The path most of the seafood imported into the United States travels from its source to the consumer is long in terms of distance, complicated in terms of the number of middlemen and women and transformative because whole fish become fillets, shrimp become scampi and crab become cakes.

Seafood fraud happens when somewhere along the way, the fish, shellfish and their parts get intentionally mislabeled, swapped out or plumped up for the seller’s gain. In the massive international seafood market – some estimates value it at $130 billion – seafood fraud happens a lot.

In 2013, the seafood industry watchdog group Oceana found that one-third of the 1,200 seafood samples it tested were mislabeled.

In 2015, an INTERPOL–Europol investigation reported that fish traded internationally was the third highest risk category of foods (alcohol and red meat beat it out) with the potential for fraud. And Oceana’s most recent study in Canada last year revealed that 44 percent of 382 seafood samples tested from five Canadian cities did not meet the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s labeling requirements.

The industry says it is working to combat fraud and increase consumer confidence with seafood traceability protocols and technologies that can verify both species and source of origin. But there’s a long way to go, says Colles Stowell, principal of the One Fish Foundation, a Yarmouth-based nonprofit organization that focuses on sustainable seafood education. He points to the recent allegations against Sea To Table, a popular Brooklyn-based restaurant and retail supplier of fish that it touted as locally caught and sustainably harvested. In June, the Associated Press published a damning series of investigative stories that reported the company mislabeled tuna as locally caught that almost certainly wasn’t, and it fingered Sea to Table for mislabeling other seafood, as well.

“Trying to do what they were doing, documenting exactly where, down to the boat level, the wild-caught seafood was coming from, is really hard to do even on a small scale, and it gets very complicated very fast on a large scale,” Stowell said.

Stowell is collaborating with fellow members of the Slow Fish organization (think Slow Food, only seafood focused) on a series of webinars that examine why seafood fraud in the supply chain is so hard to combat. “We’re certainly not claiming to have all the answers. We may have none of them. But continuing the conversation about seafood fraud will hopefully lead to some ideas about combating it,” says Stowell, who will serve as the moderator.

But until the global seafood industry resolves its fraud issues, Stowell suggests you buy seafood from local fishermen.

Other steps also help ensure that you are actually getting the seafood you are paying for:

Buy whole fish and fillet them yourself; it’s harder to misrepresent whole fish than fillets. Once filleted, many white, flaky fish look alike and can be easily swapped for one another.

If you’re squeamish or lack the skill to break down a whole fish, buy your seafood from smaller, independent fishmongers and frequent restaurants with a strong sea-to-table reputation in the community.

When buying or ordering seafood, ask questions about the species and where and how it was caught.

 Remember that knowledge is power: If you know the seasons in which local fish are caught, you will have a stronger grasp on whether the fish in your fishmonger’s case can be local. The Maine Sea Grant, affiliated with the University of Maine and with a focus on marine science, lists seasonality as part of its on-line seafood guide.

Finally, be wary of fishy deals – high-quality, sustainably caught seafood, especially popular species like tuna and shrimp, will always cost more. That said, underused local species like red fish and pollock, can be both high quality and affordable.

ABOUT THE WRITER

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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