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Salmon for Dinner? Your Meal Just Got a Bit More Fishy

Seafood fraud cheats consumer wallets -- leading consumers to believe they are buying a product that they're actually not -- and penalizes those who think they're making smart seafood choices.
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Think about the last time you had salmon--a lox bagel, a salmon fillet, or perhaps as a salmon burger. Regardless of the preparation, it was likely delicious. Salmon is America's favorite and most readily consumed fish, but it's unfortunately no stranger to seafood fraud.

In a new report released last week, Oceana discovered--yet again--frequent mislabeling of this tasty fish. Out of the 82 salmon samples that Oceana collected from grocery stores and restaurants in the winter, Oceana found that nearly half of them were mislabeled. According to the study, diners were far more likely to be misled in restaurants than grocery stores (67 percent vs. 20 percent).

In most cases, mislabeling came in the form of farmed Atlantic salmon being sold as wild-caught, as confirmed by DNA testing. Oceana's threshold for being "mislabeled" included fulfilling one of two criteria: Salmon was described as being "wild," "Alaskan" or "Pacific," but was actually farmed Atlantic salmon; or, the samples were labeled as sockeye or king salmon but were a different fish species all together, like rainbow trout or chum. Oceana found the highest rate of mislabeling in Virginia, followed by Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York City.

U.S. wild salmon fisheries are some of the best-managed fisheries in the world, yielding nutritious and protein-packed seafood. U.S. fishermen catch enough wild salmon each year to supply 80 percent of America's salmon demand, but over 70 percent of that catch ends up getting exported. This leads to the influx of farmed salmon in our domestic markets, even though farmed salmon is often a cheaper, lower quality fish that could have significant environmental impacts.

Salmon farming remains controversial. Oceana and other environmental groups have criticized the salmon farming industry in recent years for its excessive use of antibiotics, which are thought to possibly lead to human antibiotic resistance if consumed at excessive levels. A series of mishaps have dotted some sectors of the industry over the past few decades, including massive salmon escapes and outbreaks of sea lice.

More importantly, the large amounts of wild forage fish needed to "raise" farmed salmon (as much as 1-3 pounds of wild fish for every pound of farmed fish) make saving the oceans and feeding the world a much more difficult task. Oceana advocates for responsible sustainable fisheries management in order to restore ocean abundance and ensure there is a sustainable seafood supply for people for generations to come. Using forage fish in salmon production directly contradicts the concept of saving the oceans and feeding the world, and is a misuse of healthy, protein-packed fish that could be used to directly feed people.

Everywhere Oceana looks for seafood fraud, we find it. In our 2013 landmark study, Oceana found seafood fraud in 33 percent of over 1,200 samples of fish. Over the past year, two separate Oceana reports have identified mislabeling or misrepresentation in shrimp and Maryland crab cakes. On average, Oceana has found that about a third of the seafood it's sampled has been mislabeled.

Seafood fraud cheats consumer wallets--leading consumers to believe they are buying a product that they're actually not--and penalizes those who think they're making smart seafood choices. It also carries health implications, such as putting pregnant women at risk who may be unintentionally exposed to a high-mercury fish.

Seafood fraud is indeed a problem, but Oceana has made tremendous progress to stop it since launching its campaign in 2011. As we've written before, President Obama commissioned a federal task force to combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud in 2014, and the Task Force has since released a robust set of recommendations. This past summer, Reps. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) and Stephen Lynch (D-MA) introduced the Protecting Honest Fishermen Act of 2015--promising legislation that, if passed, would ensure traceability in the supply chain and that consumers be better informed.

As we wrap up National Seafood Month in the U.S., this report serves as a reminder on how to be a conscious seafood consumer. In the grocery store or at restaurants, don't forget to ask your grocer the right questions: What fish is this? Where does your seafood come from? How it was caught? It's going to take effort from the ground level up to ensure that we tackle this issue, and Oceana will continue fighting for effective rules that ensures seafood is honestly labeled and traceable from boat to plate.