If you order “wild salmon” in a restaurant, that may not be what ends up on your plate — especially during the out of season winter months.
A new report from the advocacy group Oceana found that 43% of “wild salmon” samples collected between December and March were mislabeled. And in restaurants during that period, this figure jumps to 67%.
Since salmon is the most popular fish eaten in the United States, this seafood fraud is potentially a big problem. Consumers who think they are paying for a responsibly caught, domestic fish could be getting a foreign fish farmed using environmentally destructive methods instead.
“At the same time, responsible fishermen who sell wild Chinook salmon are competing with fraudulent products, usually farmed salmon, and likely receiving less cash than they should be for their hard-won catch,” the report said.
For the report, Oceana researchers collected 82 salmon samples, half from restaurants and half from grocery stores or markets, and tested their DNA to find out where they really came from. It was a small sample, but is the first to tease out how labelling can be less accurate in the wintertime.
If the fish was labelled as “wild,” but was actually farmed, this counted as mislabeled. Similarly, if the fish was labelled as “Pacific” or “Alaska” salmon, and its DNA proved it was indeed that type because it was a Chinook, sockeye, coho, pink or chum species, it was considered properly labelled.
Oceana found that labelling in large supermarkets was actually more reliable than in small markets, though both were better than restaurants.
Part of the reason why so much seafood can be mislabeled, the report notes, is because the US Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have very stringent labelling guidelines. The agency’s Seafood List provides guidance on what different salmon species can be labelled as, and each one can have multiple names.
Coho salmon, for example, can be labelled as “coho salmon” or “silver salmon,” or “medium red salmon.” The fish doesn’t have to say if it was caught wild or farmed. This creates a lot of confusion for customers who are trying to buy fish sustainably.
But the US salmon market is also inherently backwards. We have some of the highest quality wild salmon in the world, yet we export 70% of it to foreign buyers, according to the Oceana report. This then forces US consumers to get their salmon from other countries like Chile, where most of it is farmed instead of caught.
Salmon farming can have terrible effects on the environment. Since it is so often conducted in a portioned off part of the ocean, salmon farming can release pesticides, antibiotics, and escaped salmon that can negatively alter the natural ecosystem, according the the World Wildlife Fund.
The need to make aquaculture more sustainable is increasingly important as the practice grows in popularity. Salmon farming now accounts for 70% of the global market, the WWF reports.
Salmon fishing in the wild also has the potential to be environmentally problematic, but far more fisheries are certified by groups like the Marine Stewardship Council, and types are recommended by organisations like the Environmental Defence Fund.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program also lists what types of both fished and farmed salmon are sustainable options (and which to avoid). Check out their website or the app next time you are faced with a fish choice.
Furthermore, when fish imports make their way to the US, less than 1% of it is inspected to see if it’s mislabeled, according to a story in The Atlantic on fish fraud by Nicole Lou.
She quotes Trey Knott, a forensic biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who tests seafood DNA, who said the government doesn’t have enough border agents to do all of the inspections. “If you consider the coastline of the US, it’s a massive amount of territory to be covered by 90 agents,” Knott said.
Oceana calls for stricter labelling rules so that fish fraud can stop. “If all seafood (including salmon) were required to be accompanied by information like species-specific names,” the report said, “where and how a fish was caught or if it was farmed, then it would be more difficult to intentionally defraud consumers.”
The organisation also recommends that if consumers don’t want to get duped, they should ask more questions about the fish they’re ordering and its origins, try not to fall for buying salmon that’s much cheaper than it should be, and buy salmon in season, which is from May to September.
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