Seafood Fraud on the Loose, Especially in NYC


Dining at even expensive seafood restaurants won’t guarantee that you’ll get the fish you ordered. Red Snapper? Could be tilapia. A study released today by Oceana revealed that seafood fraud is rampant, especially in New York City.

Thirty-nine percent of 142 seafood samples in grocery stores, restaurants and sushi spots in New York were mislabeled, according to FDA guidelines. Three in five retail outlets nationwide sold mislabeled fish. Surprisingly, the study showed that you’re most likely to get properly labeled fish at national supermarket chains.

Even more disturbing: 100 percent of the sushi bars tested nationwide — there were 16 — sold mislabeled fish. Even tilefish, which has documented high levels of mercury, was substituted for red snapper. Turns out 13 different types of fish pose as red snapper on a regular basis, and venues often serve less valuable fish in its place: tilapia, white bass, goldbanded jobfish, porgy/seabream, ocean perch, and others. All good. Just not what you ordered, and those fish cost way less than red snapper.

“I think the real issue is that seafood lovers have to demand better accountability and a full traceability system,” said Kimberly Warner, one of the study’s authors and a chief scientist at Oceana. “Some people who sell fish don’t want to call it a ‘goldbanded jobfish’ so they will call it a red snapper.”

Over the summer, Oceana examined 142 samples of fish from 81 outlets in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and a few surrounding suburbs. Of the 13 fish studied, only four were found to be the actual fish that was on the menu. DNA samples of salmon, snapper, tuna, cod, sole, halibut, striped bass, grouper, and blackfish all contained fraudulent fish.

Tuna was impersonated the most. Ninety-four percent of tuna samples in New York were found guilty of seafood substitution, according to the study. “They just call it white tuna,” Warner said, and added that chefs might just throw a sauce on it.

To combat seafood fraud, consumers can try to be educated about what an honest price for a dish like tuna should be. “If the price is too good to be true, it probably is,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated tilefish was on the FDA’s do-not-eat list. Tilefish is only on the do-not-eat list for women who are pregnant or nursing and young children.