Chef Hari Pulapaka was cooking one night in a college food service kitchen in Deland, Florida, when he noticed something odd. A fellow chef was preparing frozen fish fillets that did not seem to match what was detailed on the menu. Pulapaka questioned him about it. “He told me that they ran out of what they were supposed to have so they just used tilapia, and people would never know the difference.”

The incident concerned Pulapaka, in part, because he is a chef with a commitment to sustainable seafood. But the incident itself is more the rule, than the exception, when it comes to fish – it’s often represented as something that it’s not. Fish fraud is rife in the seafood industry in America, and it can occur in any part of the supply chain. Starting at the point of catch, documentation of the type of gear used to net a fish or even where it came from, may be incomplete or incorrect. Then when a fish is cut and processed, it loses many of its identifying features, allowing suppliers to label a fish as whatever species is in greatest demand by their customers. Finally, restaurants and retailers perpetrate fish fraud in varying degrees, from labelling ‘farm-raised’ fish as ‘wild-caught’, to substituting an entirely different species for the one advertised.

Fish fraud is not just a problem of consumer protection, but also of public health, as substitute species can range from the mildly toxic, in the case of escolar (often called ‘white tuna’ in sushi restaurants), to the outright poisonous pufferfish. It also impacts the viability of wild fish stocks, since fish that is mislabelled also tends to be illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU). Finally, fish fraud obscures the true cost of seafood production and consumption. In the US alone, the seafood industry is estimated to be worth some $50 billion, yet the seafood trade is still largely based on pricing fish as a commodity – that is to say, both consumers and businesses make their purchasing decisions based on how cheaply they can get their seafood.

The financial incentive to make a profit or get a good deal on seafood, is what lies behind most cases of fish fraud. It’s fish with greater cachet, commanding a higher price, that is most often ‘faked’. And the fish used to pull off this ruse – such as farmed catfish from Southeast Asia, one of the most common substitute species – is cheaper because the fish are raised in horrendous conditions, fed waste products, dosed with antibiotics and/or chemicals and have a supply chain that may include slave labour.

Awareness of the problem is growing. High-profile studies, such as the September 2016 report by conservation group Oceana, found that one in five of more than 25,000 samples of seafood tested worldwide was mislabelled, while local investigations have found rates of fraud as high as 47% among sushi restaurants in big cities like Los Angeles. Seafood traceability is showing up on the radar of consumers, and the US federal government is also starting to take action.

One of the last pieces of legislation enacted by the outgoing Obama administration was a final rule to implement the new Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) aimed at addressing seafood fraud in the US. “SIMP is supposed to be the first phase of a traceability programme, requiring catch documentation for seafood at risk of IUU fishing, from the fishing boat or farm to the US border,” said Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana. “They’re just looking at imports, but we would like it [to extend to] all seafood.” The rule that establishes SIMP as a legal requirement for importers, is set to take effect in January 2018. Unlike other environmental regulatory measures which have been opposed or rolled back by the Trump administration, SIMP seems likely to stay, not least because it helps the US seafood industry. “Domestic suppliers already have to comply with these same requirements, so this levels the playing field for them,” explained Lowell.

About 90% of the seafood sold in America is imported, yet less than 2% is even visually inspected for signs of spoilage, much less for indications that there may be a mismatch between the fish and its shipping label. Before SIMP, fish fraud was not addressed holistically by any one regulation or oversight body in the US. Instead, different aspects of seafood traceability were addressed by a hodgepodge of different laws and 14 different federal agencies. For example, safety and quality inspections of seafood were the responsibility of food regulatory bodies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), but questions about the legality of importing certain fish might have fallen under the purview of Customs and Border Protection, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), responsible for fisheries management, or the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite the complexity of bureaucratic rules surrounding it, seafood traceability comes down to just three questions. First, what species is the fish? Second, where was it sourced? Third, how was it caught or farmed? “Once you have that information, you can build in traceability mechanisms, but this is really one step before making a determination of fraud,” said Ryan Bigelow, Engagement Manager for Seafood Watch, a sustainability and monitoring programme operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Fraud is ultimately a separate question since it involves the intention to deceive. But traceability mechanisms are needed in order to know if a fish has been properly labelled in the first case.

The same three data points of traceability ­– the what, where and how – are used by private-sector initiatives to formulate sustainable seafood recommendations for businesses and consumers. Seafood Watch, for example, features a ‘traffic light’ system of red, yellow and green categories of seafood to buy or avoid. One of the best-known programmes of its kind, Seafood Watch’s consumer guides have been distributed over 56 million times, while its smartphone app has more than 1.6 million downloads to its credit. Seafood Watch also has a ‘business partner’ scheme in which restaurants and other businesses commit to not buying or serving species from the ‘avoid’ list while also educating their customers about seafood sustainability. Transparency and accountability form key elements. For a seafood supplier to be named a Seafood Watch partner, for example, they are required to have a full profile on, an online database that connects buyers and sellers of sustainable seafood products.

More seafood companies are also incorporating transparency and traceability mechanisms into their business. “Some suppliers have internal software, some use Chain of Custody certification, some use Trace Register, or any number of other systems,” said Brian Albaum, Business Engagement Manager of Seafood Watch. At the opposite end of the supply chain, new technologies are enabling DNA tests on seafood at the point of sale. One of the more specialized tools is GrouperChek, a portable device that attaches to a laptop. It can detect approximately 50 different grouper species that are commercially important, along with their imposters. Meanwhile, some niche seafood retailers are making traceability part of their marketing. Salty Girl Seafood is a California-based company that includes codes on its seafood that not only provide details on the species of fish, where it was caught and how, but also the name of the fisherman and his or her boat. Regional suppliers such as Santa Monica Seafood in Los Angeles are also getting in on the act, attaching catch documentation data to their product inventory codes including both the Latin species name of a fish as well as the common name.

Including the scientific name of a fish as a unique identifier is important since common names turn out to be surprisingly general. The FDA allows more than 40 different species of crustacean to be sold under the name shrimp, 56 species of fish to be sold as snapper and 64 different species of fish to be called grouper (making GrouperChek look like less of a specialty tool after all.) Lack of consumer knowledge about fish in general and the fact that most fish is sold as anonymous-looking filets, only adds to the problem. For all of those reasons, Oceana is lobbying the US federal government to implement a “one name for one fish” rule in labelling.

What is a seafood lover to do, in the meantime, when one name can refer to many different fish? The short answer for consumers at present is to buy fish from retailers that provide catch information at the point of sale, or to eat at restaurants that are members of programmes such as Monterey Bay Seafood Watch. Chefs have a role to play too. Hari Pulapaka makes sustainability and traceability part of the dining experience at his own restaurant, Cress. “The storytelling for me translates to actually having a conversation with my guests,” he said. “I plate it and go take it out to them. I tell them what kind of fish it is, where it came from, caught by which fisherman.”

And that has an important knock-on effect. The more interested that chefs and consumers become in the journey that a fish takes to their plate, the less the seafood industry will be able to get away with its own fishy stories.

Photograph: Rusty Clark

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