As we report in our seafood cover story that just hit the stands, the practice of mislabeling seafood—selling farm-raised salmon as “wild-caught,” for instance—is widespread. Last year, 40,000 fish were sold as “Copper River Salmon” when only 12,000 of that species were caught.
How big is this problem? The international ocean conservation outfit Oceana conducted a study last year in Los Angeles, subjecting seafood from groceries and restaurants to DNA testing, and found that 55 percent of it was fraudulently labeled. Among the findings: Every fish sold as “snapper” and nearly 90 percent of sushi samples were incorrectly billed. Perhaps most distressing, eight of the ten “white tuna” sushi samples were actually escolar (sometimes called butterfish), a delectable whitefish notorious for creating a most explosive form of gastric distress when eaten in quantities over six ounces.
Closer to home, Northwest News Network reported last year on a University of Washington environmental scientist’s findings that 38 percent of the fish sold as salmon in local stores and restaurants were not what they claimed to be.
Penalties in Washington state for first-time labeling fraud is a $200 fine—an unacceptably light slap on the wrist, say some Washington state legislators. Public hearings last week and this take up the issue of reclassifying larger fraud cases to gross misdemeanors, even Class C felonies where violations have values of $5,000 or higher. Bills recently introduced in the state House and Senate would codify these penalties into law.
Meanwhile, diners can have faith that at least some fish restaurants are calling it what it is. Flying Fish, Seattle’s original leader in seafood sustainability, is now one of its leaders in labeling integrity. Much of its tuna, for instance, comes from a Hawaiian supplier which targets deep-swimming adult tuna, the most sustainable kind, then tags them so it can follow them all the way to market.