselves are also suffering along with us. The costs of “mystery fish” go beyond the artificially high price tag on restaurant menus. Not only does the customer’s bottom line suffer, but so does his or her ability to make safe, sustainable choices. “No consumer believes that grouper is endangered if it’s on the menu everywhere,” said Jacquet.

How did we get into this fishy state of affairs? Rapid growth in U.S. demand for seafood, which U.S. fisheries cannot meet, coupled with a global market that increasingly treats fish as a commodity, is part of the explanation.

A lack of adequate regulation and insufficient resources are another big part of the problem. In addition, the U.S. lacks a widespread seafood culture, so Americans are generally less savvy about seafood, compared to other cultures with a longer history of consuming fresh seafood. As a result, many consumers don’t ask questions about their seafood when shopping or ordering at a restaurant, and are easily misled.

Part of the solution lies in traceability, which simply means the ability to track seafood from hook to fork – from capture and distribution to retail sale. Improved seafood traceability requirements similar to the existing system in the European Union would be a potent weapon in the fight against illegal fishing. It would also be a boon for seafood safety as well as sustainability, and would improve consumer knowledge of the nature, origin, and quality of seafood.

“You should get what you pay for and know what you’re getting,” said Stiles.

“Until the FDA can track the fish we’re eating, we can’t really be sure our seafood is legal, responsibly caught or safe to eat.”

What fish you may be getting when you order in restrauntsBack at the beach house, my dad fired up the grill while my uncles blended frozen margaritas. Everyone devoured the grouper without a care in the world. The Fisher family’s seafood bliss can’t last forever, though. It’s time we start asking more questions at the fish market.

This table shows some of the most commonly mislabeled types of seafood. One of the most important things you can do as a consumer is to ask questions before you buy. Don’t be timid in asking your fishmonger or grocer about their seafood – it will help reinforce that consumers care about the source of their seafood.