Something fishy is going on with American seafood. In a new investigation, the conservation nonprofit group Oceana collected 449 seafood samples from more than 250 locations across 24 states and the District of Columbia, finding that one in every five fish — or about 20 percent — was mislabeled.
Seafood was most commonly mislabeled at restaurants, where incorrect labels were found in 26 percent of samples, followed by smaller seafood markets (24 percent) and larger chain grocery stores (12 percent). Among the establishments visited by Oceana's investigators, one out of every three sold at least one mislabeled item.
The highest rates of fraud were found in sea bass, which was falsely labeled in 55 percent of samples, and red snapper, which was mislabeled 42 percent of the time. Using DNA tests, the investigators found their orders of "sea bass" were often giant perch or Nile tilapia, while lavender jobfish was sold as "Florida snapper," channel catfish as "redfish," sheepshead as "black drum" and walleye as "Dover sole."
Some of this may be inadvertent, due to confusion or ignorance, but the nature of the mislabeling also suggests much of it is no accident. Shoppers and diners rarely get a better fish than they ask for. Instead, imported seafood is often sold as locally sourced, vulnerable species like Atlantic halibut are sold as something more sustainable, and lower-value fish are sold as more prized species.
This is despite years of scrutiny on the problem of seafood fraud, which has been revealed repeatedly by Oceana as well as other organizations.
"It's clear that seafood fraud continues to be a problem in the U.S., and our government needs to do more to tackle this once and for all," says Beth Lowell, Oceana's deputy vice president of U.S. campaigns, in a statement. "Seafood fraud ultimately deceives consumers who fall victim to a bait and switch, disguises conservation and health risks, and hurts honest fishermen and seafood businesses. Seafood traceability — from boat to plate — is critical to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled."
'A concern for everyone who eats seafood'
The new report suggests little progress has been made in curtailing seafood fraud, even after another major revelation by Oceana in 2016. In the wake of that report, which found widespread mislabeling around the world, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), which tracks 13 species that are considered to be especially prone to mislabeling and illegal sourcing.
The new report didn't look at those 13 species, as Oceana senior scientist Kimberly Warner tells National Geographic, in hopes of shedding light on how much broader the problem is. "We wanted to highlight that there are other species other than the high-risk species," Warner says. "What we saw is that we still have a problem. It's a concern for everyone who eats seafood."
In a 2017 study, researchers from the University of California Los Angeles found that 47 percent of sushi at Los Angeles restaurants was mislabeled, especially halibut and red snapper. And in supermarkets across New York, a 2018 report by the state attorney general found that "more than one in four samples purchased was not sold under a federally recognized market name for that species."
In 2012, another report by Oceana revealed that 31 percent of seafood sold in South Florida was mislabeled. It found the most fraud with snapper, with 10 out of 26 samples incorrectly labeled, but also pointed to other troubling examples. One of the most egregious was a fish sold as grouper that was actually king mackerel, a species that tends to have high mercury levels. Women of childbearing age are cautioned to avoid king mackerel because the mercury could hurt a developing fetus.
"The results are disturbing," Lowell said at the time. "The continued mislabeling of seafood in Florida shows that inspections alone are not enough. Seafood needs to be traced from boat to plate to ensure that it is safe, legal and honestly labeled."
That investigation followed a similar undercover operation by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which resulted in more than 300 criminal charges against 56 people. The investigation revealed "rampant exploitation of Florida's fish and wildlife resources" including fish, deer and turtles.
Previous investigations by Oceana found that only 2 percent of seafood sold in the U.S. is inspected and even less is checked to make sure it's not fraudulently labeled.
"After testing nearly 2,000 samples from more than 30 states since we began our investigations into seafood fraud, it never ceases to astonish me that we continue to uncover troubling levels of deception in the seafood we feed our families," Warner says in a statement about the newest report. "For the sake of ours and the ocean's health, more needs to be done to tackle this problem."
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in July 2012.