New effort launched to stop seafood fraud

June 26, 2014 

What’s in a name? A Chilean sea bass by any other name would taste as sweet.

Then again, maybe not. A Chilean sea bass is a species of cod that can live up to 50 years and swims deep in colder ocean waters around the world. It has become one of the most common fish we find on our plates at restaurants and in the fresh fish case at the grocery store.

But it has not always been called a Chilean sea bass. Before being renamed in 1977 to make it more marketable, it was a Patagonian toothfish.

This fish has had its ups and downs. It became so popular with diners that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, illegal unregulated fishing nearly collapsed some of its larger fisheries. But it has recovered and now ranks as a “best choice” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch List, which rates various species in categories ranging from “avoid” (don’t eat because the fish is endangered or caught or farmed in a way that could harm marine life or the environment) to “best choice” (order seconds).

But the story of the Chilean sea bass is instructive of a larger problem: When we order seafood, we really have no idea what kind of fish we’re getting, whatever it might say on the menu or how sophisticated we might believe our palates to be.

We might think we can tell when we’re eating salmon or red snapper or grouper, but Oceana, a marine environmental advocate, found that a third of the more than 1,200 seafood samples tested nationwide were mislabeled. The U.S. Government Accounting Office estimates that up to 70 percent of the “red snapper” sold is really something else.

This doesn’t happen by accident. It’s generally called seafood fraud, the deliberate substitution of one fish for another.

Sometimes the substituted fish is cheaper and more widely available. Sometimes it has been illegally caught. An estimated 20 percent of the wild marine fish caught each year are sold on the black market, which costs the world’s legitimate fishing industry about $23 billion annually.

On June 17, President Barack Obama announced a new directive to curb this trickery. He said he is directing federal agencies to develop a plan to reduce seafood fraud, crack down on illegal fishing and help keep fish that are illegally caught off the market.

The goal is to ensure that all fish sold in the United States is both sustainable and traceable. That might sound difficult, but in Europe, catches already are tagged and tracked from when first caught to when they are sold by the fish monger.

The effort to curb illegal fishing and ensure the origin of fish sold in the marketplace has been cheered by commercial fishermen, who are among the primary victims of seafood fraud. Their hauls bring less money because of illegal catches and cheaper fish passed off as more expensive fish.

And seafood substitutions are one big reason consumers should be cheering, too. If we’re shelling out $35 for a serving of sauteed Chilean sea bass with a light butter and white wine sauce, it had better be real Chilean sea bass!

Or at least Patagonian toothfish.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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