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Social Issues

Fish fraud: the seafood you order is not always what you get
Chefs are on guard against crooked suppliers passing off cheap impostors for more valuable species
This story is part of a special series.

Vivian Goodman
It's the real thing, Coho salmon, and quite delicious.
Courtesy of Amy Viny
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Fish is a holiday favorite for many families. In traditional Chinese cuisine, it’s considered the luckiest way to welcome the new year.  Out west where salmon is king, it’s always part of the celebration. 

But at holiday time, and really ANY time, when it comes to seafood, what you see is not always what you get.


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Douglas Katz is the chef and owner of Fire food and drink at Shaker Square,The Katz Club in Cleveland Heights, and Provenance at the Cleveland Museum of Art. 

And he’s an environmentalist. 

The group Entrepreneurs for Sustainability has named him a Champion of Sustainability. 

His main concern is the health of our oceans and rivers in an era of climate change. And that ties in to his primary passion…fine food. 

 “The wild fish populations are depleting so you have to know whether there’s enough fish to sustain our restaurant.”  

Enough fish…and the right fish. 

Plenty of fish in the sea?
Lately, with 87% of world fisheries being harvested at or above limits, unscrupulous suppliers are passing off cheap impostors like wolfish and dogfish for the more valuable species like cod and red snapper. 

A study published last year by the conservation group Oceana found mislabeled fish being served in 39 percent of restaurants surveyed in New York City. 

Tilapia and tilefish was masquerading as red snapper. Ninety percent of the white tuna on menus was either snake mackerel or escolar. Oceana found similar problems in Los Angeles, Miami and Boston. 

Katz fears it’s happening in Cleveland, Akron, and Canton, too. 

“We have delivery people coming to our back door. We’ve been open 12 years, and we just assume that what they’re bringing in is what they’re telling us it is. And recently there’ve been a lot of reports and you learn that red snapper is not necessarily red snapper or cod is not necessarily cod or even salmon is not necessarily the variety that you think it is.”  

But he knows the fish he’s preparing today is the real thing. It’s a filet of Coho salmon. That’s the kind he prefers at this time of year. In the spring King salmon might be his choice. 

Won’t be fooled by the wrong kind
 But there’s another kind he deplores. 

 “For salmon we don’t want to buy Atlantic farm-raised salmon because it’s not raised in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly way.”   

Chef Katz has done his research. He doesn’t like the way salmon fisheries off the Atlantic coast operate. 

 “There are fish that are raised in farms that are not clean and are not environmentally sustainable. They’re creating dead zones in our oceans.”   

He’s not against farm-raised seafood in principle. It now accounts for about half of the fish we consume. 

 “Certain times during the year you can buy wild Alaskan halibut or you can buy a wild salmon. But other times during the year those populations are not available because there are quotas so that you don’t overfish.”  

So he gets farm-raised trout from natural streams in Twin Falls Idaho and deals directly with a conscientious lobster fisherman he found in Maine. 

 “And we actually signed an agreement with the Monterey Bay Aquarium that we will only serve sustainable seafood.” 

But Katz still has to take precautions to make sure the fish he orders is what he actually gets.  He relies on a distribution company called Sea to Table. 

 “These people teach us about every varietal of fish that they bring in and they only sell sustainable seafood to us. We go to the airport. We pick up that fish. And we get whole fish and we know this is a whole Acadian redfish or it’s a whole tile fish or it’s a whole salmon and we know what we’re getting.”  

Katz knows the fish he’s cooking today is Coho salmon because he sees the nose on the head is hooked and the inside of the mouth is gray with white gums. And the flesh is the right shade. 

 “Because it’s a bright, reddish-orange color. If it’s a very mild sort of orangy color it most likely is the Atlantic farm-raised salmon.”   

You can’t know for sure if you can’t see the whole fish
But many restaurateurs save time and money by buying filets. If they can’t see the head or the scales they can only guess what species they’re getting. 

And once it’s cooked up and put on a plate it’s even harder to identify. 

 “As someone who’s been in the business for many, many years I think that I at times would not know that the red snapper that I’m getting in is a true red snapper or the cod that I’m getting in is a true cod.” 

He expects he’s been fooled both as a restaurant diner and as a restaurateur. 

“I’ve been an ambassador to the Monterey Bay Seafood Aquarium Seafood Watch program for about 5 years. Before that I’m sure that I was deceived. Even currently I watch it much more carefully, but when you get a filet of fish into your restaurant you can only do so much checking. It’s a snapper that it says on the label but you can only be so sure unless you’ve gone to that place, seen the fisherman catch that fish.”    

Katz has actually gone that far. 

 “I go to Idaho and I see where our trout comes from, and I see what they do, and I know that’s a great quality fish. I go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and I meet people who are supplying sustainable seafood and I talk to them. And that’s what you have to do. You have to align yourself with people that have done the work and the research.”  

Gill tags are one way to clamp down on fraud
Like Verlasso, a company that raises salmon in farms off the coast of Patagonia, Chile.

Founder Scott Nichols clamps identity tags on his fish. 

 “We have taken great pains to raise our fish in environmentally sustainable ways, and we want people to be very sure that when they’re told they’re getting a Verlasso fish they actually are and by having our gill tag on the fish people can be assured of that.”  

Nichols appreciates restaurateurs who demand truth in labeling, but he sympathizes, too, with those who are being scammed by their suppliers and aren’t really trying to fool diners. 

 “It’s absolutely happened to me. I have ordered fish before and I know that I’ve gotten the wrong thing. I have said something about it. What happens is the folks that are doing this don’t really know the difference either. So it’s not something that’s nefarious. It’s a matter of lack of education or lack of attentiveness.”  

Chef Doug Katz says attention must be paid not only to fish fraud…but the overfishing and irresponsible practices that he thinks lead to it. 

  “We will not have fish if we eat fish the way we’ve eaten it over the last 30 to 50 to 100 years.”   

The industry view
That’s hyperbole according to Gavin Gibbons. He directs media relations for the National Fisheries Institute, the country’s largest seafood trade association. 

 “There’s rhetoric and there’s reality. We’re certainly always concerned about sustainability and we want to focus on sustainability to make sure that the wild caught stocks are here now and into the future. But when it comes to fraud we really don’t see the type of connection that some people have been making or trying to make. So when it comes to fraud this is really a dollars and sense issue and not really a sustainability issue.”   

Gibbons says his industry has identified a few bad actors, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. 

 “On the boat, in the processing centers, in the distribution centers, all the way to the restaurateurs and the retailers and the chefs that are preparing the fish. So the National Fisheries Institute started the Better Seafood Board in order to help restaurants and retailers and even consumers get at this issue.”  

Calling for more enforcement
The government, too, has a key role. Because fish fraud is patently illegal. 

 “The FDA is the controlling authority and the FDA really does need to do more enforcement. We’ve been lobbying on the hill to make sure that the FDA is fully funded for things like fish fraud.”   

 Why should seafood lovers care about bait and switch if they can’t tell the difference?  Health concerns.  For example, tilefish being passed off as red snapper in New York last year had mercury levels too high for pregnant and nursing women and young children. 

Chef Doug Katz says mislabeling will continue until those who enjoy seafood get pro-active. 

 “We should ask as many questions to the places that we support whether it’s our fishmongers, whether it’s our restaurants. When they’re important to the public and when we start asking these questions that’s when we can start making change and start sustaining our fish population and eating healthier.”  

And that’s today’s Quick Bite.

Next week we’ll meet a Youngstown man who went vegan after suffering two heart attacks at the farmers’ market he runs.


































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