All of us should know what seafood we’re getting

Louisiana’s a long way from the Pacific Northwest. But what happens in restaurants there – and in every other state in America – has the potential to have a serious impact on my livelihood.

That’s because of a problem far more common that anyone seems to realize: the problem of seafood fraud.

Earlier this year it was reported that a sports bar in Lafayette, La., was selling something not too common in the Deep South: fresh, wild-caught Alaska salmon. The claim? That the owner hooked the fish during his recreational fishing trips to Alaska’s Kenai River, then hauled them back for sale to his customers.

It’s no big surprise that a Louisiana restaurateur would try to make a buck off the idea of fresh, wild-caught Alaskan salmon. Americans eat close to 5 billion pounds of seafood a year, and if we had a national fish it might well be the salmon. For fishermen like me who make a living off of Alaska’s ocean bounty, that’s a good thing.

But the power of the Alaskan salmon moniker also leaves it open to misuse. Because outside of Alaska, not too many people know their salmon well enough to know what they’re getting. And frankly, the current state of affairs means that they have few means to find out.

Unlike most of the food products we sell and consume in the United States, seafood has no real standardized labeling requirements to ensure that consumers know what they’re getting. And with more than 1,700 types of seafood on the market (according to FishWatch, a government information program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) even the most dedicated consumer would have trouble keeping track.

The inability to trace seafood in a market the size of the U.S. is doing real damage – not just to American fishermen, but to you seafood consumers who are being cheated out of enjoying what is rightfully yours; the bounty of your fisheries. That’s right, your fisheries. These fisheries aren’t mine, or the industry’s, or the government’s; they’re your natural heritage, and those of us in the business are simply delivering you the fish that you’ve inherited.

I’m not saying you should stop eating seafood; because there’s good news too: Our fisheries are being managed more sustainably than ever. That’s something to be proud of, and to consider when you’re buying seafood – if it’s American-caught, it’s probably a good choice. But only if you’re getting what you’re paying for.

So keep eating seafood – just think before you do. Seafood buyers are increasingly putting a premium on sustainability and quality. But without a clear system of seafood traceability that allows folks to trace their fish from bait to plate, they’re deprived of the tools they need.

When you buy an inferior product under the pretense that it’s quality Alaska salmon, you’re being cheated, plain and simple. At best, you get duped without knowing it. At worst, you’re purchasing seafood that doesn’t meet basic food safety or environmental standards, putting yourself and your family at risk. And in the process, market-based incentives that promote sustainability are undermined.

The good news is, people are starting to talk about this problem and we fishermen aren’t the only ones worried. Scientists, advocates and reporters have done us a service by calling attention to the urgent need for seafood traceability. In Washington, D.C., several bills have been introduced in Congress that aim to address the problem, and officers at NOAA and other federal agencies are becoming more engaged too.

It turns out that the restaurant in Lafayette was making its “sport caught Alaskan salmon” burgers from canned salmon – just like mamma used to make ’em. This case of seafood fraud was just a supposedly harmless white lie from a not-too-savy restaurateur. Good thing too, because selling sport caught salmon from Alaska is highly illegal. Unfortunately lying about the fish you’re selling isn’t. It’s time to change that. We need a national system to ensure that when Alaskan seafood is being advertised for sale in places like Louisiana, we know exactly what it is and how it got there. For the well being of fishermen and seafood lovers alike, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Ray Toste is the president and manager of the Washington Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association in Westport, Wash. He fishes out of Washington and Alaska for crab, salmon and shrimp.