Seafood Fraud: The Turning Tides of an Industry Epidemic

Fish at a Dubai seafood market. [Photograph: Naomi Tomky]

Editor's Note: Larry Olmsted is the author of the New York Times best seller Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don't Know What You're Eating and What You Can Do About It, released in July 2016. He has spent the past four years researching fraudulence in food and labeling, a journey that has taken him to Japan, Alaska, Chile, Argentina, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, and South Africa, and all across the continental United States and Canada. It's also taken him to fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Maine, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's annual sustainability symposium, and the restaurants of seafood-loving chefs around the country.

A few weeks ago, the nonprofit conservation group Oceana released the latest in a long series of seafood fraud studies. The big reveal? Roughly 20% of seafood worldwide is mislabeled, allowing cheaper species to masquerade as more expensive ones with astonishing regularity. Media outlets around the globe picked up the exposé, but here in the US, these revelations bordered on the mundane, if not the benign—Oceana's previous studies have shown that America has it far worse, with about a third of our seafood consistently and intentionally identified incorrectly. This percentage rises dramatically when it comes to restaurants serving expensive species of fish—in past Oceana studies in this country, restaurant red snapper and certain tuna in sushi restaurants were found to be bogus more than 90% of the time, while farmed salmon was passed off as pricier "wild-caught" two-thirds of the time.

Tilefish and tilapia are sold as red snapper; Asian catfish farmed under dubious conditions abroad is sold as cod and grouper; national chain restaurants serve lobster ravioli and lobster bisque without a trace of lobster (the sub is a mix of seafood, usually langoustines, crab, and/or white fish); escolar, notorious in the industry as the "Ex-Lax of the Seas," is a common doppelgänger for tuna; and steelhead trout is frequently relabeled as salmon. Salmon, meanwhile, has another fraud issue, with cheap farmed Atlantic versions sold as expensive Alaskan wild, especially in restaurants. In one memorable study of species mislabeling in New York City sushi restaurants, which are infamous for the tactic, every single establishment tested failed.

Raw shrimp. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

The seafood industry offers a perfect storm for scandal: In sharp contrast with beef, pork, or chicken, more than 90% of the seafood we consume is imported, via a largely opaque and convoluted supply chain featuring minimal regulatory oversight. Plenty of low-cost products can look remarkably like high-value ones, particularly given that consumers very rarely see, buy, or cook whole fish (save a subset of relatively small and less coveted species). There are 400 to 500 commercially available species, yet, according to the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), 94% of the fish consumed by Americans is limited to just the top 10 most consumed among those, and the top three—shrimp, salmon, and canned tuna—account for almost 60% of sales. When almost no one knows what most fishes look or taste like, it's not too difficult for consumers to be fooled. If we actually get red snapper fewer than one in 20 times, how can we be expected to know the flavor of the real thing?

Most of the blame has long been placed on the supply chain, with its numerous middlemen and widespread opportunity to relabel boxes, but recent testing by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows that about 85% of seafood is properly labeled when it reaches the last consumer-facing point of sale, suggesting that most fraud is perpetrated by restaurants and retailers. This can be as simple as putting grouper (always wild-caught and pricey) on the menu, but serving cheap farmed tilapia instead. Fifty million pounds of farmed Asian catfish are imported annually, yet almost no one goes to the store looking for ponga or basa; instead, much of it seems to be brought here simply to imitate more desirable fish. As former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler told me, "If there's fish that [typically] costs 10 bucks and I can find a fish that looks like it for four bucks and sell it, there is going to be fraud."

Fraud is also a by-product of sustainability issues, since we ignore the vast majority of fish in the sea to overeat and overfish a handful, like bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, and orange roughy. According to California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, worldwide stocks of bluefin are at 3% of their historic highs, nearing the verge of extinction. "That's one that I concretely and definitively can say we should not be eating," says Sheila Bowman, the aquarium's manager of culinary initiatives. "It's like eating Bengal tiger." Similar trendy passions nearly killed off Chilean sea bass and orange roughy in the past.

Much of our imported fish is farmed—some in countries with poor environmental and social track records, using banned drugs, pesticides, and unsafe and exploitative working conditions, including child and even slave labor—in ways that pollute oceans and destroy pristine environments. Matters are further complicated by widespread pirate fishing, which encompasses the use of unlicensed fishing ships, unreported catches, quota violations, and fishing in restricted or protected waters. As a result, almost all farmed salmon, as well as many other carnivorous saltwater fish worldwide, has long been red-labeled—meaning "avoid"—by Monterey Bay's Seafood Watch program, the gold standard for sustainability.

Between fraud, environmental damage, pirate fishing, and inhumane practices, the state of the industry got so bad that in 2014, President Obama created the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud, a rare commander-in-chief intervention in our mainstream food supply. Or, as Chef Kerry Heffernan, a partner at New York's acclaimed Eleven Madison Park and owner of New Orleans' sustainably focused restaurant Seaworthy told me: "If you care whether there will be fish for your children, you need to start paying attention."

Fish at a Dubai wet market. [Photograph: Naomi Tomky]

The good news is that a whole lot of people are starting to do exactly that. And, just as a number of factors have contributed to seafood's problems, solutions are quickly coalescing from various directions, from nonprofits to regulators to chefs to voices within the seafood industry. Seafood as we know it is on the cusp of reinvention, with crackdowns on pirate fishing, antibiotic misuse in fish farming, and mislabeling at point of sale. At the same time, less sustainable and more environmentally threatening forms of fish farming—especially the common ocean net pen, in which fish are farmed in fenced-off sections of open ocean, sharing feed, waste, drugs, chemicals, and diseases with wild populations—are improving and being replaced. More scrutiny is being applied toward shrimp farming conditions in Asia, which can destroy critical mangrove habitat and use banned or unapproved drugs. Chefs and restaurants are pushing lesser-known but high-quality and sustainable species in place of threatened types of fish, and even big institutional buyers, like McDonald's and Walmart, are going green, choosing sustainable products and suppliers and enforcing quality demands on vendors.

Aquaculture, a blanket term for the controlled farming of seafood, is a relatively young industry, and has gone through considerable growing pains. But, much like with alternative energy, things are rapidly improving. The Monterey Bay Aquarium recently gave land-based tank aquaculture its best rating (green), the first time the organization has ever endorsed an entire method, rather than an individual species or farm. Within the industry, that method is known as a Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS)—essentially an aquarium, free of disease and employing no antibiotics, pesticides, or vaccines, from which almost all the water is recycled and waste captured (at which point it's used as agricultural fertilizer).

For years, RAS has been used to raise freshwater fish, an intrinsically less problematic undertaking, since these species don't have to be raised in the ocean and can be farmed in purpose-built facilities as well as their own natural environments. But RAS is now increasingly used for trickier ocean dwellers—Massachusetts-based Australis got the Monterey Bay Aquarium's green rating for the tank-farmed barramundi it sells under its brand name. And the method is being effectively deployed to tackle the Holy Grail of less-sustainable fish farming, salmon; it is to conventional salmon farming (ocean net pens) what Teslas are to first-generation electric cars. Green brand names on the market right now include Kuterra (Canada) and Atlantic Sapphire (Denmark), and multiple tank farms are under construction in the US. (The Conservation Fund's Freshwater Institute has one in West Virginia for research, and its salmon is sold in the Washington, DC, area.)

Salmon fillets. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Practices in net pen farms have also improved dramatically, at least in the West, reducing pollution, feed waste, and drug use. While most farmed salmon is still rated a no-go red, Monterey Bay just gave its yellow (acceptable) grade to several farms for the very first time, almost all of them sold as brand names: True North (Maine), Verlasso (Chile), and Blue Circle (Norway). New Zealand is sustainably farming Pacific king, a.k.a. Chinook, salmon, normally only found wild from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Renowned seafood chef Rick Moonen, whose RM Seafood in Las Vegas focuses on sustainability, told me, "Ten years ago, there was no way in hell I would serve farmed Atlantic salmon." Now he does.

A better solution might be for us to simply eat less salmon, and this is certainly true for many overfished species. Promoting underutilized species, and not serving overfished ones, has been a major push from chefs and institutions alike, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium maintains a national list of partner restaurants and more than 60 chef spokespeople who have vowed to do precisely that. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute has a similar restaurant program, with dozens of culinary partners who pledge to offer at least one underutilized species daily.

Moonen recently slow-smoked the little-known Buffalo fish for barbecue tacos, an aquatic take on pulled pork that wooed diners, and he champions abundant Arctic char in place of salmon, with which it has much in common. Heffernan, who worries about wild northeastern striped bass—and who started the Save Our Stripers campaign, in which about 150 New York chefs refuse to serve the fish—pushes plentiful porgies instead, along with the bluefish that is native to the region. Prolific, tasty, and dirt-cheap, Pacific groundfish such as vermilion rockfish are growing fast in popularity, especially in the western United States. Chefs love fatty, oily species such as mackerel, sardines, and anchovies, all plentiful and nutritious. The biggest chef-driven success story to date is that of sablefish, also called black cod, though it has no relationship to the cod family. A meaty, fatty, delicious, and sustainable choice, it was popularized by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa in his signature miso black cod, which was promptly knocked off by Asian-fusion eateries everywhere.

Organizations like Monterey Bay monitor fisheries worldwide, counting species and evaluating both habitats and farming methods, to determine which fish have healthy and easily replenished populations and which do not, and then focus on promoting the consumption of those species that are sufficiently abundant, or easily farmed in a safe and sustainable way.

Anchovy fillets. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Other chefs have turned their attention to eating our way out of invasive-fish problems. It's not uncommon for nonnative species to throw an ecosystem out of whack and run roughshod over the indigenous population, as occurred with the Chesapeake Bay blue catfish. Introduced to the bay for sport fishing, the species, which is native to the Mississippi and Ohio river basins, has since overrun the area, growing to 100 pounds on a varied diet of insects, crustaceans, and small fish and disrupting the food chain for smaller competitors. In a purposeful attempt at overfishing, with no quotas and year-round open season on blue catfish, countless restaurants and retailers around the mid-Atlantic now sell it as a cheap way to enjoy seafood tacos and fried fish. The same strategy has been highly successful with the invasive lionfish, which has been responsible for the destruction of coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. So many southern chefs started serving lionfish that Whole Foods began adding it to its counters, and anecdotal evidence indicates that the stocks in the Gulf of Mexico are already starting to diminish. Because lionfish does not belong in this ecosystem, the goal is to bring those numbers to zero.

Corporate players can have an even bigger effect. McDonald's, famously obsessed with reliability and consistency of ingredient supply, quietly swapped dwindling cod for wild Alaskan pollock in its Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, in perhaps the biggest sea change of its type. While the Golden Arches may not be synonymous with sustainability, the switch has been heralded by advocates: Pacific pollock is one of the most thriving fisheries* in the world, if not the most, under the certification of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the foremost arbiter of wild fisheries. The Filet-O-Fish wrapper now carries the MSC fish-with-a-checkmark logo, the most desirable consumer indication of wild seafood provenance. Big-box retailers like Walmart, Costco, and BJ's have greatly stepped up their sustainable seafood buying initiatives, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium recently signed on the nation's two largest institutional food service providers, Aramark and Compass Group, to adhere to its guidelines. There are now about 100,000 businesses using these recommendations; one high-profile adopter is Disney, which follows them across its theme parks, resorts, and restaurants.

* A fishery is not a farm but a geographic area, such as the Gulf of Maine or Gulf of Mexico. In this case, the fishery for Pacific pollock, where the species is found, encompasses Alaska and much of the Pacific Northwest.

In addition to these environmental and commercial efforts, other initiatives have recently been launched to directly tackle mislabeling. The NFI, our major seafood industry trade group, launched its Better Seafood Board (BSB) in 2007 specifically to combat fraud. Joining the BSB is a prerequisite for NFI membership, and requires taking a pledge not to sell any seafood that is underweight, bears the wrong species name, or suggests an erroneous place of origin. Gavin Gibbons, the NFI's vice president of communications, told me: "At the end of the day, suppliers who cheat customers cheat the entire industry. Fair and lawful business practices are essential for ensuring consumer confidence in seafood—and the seafood industry feels responsible for maintaining this confidence. The seafood industry itself has also led the way in the fight against fish fraud." Gibbons suggests that diners eating out ask the restaurant if it uses a BSB supplier.

While Obama's task force has not yet released its final recommendations, his call to action is already having an effect. The FDA is implementing a new project, Seafood Compliance and Labeling Enforcement (SCALE), whose preliminary advances include greatly escalated inspections of foreign seafood, along with a new DNA testing lab to authenticate species. Last year, a record number of farmed shrimp imports—our number one seafood product by consumption—were refused entry into the US after banned antibiotics were detected. Gibbons concludes, "There's no question that it's getting better. Years ago, fish fraud used to be the cost of doing business. Now we're seeing prosecutions, investigations, people saying, 'We want to see this stamped out.' It's being driven from the seafood industry, there's no doubt. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] and the BSB are all getting more involved."

Another sweeping change is the UN's Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing. More familiarly known as the Port State Measures Agreement, it was approved seven years ago, but until June 2016, it lacked the required 25 national signatories to actually take effect. Now active, it stipulates that participating countries, including the US, actively verify the origin of catch of any fishing boat arriving in their sovereign ports. This should reduce pirate fishing problems such as quota violations and catches from restricted waters. Other parties are also addressing these issues, including the recently launched Global Fishing Watch, a unique partnership between Google Maps, Oceana, and satellite specialist Skywatch, which uses satellites and algorithms to detect illegal fishing, watching boats in real time and notifying authorities as violations occur.

Red snapper. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Michael Dimin is the cofounder of Sea to Table, a New York specialty wholesale distributor for fine-dining restaurants across the nation. Sea to Table deals exclusively in wild-caught, domestically sourced seafood. An advocate for connecting chef buyers with individual fishermen, Dimin is preparing to launch a direct-to-consumer overnight fish service to simplify the purchase of wild-caught, reliably authentic fish, something Heffernan already does through his retail site, Wild Fish Direct. A longtime critic of his own industry, Dimin recently appeared before Congress with representatives of the World Wildlife Fund and Oceana to discuss fraud. He shared his own sense of hope with me, saying: "The President's Task Force is really exciting to me, because its recommended new traceability standards will be in place by the end of this year. If the US dries up as a pirate's market, that will affect the industry globally. The seafood industry supply chain is worthy of disruption, and if you tie these three things together, traceability, Global Fishing Watch, and the Port State Agreement, suddenly there is the hope that we might effect real change."

It is still far too early to tell what the long-term impact of all these efforts will be. But, with so many glimmers of light at the end of the seafood tunnel, the future looks much more promising than it did even a couple of years ago.

Note: The original version of this article mistakenly included unagi in a list of saltwater fish and described it as the name of a dish, rather than a species. Unagi is freshwater eel, and the Japanese word refers to the animal itself.