This Summer, Be Wary of Fish Fraud

It's almost summer, which means many of us will be heading to beaches -- and seafood markets and seaside restaurants -- in the coming months. Maybe you'll use a sustainable seafood guide to make a smart choice for your family. But what if the fish you find in the market isn't what you think it is?

According to a new report by Oceana, U.S. consumers are frequently served a completely different fish species than the one they paid for. "Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health" reveals that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for fish such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod.

Using DNA testing, both scientists and amateur seafood sleuths have exposed fish fraud across North America and Europe. So how does it happen? While more than 80 percent of U.S. seafood is now imported, a small fraction of 1 percent is inspected by the Food and Drug Administration specifically for seafood fraud, and fraud can happen at each step of the supply chain -- the restaurant, the distributor, or the processing and packaging phase.

Plus, seafood consumption around the world continues to rise, as do the incentives to overfish the oceans and mislabel fish as more expensive species. As Oceana's Vice President for North America and chief scientist Dr. Mike Hirshfield told the New York Times, "If you're ordering steak, you would never be served horse meat. But you can easily be ordering snapper and get tilapia or Vietnamese catfish."

Not only does seafood fraud affect your bottom line, it also has serious consequences for your health -- and the health of the oceans, too. Here's how:

1. Seafood fraud can make people sick. Fish species might be swapped for another that could be riddled with allergens, toxins or contaminants.

2. Mislabeling fish makes it difficult for consumers to make eco-friendly choices. Market-driven conservation efforts -- like those seafood guides I mentioned earlier -- depend on the consumer's ability to make an informed purchase of particular species.

3. Seafood fraud misleads consumers about the true availability of seafood and the state of the marine environment. Mislabeling maintains the appearance of a steady supply of popular fish species despite possible overfishing.

4. Seafood fraud creates a market for illegal fishing by making it easy to launder illegally caught seafood products through the U.S. market. This undermines conservation efforts to prevent overfishing and accidental catch of marine wildlife and hurts honest fishermen.

So this summer, whether you're on the coast or not, familiarize yourself with some of the commonly mislabeled fish species from Oceana's seafood fraud report. And ask lots of questions when you're buying seafood: What kind of fish is this? Is this farmed or wild caught? Where was this fish caught? When was this fish caught?

Meanwhile, Oceana will be working to convince the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to implement a tracking system for fish that can trace seafood from your plate back to its original source. Together we can ensure that seafood in the U.S. is safe, legal and honestly labeled.

Ted Danson is on the board of directors of Oceana, the international ocean conservation organization. He recently published the book "Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them."