Fish Talk: Seafood Mislabeling - Does This Fish Have a Face You Can Trust?

Fish Talk: Seafood Mislabeling - Does This Fish Have a Face You Can Trust?

Fish Talk: Seafood Mislabeling - Does this fish have a face you can trust?

I do most of my larger bits of business with a handshake. Been that way my whole life, and been lucky enough to live in a small community where a man’s word means something. If I call up my electronics guy and ask him to order a new radar for me, he’ll say “sure thing Hans” and it will show up. I might even have to remind him to send the $3000 invoice to me well after the fact (absolutely true story right there). I’ve sold boat loads of fish on a promise to get paid, and I always do. I know I’m lucky to have the community I do that shares the same ethical framework I do, and I know that not everybody can enjoy this “Mayberry-like" life we live here in Sitka. It all comes down to trust earned over time.

Trust between a buyer and a seller is a cornerstone of the market economy everywhere, however. When you pull up to a fuel pump, there is a sticker that verifies recent testing by the local Weights and Measures board. This testing verifies that the pump dispenses exactly one gallon of fuel every time the display says it has. We trust that the pumps are certified, and that we’re getting what we pay for. We also know that the scales in the markets are certified, and that we will be charged precisely for the weight of the lunchmeat, ribeyes, or halibut of which we are given. 

But do we truly know that what is being accurately weighed is exactly the product we’re paying for? If I select the higher-priced 92 octane gasoline at the fuel pump, and the pump fills my tank with lower-grade 89 octane, would I really know it in most cases? If the butcher charges you for exactly 2.0 pounds of Prime beef but gives you Select grade, would you always know it? And if your local fish monger writes you up for 3.5 pounds of Wild Alaskan King Salmon, but you receive a New Zealand farmed product, would it be easily apparent? Or what if you paid for Wild Alaskan Lingcod but actually got trawled pacific cod? Or even a farmed substitute?

In most situations, a consumer is experienced enough to prevent having a fast one pulled on them. In the case of buying apples, even the casual apple buyer can easily tell the difference between a Red Delicious and a Honeycrisp, and would rightly correct the fruit stand for trying to swap the former for the latter. But what if you only bought apples a few times a year, and the fruit on offer was only Braeburn and Honeycrisp? Two very similar looking apples often sold at very different price points? If you asked for Honeycrisp, and got a bag full of Braeburn, would you absolutely know? Or would you think that, “those weren’t very good Honeycrisp apples?"

Now imagine the difficulty if you were not buying a whole apple, but apples by the slice – and had to trust your fruit stand vendor that the sliced and peeled apple wedge you just bought was what you paid for. Taken a step further, how about that apple you went to a restaurant to have prepared for you? After being peeled, sliced, and plated, are you certain that apple before you is the type represented on the menu?

This example might seem to be a stretch, but I think it is relatable and illustrates a point. I’m not an apple farmer, but I am a fisherman. And I’m here to tell you a secret– even we fisherman can have a hard time telling certain fish apart by simply looking at the flesh. An 8oz cut of halibut can look very much like an 8oz cut from any number of white-fleshed fish – Pacific Cod, Lingcod, large Rockfish, Chilean Sea Bass, and even Ivory King Salmon. With so much money at stake, it should come as no surprise that there is an element of misrepresentation in the seafood industry, particularly where consumers not getting the species they pay for is concerned.  

What might shock you is the size of that misrepresentation.

Oceana, a conservation group that is solely focused on protecting the world’s oceans, routinely conducts DNA testing of fish bought at fish markets and restaurants around the world. In a study conducted in 2016, 400 samples were taken across the United States. Of that sample, here are some sobering numbers:

-21% of the fish tested were not what was represented on the label or menu.

-1 out of 3 (33%) of the restaurants or stores visited by the Oceana investigative team sold at least one mislabeled item. 

-The most commonly used names for seafood were the most abused. Fish labeled as “Sea Bass” were mislabeled an astonishing 55% of the time, and fish labeled “Snapper” were mislabeled 42% of the time.  

-1 in 4 (25%) of halibut was mislabeled. They were either the officially “over fished” Atlantic Halibut (determined by NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) represented as the healthy and sustainably harvested Wild Pacific Halibut, or simply a lower-value fish entirely. As an example, in 2008, a Bellevue, WA-based wholesaler was charged with selling 136,000 pounds of imported Greenland Turbot as Wild Pacific Halibut.  

-In 2006 and 2007, a US seafood processor sold 160,000# of Wild Coho salmon labeled as the much-higher priced Wild King Salmon.  

Species fraud isn’t the only problem. In New York, the study found that 35% of people who paid extra for “Wild” fish were actually buying a much cheaper farmed product. 

The traditional distribution model for the global seafood trade makes this kind of fraud easy to conduct, and enforcement is difficult and expensive to conduct. In most cases, the retail seller doesn’t even know that the fish are not what they are selling it as, since the mislabeling happened much earlier in the complex network of processors, brokers, wholesalers and dealers. 

If the people who work with fish every day can be fooled, what chance do we as consumers have to ensure we are getting the Wild Alaskan fish that we desire? The answer is surprisingly simple – buy as close to the boat that caught the fish as you can.

Lucky are those of us who eat what we catch. Just as lucky are those who can buy fish off the boat at the local wharf. But what about the other 99.5% of the population that enjoys a healthy, sustainably-harvested Wild Alaskan seafood meal?

Enter Catch Sitka Seafood. 

I sell my fish to Mindy and Issam because I know that they share my passion for small family-owned boats and sustainable fisheries out of Sitka, and honestly represent the fish they sell. When you buy fish from Catch Sitka, you aren’t buying a fish that has gone through six different owners before it reaches your plate. You’re buying a fish that first came onto the deck of my own boat, and then straight into the skilled hands of the dedicated crew at Catch Sitka for portioning and blast freezing to lock in the nutrients and freshness. The next stop is your table.  

Simple, traceable, trustworthy.  Wild Alaskan hook-and-line caught seafood, from Catch Sitka directly to your door.

Signing off for now,

Hans Olsen

FV Alaska Bounty


Dr. Warner, Kimberly,; Oceana, 2016; Deceptive Dishes: Seafood Swaps found Worldwide

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published