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Flora and Fauna | Environment

Conservation Group: Fish Fraud A National Problem, But Less Severe In The NW

Seattle and Portland are among the best cities to dine on seafood if you want the salmon, sole, or halibut you order to actually be salmon, sole, or halibut.

The two Northwest cities emerged from a national report Thursday with some of the lowest rates of “fish fraud” in the country.

According to the research project by the marine conservation group, Oceana, 33 percent of the 1,215 samples of fish it had analyzed were not actually the fish that they were labeled as by the sushi bars, restaurants, and retail outlets selling them.

Seattle’s mislabeling rate was 18 percent – tied with Boston’s for the lowest percentage among the 14 cities studied. Portland was right behind them with a 21-percent share of mislabeled seafood.

With their abundance of salmon — and savvy consumers who know their line-caught wild chinook from their fish-farmed Atlantic — that species of fish was almost always labeled correctly in the two Northwest cities. In Seattle, all but one of the 60 salmon Oceana tested turned out to be labeled correctly; In Portland, 30 of the 34 tested salmon passed the truth-in-labeling test.

Fishmonger Charlie Trimarco. Credit: Ashley Ahearn

Charlie Trimarco is a fishmonger at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Standing in front of icy rows of glistening chinook and coho, Trimarco says he and other professionals aren’t going to be fooled by mislabeled fish.

“You can’t come up here and tell me that’s not sockeye salmon or king salmon or halibut,” he said.

But buying seafood isn’t always such a transparent experience.

“There’s a lot of stuff in this industry that’s very sketchy,” he said. “It’s cheaper for a lot of places to buy fish that isn’t the fish they’re selling.”

The U.S. spends more than $80 billion dollars on fish and other seafood. Oceana scientist Kimberly Warner said that’s a big reason fish is so often mislabeled.

“I think the primary driver for this high level of fraud is economic,” said Warner, who led the group’s research project. “There’s a lot of money to be made. There’s many opportunities in a very murky supply chain to slip in illegally or unregulated catch or change the name to make a profit or to avoid tariffs at the border.”

The study also raised concerns about imperiled fish being harvested and sold under a false pretense. Some of the mislabeled fish identified in the study included overfished or endangered species sold as sustainably caught.

“We saw endangered groupers sold as more sustainable groupers, Atlantic halibut being sold as more sustainable Pacific halibut. We saw Atlantic cod switched out for Pacific cod,” Warner said.

Some consumers face health risks by eating certain fish masquerading as a different species. King mackerel and tilefish showed up among the imposters. These are both on the Food and Drug Administration’s list of fish to avoid if you’re pregnant.

Oceana said it collected its fish samples from all over the country. The fish was purchased by the conservation group’s staff and supporters. Warner devised a kit so people could send fish samples, which she prepared for labs to conduct DNA testing. In most cases the fish was sent to the Canadian Center for DNA Barcoding. The center compared the genome in the fish tissue to the genetic code of other species.

The FDA is responsible for setting truth-in-labeling guidelines that restaurants, markets, and other retailers must adhere to.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report in 2009, which said that the FDA examines just 2 percent of U.S. seafood imports.

In response to an interview request, agency spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman emailed a statement that said the FDA maximizes its limited resources to ensure the safety of all seafood sold in the United States.

“Species substitution has been an area of concern for the FDA and within the seafood industry for some time. While seafood fraud is often an economic issue, species substitution can be a public health risk,” a portion of the statement read. It also pointed to its online guide to acceptable market names for seafood.

The FDA also said it has expanded its DNA sequencing program to nine regional field laboratories.

Northwest, National Fish Fraud Numbers

Here’s what Oceana reported on its research in Seattle:

  • Overall: 136 samples; 24 mislabeled (18 percent)
  • Salmon: 60 samples; 1 mislabeled (2 percent)
  • Snapper: 10 samples; 10 mislabeled (100 percent)
  • Grocery Stores: 96 samples; 9 mislabeled (9 percent)
  • Restaurants: 18 samples; 3 mislabeled (17 percent)
  • Sushi Venues: 22 samples; 12 mislabeled (55 percent)

Here’s what Oceana reported on its research in Portland:

  • Overall: 98 samples; 21 mislabeled (21 percent)
  • Salmon: 34 samples; 4 mislabeled (12 percent)
  • Snapper: 11 samples; 11 mislabeled (100 percent)
  • Grocery Stores: 56 samples; 2 mislabeled (5 percent)
  • Restaurants: 22 samples; 5 mislabeled (27 percent)
  • Sushi Venues: 19 samples; 12 mislabeled (63 percent)

Here’s what Oceana reported on its research in the U.S.:

  • Overall: 1,091 samples; 366 mislabeled 33 percent)
  • Salmon: 384 samples; 28 mislabeled (14 percent)
  • Snapper: 186 samples; 161 mislabeled (87 percent)
  • Grocery Stores: 731 samples; 130 mislabeled (18 percent)
  • Restaurants: 243 samples; 93 mislabeled (38 percent)
  • Sushi Venues: 241 samples; 178 mislabeled (74 percent)

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