It’s a hot and muggy Saturday morning around the Lynnhaven Inlet. But inside Dockside Restaurant and Marina it’s nice and cool for Kevin Seldon as he peels shrimp while surrounded by a large variety of fish and seafood that sits on ice, waiting to be purchased.
Seldon, one of the partners who own Dockside, is talking about seafood fraud and the most recent report by Oceana, a global organization that works to protect the world’s oceans, which found that as much as 20 percent of the fish and seafood sold in the United States is mislabeled.
“I’ve seen some of the studies done by Oceana and I think they’re basically accurate. I eat out a lot and have no reason to think they’re not spot-on,” he said.
Oceana tested 449 samples of fish purchased from restaurants, and supermarkets, both large and small. In all, one-third of the locations they visited sold seafood that was mislabeled – meaning the consumer was not getting the product they believed they were getting, and were paying for.
Dustin Cranor, senior director of communications for Oceana, said as part of their latest report, Oceana tested popular seafood types that were not included under the existing federal traceability program and found that seafood fraud is still a problem in the U.S.
More than 400 samples from more than 250 locations in 24 states and the District of Columbia were collected and DNA testing determined that one of every five fish samples, or 21 percent, was mislabeled.
“The path that seafood travels from the boat or farm to the consumer can be long, opaque and complex,” Cranor said. “Throughout this journey, seafood is often transformed from whole fish to fillet, shrimp to cocktail, and crab to cake. This process may obscure the true identity of many types of seafood, creating frequent opportunities for fraud.”
Seafood fraud, he added, is any illegal activity that leads to a misrepresentation of the seafood being purchased. It can include mislabeling the packaging or even falsifying documents.
Oceana’s focus is on species substitution or the swapping of one species out for another.
A couple of examples included getting giant freshwater prawn instead of slipper lobster, Greenland turbot rather than sea bass, and giant perch or Nile tilapia labeled as sea bass.
“When the product listed on the label or menu was different than what the buyer thought they purchased, it was often a less desirable or lower priced species,” Cranor said.
At Dockside, most of the product they sell and serve comes in raw, meaning it’s not precut or prepackaged. The only fish that comes frozen Seldon said is Whiting.
Seldon’s advice to consumers and restaurant-goers who want to be sure they’re getting what they order or buy is simple: Look for a reputable place.
And in the case of crab meat, he added, if lots of sauces or spices are used it could be an indication the crab meat lacks quality.
Dockside is one of the very few restaurants in the city that uses crab meat from crabs caught locally because of the price.
“But you can tell the difference,” Seldon said. “We get our crab from the Carolinas, Maryland, and some from Virginia. Locally demand outpaces supply. The demand is so high and there are limits on what they (fishermen and crabbers) can catch.”
Unless a person is a little bit older and has been around a while, Seldon said they’re not even likely to know what quality local blue crab tastes like. He can remember 10-20 packing houses in Hampton during his time growing up there, but believes there are now only be one or two.
In the end, what’s the harm with seafood fraud?
“Seafood fraud threatens consumer health and safety; cheats consumers when they pay higher prices for a mislabeled lower-value fish; hurts honest fishermen and seafood businesses; and hides harmful practices like illegal fishing, poorly-regulated aquaculture and human rights abuses,” Cranor said.
In order to avoid being the victim of seafood fraud, Cranor said consumers should ask questions. Lots of them, including what species the fish is, whether it’s wild or farm raised, and where, when, and how it was caught. When possible, consumers should buy the entire fish and not just a filet, making it easier to identify.
And finally, check the price.
“If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is, and you may be purchasing a completely different fish that what is on the label,” he said.
Cranor said Oceana is calling on the federal government to expand the current traceability program so all seafood, both domestic and imported, must be tracked from the fishing boat or farm to the plate.
“Seafood traceability and catch documentation, paired with stronger seafood labeling requirements — such as what species it is, and where and how it was caught or farmed — is the only way consumers can be sure that all of their seafood is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled,” he said.
Seldon, who is still wrist-deep in shrimp, said the problem is likely to only get bigger.
“With the restrictions and limits put on domestic fishermen, the amount of imported seafood, which may or may not be regulated and labeled correctly, will only continue to rise,” he said. “As will the risks of good quality seafood sourced in the U.S.”