20 Percent of Seafood Purchases Aren’t What You Think They Are

Salmon, grouper, and snapper are the most commonly mislabeled fish in the United States, says a new study—here’s how to avoid getting duped.

Photo by Annabelle Breakey/Getty Images

Think you’re getting a great deal on wild salmon? What you could be getting is swindled, suggests a report released Wednesday by the nonprofit watchdog group Oceana. Seafood fraud and mislabeling is rampant across the industry, says the report, and it occurs at every step of the process—from fishing boat or farm to grocery stores and restaurants.

To examine the prevalence of seafood fraud around the world, Oceana reviewed more than 200 previously published studies from 55 countries. Combined, these studies had tested more than 25,000 samples of seafood.

On average, about 20 percent of those samples were marketed as something other than what they really were. What’s more, 58 percent of the fake samples turned out to be species that could pose health risks because of parasites, environmental chemicals, higher allergy risks, or other potential dangers.

The results were consistent, too: Every study but one found evidence of seafood fraud at some point in the supply chain, whether it happened during landing, packaging, processing, import or export, distribution, wholesale, or retail.

In the United States, the rate of fraud was even higher than the global estimate: about 28 percent, according to a combination of studies published since 2014. Here, the fish most likely to be mislabeled were snapper, grouper, and salmon.

“Sometimes a lower-value fish is swapped in, like a farmed tilapia or Asian catfish,” says Beth Lowell, Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign director. (The report found that, globally, Asian catfish was substituted for 18 different types of higher-priced fish.) “Other times it’s a similar type of fish that may have a different conservation status or catch limits.” In 2015, for example, a Santa Monica sushi restaurant was caught selling endangered whale meat as fatty tuna.

Passing off farmed salmon as wild-caught is also very common in the United States, says Lowell. Along with the full report, Oceana published an interactive map of fraud findings around the country, and around the world, on its website.

Lowell says that seafood fraud can be difficult to catch at the consumer level—which is why Oceana and other organizations are fighting for better regulations and more accountability within the industry. But until those policies are adopted, she says, here are a few things you can do to reduce your chances of buying fraudulent fish:

Buy as close to the whole fish as possible

“The more times seafood changes hands or travels down a complex supply chain, the more opportunities there are for seafood fraud,” says Lowell. Plus, it’s easier to pass off parts of fish—like a fillet with the scales and head removed—as different species. “Buying a whole fish from the market and having them prepare it for you is one good way to know what you’re getting,” Lowell adds.

Ask questions at the counter or the table

Whether you’re in a restaurant or at the supermarket, make sure the people selling you seafood can tell you where and how it was caught. “If they can’t give you basic information about the product, you might want to get something else,” says Lowell.

Consider the price

“If you see wild Pacific salmon selling for $6.99 a pound, it might not actually be wild Pacific salmon,” says Lowell. “If the price seems too good to be true, a lot of times it is.”

Choose brands that trace their seafood

Plenty of restaurants—and even supermarket chains like Wegman’s and Whole Foods—require the seafood they sell to be responsibly sourced and traced from start to finish, and should be able to provide consumers with this information. When buying prepackaged frozen seafood, look for this information on the labels, as well. “Some brands use QR codes you can scan to see the path the fish has taken to get to your plate,” says Lowell.

Support the fight for better legislation

Some of these fraudulent cases occurred because the laws that do exist are not well enforced. Others are completely legal.

For example, 66 different species can be be sold as grouper in the United States, making it nearly impossible for people to know what they’re buying. “Though laws were not broken in these cases,” the report states, “vague labeling rules potentially cheat consumers, harm their health, or make them unwitting accessories to fishing or aquaculture practices that are illegal or harm the environment.”

In all circumstances, better legislation is needed, says Lowell. Earlier this year, a presidential task force proposed a rule that would require traceability for 13 “at-risk” types of seafood from when they’re caught or harvested until they reach the United States border. While that’s a good first step, says Lowell, this report shows that it’s still not enough.

“The fight against seafood fraud must include all seafood and extend from boat to plate,” she says. “It shouldn’t be this hard for consumers to know what fish they’re eating and have confidence with what’s on the label or on the menu.”