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Do You Know What Fish Is on Your Plate?

The floating barges, whole fish on display, and motley assortment of attendants give my favorite seafood market the look and feel of an era lost, or at least of a foreign shore that still remembers where seafood comes from. I like shopping here because the vast majority of the product is from local waters, and...

Jumbo Lump Crabmeat
The fated container of crabmeat. Photo: Barton Seaver

The floating barges, whole fish on display, and motley assortment of attendants give my favorite seafood market the look and feel of an era lost, or at least of a foreign shore that still remembers where seafood comes from. I like shopping here because the vast majority of the product is from local waters, and if not, then in most cases domestic.

I have developed a wary trust of this market over the years.  While I am quite fluent in seafood identification, even my best efforts are sometimes confounded by the enormous difficulty in recognizing the provenance of seafood. The whole fish are obviously local and I can easily identify them as such. But further into the value chain, it becomes harder to identify fillets, shucked or peeled shellfish, breaded products, etc.

I was drawn to some Maryland blue crab meat by the low price (which I considered to be due to weeknight lull in demand) and the promise of the golden brown and crispy crust of the crab cakes that I could already imagine. I picked up the container, quickly verified by the label that this was distributed by a MD company, peeled back the top for a quick quality assessment and I asked for a pound. If ever you follow a rainbow down on the Chesapeake, at its end you are sure to find a boiling pot of crabs. Especially in the early autumn, the Chesapeake blue is a delight when these swimming crabs have molted for the last time this year and are fattening up for the winter’s migration south.

Back in my kitchen, the container held beautiful giant lumps of meat, larger than I have seen in decades. I was pleased and thought to myself “hey, the crabs are doing well if we are catching them this big”. I noticed a small red ring on some joints where the muscle had met the leg of the crab, a color that I was not used to seeing. I chalked it up to “maybe I haven’t ever seen crabs this big.” On I went, adding the lemon juice, mayonnaise, and a dusting of breadcrumbs. I texted a picture of the crab to my friend who works with the State of Maryland fisheries congratulating him on the conservation efforts that had obviously worked to bring crab meat this big to my table.

His response, “Asian! The red tip to the lump gives it away.” I had been beat. Even though I had read the sign, checked the label, and smelled the product, I had been duped.

Sure enough, right there on the container it stated in tiny letters that this was a product of Indonesia, distributed by a MD company. In addition to the crab, this container also counted in its contents a preservative and a water retention agent. I tasted the crab and there was a lingering chemical acidity and a muted flavor. Not what I was expecting, nor what I was led to believe I was buying. This is seafood fraud, and it is a widespread problem. Oceana, a fabulous ocean advocacy group, has done studies showing that seafood is mislabeled as much as 25-70% of the time, disguising products that are less desirable, cheaper, or more readily available.

This problem of mislabeling is sometimes just an honest and forgivable error, a lack of attention to details such as the disparity between sign and label as with my crab purchase. However, mislabeling is often an intentional effort to push a highly perishable product through a cost-competitive market. Once mislabeled, the bad information carries through the entire supply chain to the consumer. As we grow more aware of the environmental impacts of our consumption, many people are seeking seafood that is considered sustainable by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. But often, consumers are given little, bad, or no information about the seafood that we purchase.

Seafood Market
Shellfish at the market. Photo: Barton Seaver


Why this matters

If we do not know exactly what we are purchasing we cannot verify that we are making a choice that is both healthy for our oceans and for ourselves. With about 1,700 different species of seafood from all over the world  now available in the U.S., it is unrealistic to expect retailers, chefs, and consumers to independently determine that the seafood they get is the one that they paid for.

What you can do

Ask Congress to set standards that require accurate information about what it is, and where and how it was caught to follow the product all the way through the supply chain. This is information that fishermen must already gather and report while still on the water. This is information that consumers deserve to know when they sit down to a meal. Another important thing you can do is to shop according to what is seasonal and if possible, local. When we walk into a store with a recipe in hand then we are asking that the whole system work to our demand. If the recipe says salmon then the system, not the ocean, will make salmon available — in one form or another!

But if we approach the seafood counter with an open mind (and palate), asking for what is sustainable, fresh, and best fits our budget, we ask for what the oceans and our watermen can provide. Ecosystems do not follow our recipes! Instead, our recipes should be driven by what the oceans supply. By taking diversely from what the oceans give, the system is less likely to try to force a square fish into your round recipe.

Please visit our good friends at Oceana to learn more about how you can support efforts to end seafood fraud.

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Meet the Author

Barton Seaver
Barton Seaver is a chef and National Geographic Fellow who has dedicated his career to restoring the relationship we have with our ocean. It is his belief that the choices we are making for dinner are directly impacting the ocean and its fragile ecosystems.