Fish Fraud Versus Regional Dialect — Misunderstandings in the Seafood Industry

Time and time again we’ve been told that we should be eating more fish, that a diet based on fish could be a key component of a long and healthy life, that the high-protein, low-calorie, fatty acid–rich flesh of sea creatures will keep our skin smooth, our hearts strong, our brains sharp. That’s great — fish are, generally speaking, delish, and L.A. is a city with no shortage of outstanding seafood options, from the bright, sharp ceviche tostadas at mariscos joints to immaculately sliced nigiri at high-end sushi restaurants. But not everything is the rosy hue of chutoro in the kingdom of the ocean.

A recent study conducted by UCLA and Loyola Marymount University found that some 47 percent of fish served to researchers at sushi restaurants over a three-year period was not the fish advertised. Using DNA testing, researchers determined that they were deceived in all 43 orders of halibut, which turned out to be flounder in 90 percent of cases. The other egregious offender was red snapper — 32 times researchers ordered it, and 32 times they received a different kind of fish. They also discovered six orders of salmon out of 47 that turned out to be a totally different fish. Tuna was tuna, for the most part, although varieties were frequently mixed up: yellowfin for bigeye or vice versa.

Aside from the sinister personal implications — the manipulation and deceit of serving mystery fish, a treacherous attempt to overcharge and under-deliver — this also presents a problem on a grander scale. If the fish we’re getting are not the fish we‘re expecting, who’s to say how and where they were raised, caught, farmed or shipped? Much less how they were identified, sorted, cleaned and stored.

There is a long list of fish that have been classified as threatened or endangered, and swapping mystery fish denies diners the opportunity to make ethical decisions about their eating and the provenance of their dinner. Illegal fisheries have become a big problem in our oceans, and mislabeling fish is a potential path for some unscrupulous fishing companies to unload unregulated, unwanted or even illegal stock.

There is some speculation that the mislabeling or misidentification is happening earlier in the supply chain than the restaurant level, but not everyone agrees. David Lentz, owner-chef of the Hungry Cat, a seafood-focused restaurant in Hollywood, thinks that any chef or restaurant owner who's paying attention shouldn't be fooled by what they're getting. "Seafood is expensive — anyone that tells you different is buying garbage product," he told L.A. Weekly via email. "I do not take chances with quality, and that means that in most cases I pay a little extra." He believes that "a big part of it is building relationships, either with your farmers or seafood purveyors," and that "at the end of the day, you get what you pay for." If, for example, a seafood distributor offers a shockingly low price, there's almost always something suspicious going on — either they're buttering you up with initial low prices or they're already making some unscrupulous substitutions. The bottom line, in his opinion, is that most restaurants aren't getting fooled, "but rather they are choosing to buy it."

Still, there may be more to the story than pure fraud. The colloquial names of fish can be convoluted and misleading, with categories that do not accurately reflect actual genetics or the typical Latin-based animal nomenclature system. Rockfish, for example, can sometimes be known as rock cod or striped bass. Tuna is a part of the mackerel family, and at various points different kinds of tuna have been called things like “horse mackerel,” which is more than a little confusing, if not necessarily malicious. Black cod is also called butterfish on the West Coast but could be known as sablefish in other regions.

In fact, on the Food and Drug Administration’s Seafood List website, there are two kinds of halibut — Cortez Halibut and Indian Ocean Spiny Halibut — that are listed as potential alternate names for flounder, with an attached note saying that those names are not acceptable for interstate commerce and could lead directly to seafood misbranding. According to an article on NPR’s The Salt from July 2015, the problem may lie in the generic naming rules for fish: It’s acceptable to use broad categories to describe fish on a menu, even though dozens of fish could potentially fall under that category. Snapper, for example, could be one of 56 different species, and it would be fine to refer to any one of more than 60 options as the generic “rockfish.” So it’s possible that insidious intentions only account for a portion of fish fraud, and that we can chalk up some of that 47 percent of mislabeled fish to simple misunderstanding, confusion or regional dialect.

Paul Barber, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the lead author of the recent study, agrees that some of this can be chalked up to "cultural semantics." He wrote in an email, "If you ordered the Japanese sushi dish that translates to 'red snapper' or 'halibut' in Japan, you would be served red sea bream and olive/summer flounder, respectively." But that doesn't mean it's something that we should just let slide: it's still not legal under FDA guidelines, and it comes with all of the regulatory problems that entails, even if you're getting the fish you would expect if you were ordering in Japan. Moreover, he writes, goals aren't always so noble, and "when things like tilapia are sold as red snapper, that is not a cultural misunderstanding. It’s not a misidentification. That is intentional fraud, selling a low-value fish for a high-value fish."

How, then, are we aspirational environmentalists to cut through the morass? What recourse do we have to help us in ordering, buying and eating ethical, real, as-labeled seafood? The most obvious solution is to limit seafood consumption to fish purchased from reputable purveyors — from fish markets like Fish King or Cape Seafood, where experts select high-quality fish from trusted sources, or at one of the many specialist restaurants around town where the specific fish on offer change regularly with seasons and availability, and chefs and servers are happy to describe their selection process. That doesn’t mean a fancy restaurant but a place in any price bracket where they really care about their seafood.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a program called Seafood Watch that’s designed with exactly this idea in mind. It has a website, a printable guide and an app with a list of fish sorted into three categories — Best Choices, Good Alternatives, Avoid — that suggest which fish from which regions are the safest, most environmentally friendly options.

Dock to Dish is a project backed by, among others, Michael Cimarusti of Providence and Cape Seafood, which is focused on sustainable and accountable seafood practices. It is, in essence, a seafood CSA for restaurants, which cuts out almost all of the intermediate steps between fishers and consumers. Dock to Dish recently completed a successful $75,000 Kickstarter campaign to expand its reach, and to help it construct a “traceability system for all restaurant guests to track fish from dock to dish.” That is to say, they’re developing a method of tracking each step your dinner takes, from the ocean to your stomach.

The UCLA study that prompted this new wave of concern about fish fraud paints a grim picture; 47 percent is a stunningly high rate of fraud. But help is on the way, from Seafood Watch, Dock to Dish and others. And a true connoisseur will remember that a fish is known by many names.

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