The Hidden Costs of Our Global Fake Fish Crisis

by Alexina Cather, MPH
By Michelle Polizzi

What does the “Atlantic” in “Atlantic salmon” suggest? Consumers might be surprised to learn that almost all wild Atlantic salmon populations have been driven to extinction, meaning almost all salmon from this ocean are farm-raised. In fact, wild Atlantic salmon has become so depleted that it’s nearly impossible for consumers to acquire.

Such facts have become particularly relevant since the release of Oceana’s global seafood fraud review, which revealed that a staggering one in five pieces of fish sold for human consumption are wrongly marked. Out of the 25,000 samples Oceana reviewed, salmon, snapper, and grouper were the most frequently mislabeled, and cheaper fish like hake, escolar, and Asian catfish were the most common substitutes.

Public Health Concerns

Mislabeling dupes consumers into paying inflated prices for lower quality fish, but it can also cause a number of adverse environmental and human health impacts.

Take Escolar, for example. This fish is commonly swapped for white tuna because it bears a similar taste and color. However, escolar contains a substance called gempylotoxin, which according to the FDA can cause gastrointestinal upset after consuming more than a few ounces.

Mercury is a substance contained in some fish that many vulnerable populations are instructed to avoid. According to Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food/ Fake Food, tilefish is commonly sold as halibut or red snapper. Tilefish has a high mercury content and is on the Food and Drug Administration’s “do not eat” list for pregnant women and children. However, women and children who consume fish labeled halibut or red snapper – both of which are safe to eat – may be unknowingly ingesting mercury-rich tilefish.

Long-term, farmed fish can affect consumers because the antibiotics they are fed can lead to antibiotic-resistant infections, also known as superbugs, in humans. When industrially-raised fish escape into the wild, they can impact already-endangered populations by transferring diseases, increasing competition, and spreading disabling mutations. Further adverse effects of industrial aquaculture include water pollution and loss of biodiversity.

Putting Vulnerable Species at Risk

Furthermore, the high global demand for seafood promotes illegal fishing practices that can further deplete vulnerable species. In Santa Monica, two chefs were charged with selling endangered Sei Whale disguised as fatty tuna. Further instances of species endangerment highlighted in Oceana’s report involved sturgeon and paddlefish. New York researchers found that out of 90 samples of caviar collected across the city, ten percent belonged to one of these two endangered fish.

How Policy Can Help

Consumers might be tricked less often if there were stronger regulations surrounding catch documentation and traceability. At the forefront of this battle is a proposed law by the Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud. The law outlines a plan to increase traceability for certain species that have been especially susceptible to mislabeling in the United States over the past five years. The first phase of this law sets forth stronger traceability regulations on species such as Atlantic cod, grouper, red snapper, salmon, and tuna, among others. The long-term impact of such laws is uncertain, but the European Union offers valuable insight into how such laws might work. Since implementing similar traceability, documentation, and consumer labeling laws four years ago, seafood fraud rates in the EU have decreased from 23 percent to just eight percent.

New York-based Solutions

While policy change is slowly working to reform seafood fraud on a national level, a handful of New York-based companies are combatting fish fraud at the local level. The New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College has created a list of organizations that are working to make sustainable, ethically-sourced seafood more accessible by everyday consumers.

Dock to Dish

What They Do: This grassroots startup aims to eliminate all middlemen from the supply chain and dramatically reduce food miles between boat and plate. By putting restaurants into direct sourcing cooperatives with local small-scale fishermen using the most sustainable harvest methods, Dock to Dish gives chefs accurate source transparency and is reviving a long-lost “Know Your Fisherman” culture. The organization first dropped its anchor in New York City in 2012, and has since expanded to Vancouver, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Halifax, Costa Rica with more cities to come.

Notable Achievements: Seafood sourced from Dock to Dish travels an average of 84 miles between the fisherman and the consumer. This is significantly lower than the US national average of 5,574 miles, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA, 2015).

Director: Sean Barrett

Year Founded: 2012

Location: Montauk, NY

Contact Information:

(917) 853-8559

Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co.

What They Do: This sustainable seafood company seeks to bring transparent, socially-conscious seafood to New York citizens. Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co. works with organizations like Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to harness important data about the ocean, such as which species are plentiful enough to fish. This information is used to ensure that only seasonal, traceable, low-impact seafood products are sold at any given time. Greenpoint’s Brooklyn location doubles as a restaurant, so customers can choose to take the local catch home or have it prepared for them.

Notable Achievements: Greenpoint’s partnership with Monterey Bay Aquarium allows consumers to track the source of all the seafood sold at the market. By downloading the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch App, consumers can learn more about which fish species are most sustainable to eat and where a certain piece of seafood came from.

Director: Adam Geringer-Dunn and Vinny Milburn

Year Founded: 2014


  • Seafood market and dine-in restaurant: 114 Nassau Avenue, Greenpoint, Brooklyn
  • Seafood market with prepared to-go food: 5-43 48th Avenue, Long Island City, Queens

Contact Information:

Brooklyn: 718.349.0400

Queens: 718.472.2040

Montauk Shellfish Company

What They Do: This sustainable oyster farm began when two friends combined their expertise in commercial fishing and marine biology. Montauk Shellfish Company is committed to using sustainable aquaculture practices to produce the highest quality shellfish. The company harvests an oyster called Montauk Pearls®, which are coveted across the region for their appearance and taste.

Notable Achievements: Montauk Shellfish Company was recently featured in a film by The Nature Conservancy about the importance of protecting Long Island’s waters. The film was an official selection for the 2016 Global Impact Film Festival, an event that seeks to present media that provokes and inspires change.

Director: Mike Martinsen and Mike Doall

Year founded: 2009

Location: Montauk, NY

Contact Information:

Mike Doall: (631) 418 4249

Mike Martinsen: (631) 902-7829

Sea to Table

What They Do: Sea to Table supports traditional American fishing communities by finding reliable markets for their daily catch. The organization sources only domestic, sustainable, and traceable seafood. Chefs can visit their website or call a sales representative to find details on the latest catch and get an order delivered to their door the next day. In addition to restaurants, Sea to Table sources sustainable seafood for university campuses and corporations, and soon home cooks. The family-run company is based in Brooklyn and currently works with over 50 independent fishermen and commercial docks from Alaska to Maine.

Notable Achievements: Sea to Table became a certified B Corp in August 2012, which means they meet a specific set of rigorous standards in areas of transparency, accountability, and social and environmental performance. On the B Corps impact report, which is an assessment of all member businesses’ ability to adhere to B Corps’ rigorous standards, Sea to Table achieved a number of 25 for environmental performance. The median score of other companies is just 7, showing Sea To Table’s commitment to sustainable supply chains, low-impact operations and wildlife protection.

Director: Father and son team, Michael and Sean Dimin

Year Founded: 2006

Location: Brooklyn

Contact Information:

The Billion Oyster Project

What They Do: The Billion Oyster Project (BOP) is on a mission to restore one billion live oysters to New York Harbor. Oysters were once a core component of New York Harbor’s ecosystem, and restoring the oysters will help return the water to a cleaner, more biodiverse state. This restoration initiative is also educational, engaging New York Harbor School students in hands-on activities such as raising oysters, SCUBA diving, driving and maintaining boats, designing underwater monitoring tools, and conducting research. The BOP is an initiative of the New York Harbor Foundation.

Notable Achievements: Since its inception, the Billion Oyster Project has grown 19.5 million oysters in New York Harbor and restored 1.05 areas of reef. BOP also works with over 50 restaurants to claim oyster shells – which would normally be discarded. The old shells are repurposed in the harbor project to provide habitats to new oysters and further filter the water.

President: Murray Fisher

Year Founded: 2010


Building #114 (The MAST Center) Governors Island NYC

Contact Information:

212.458.0800 ext. 6504

After publishing this article the Center received this comment:

Whoever wrote this article really did their research. First of all, the only thing Oceana is in the news about are accounts of over-exaggeration. Why do they continue to be the backbone of supporting facts in seafood industry arguments? Second, it would be an obvious question to ask about the specifics of this article. Why would anyone sub tilefish for red snapper if tilefish is more expensive? Red snapper is widely subbed out for a LESS expensive option that is farmed or of lesser quality — not wild, expensive tilefish. Pretty obvious you’ve never purchased either. Further, I guess nobody wanted to mention the sourcing differences of east coast and Gulf tilefish, one found to be of no risk for mercury and the other very low. Finally, sending small quantities via FedEx around the country to individual restaurants counts as lowering the carbon footprint? And exactly how many middlemen are we getting rid of with the businesses listed above? If they’re in the spotlight for transparency and quality, maybe list all the other businesses in the tri-state area that are similar — same number of people in their supply chain, buy from local fishermen, deliver the next day to restaurants on a planned delivery route in the area (less carbon footprint, no?) and have face to face relationships with suppliers and the fish they’re selling, able to ensure that it is what they say it is. Ironic to list four businesses — they are the only ones ever listed in any popular article written about seafood and basically used as buzzwords. The only thing this article proves is that even the city of New York will read a few bullshit articles about the industry, incorrectly address the popular topics with other people’s incorrect research, and call it educational. in the name of food policy.

Here is our response:

Many species of easily-accessible fish are sold as red snapper, even farmed fish like tilapia. That’s true. And tilefish is another species that has been mislabeled as red snapper for reasons that have nothing to do with end market price. red snapper has been historically overfished and there are regulations against fishing it. While it may be less expensive per pound for a consumer in certain places at this moment, it is not always as accessible to fisherman because of regulations, which is why it would be swapped with Tilefish. It’s also important to note that the study cited in Oceana’s report found these instance of swapping in 2012. Prices may have fluctuated since then. Furthermore, In 2012 and currently, tilefish is not overfished nor in danger of being overfished. Therefore, it’s more accessible. Also, tilefish isn’t something that is universally safe for everyone to eat (see mercury comment below). There may be instances where tilefish would be sold as red snapper because people are hesitant to buy tilefish. Tilefish may not sell as well as something like red snapper due to FDA health regulations and common perceptions.
Further proof of regulations surrounding the fishing of Red Snapper: 
“In 2005, managers began developing a new plan to rebuild red snapper(15).  At that time, regulations were designed to phase out overfishing of red snapper (by 2009 or 2010).  The recreational and commercial catch limits were lowered by 45% from 9.12 million pounds in 2006 to 5.0 million pounds by 2008.”  and
Tilefish from the Gulf may have more mercury levels than tilefish from places on the east coast, as this article on South Carolina describes: However, The FDA still recommends that all tilefish be avoided by all at-risk groups (pregnant women and children). “For individuals not in at-risk groups, DHEC now recommends a maximum of one meal per week of Atlantic tilefish rather than avoiding this species completely,’’ the agency said in a news release. ” So, at-risk populations are still not advised to eat it. And even if east coast tilefish has “less” mercury, it still has higher mercury levels than other fish. This is simply because tilefish is a large predator fish and consumes other fish, which leads to higher levels of mercury being deposited in its flesh. You bring up a great point by noting the differences between gulf and east coast tilefish. Because when tilefish is on a menu, or when it’s sold under a different name, a consumer will not be able to distinguish between the two. 
This article never makes a claim that shipping seafood around the country lowers a carbon footprint. As every educated person knows, it requires energy to ship refrigerated food to different places in the US. When you’re talking about the carbon footprint of seafood distribution, it comes down to basic supply and demand. People across the country will demand seafood no matter what, because they’re used to having sushi in places like Kansas City and Denver and Santa Fe. Shipping seafood to people in Middle America and the West will inevitably have a larger carbon footprint because these people are farthest away from oceans. The reason these organizations are making a difference in that unsustainable process is because they are helping to preserve fishery stocks and prevent species depletion. They carefully measure stocks in the ocean and choose to fish only stocks that are plentiful and easily accessible. They also support small-scale fishers who practice sustainable fishing. These organizations are making a difference because they enlighten consumers, who can ethically buy fish that wasn’t caught using slave labor and isn’t pumped with drugs.
Furthermore, Billion Oyster Project and Montauk Shellfish Company specialize in raising oysters, which naturally filter oceans and reduce water pollution. They also focus on selling oysters locally. Greenpoint fish and lobster co. harvests local fish and sells it locally. Such methods help counteract a footprint that might be caused by shipping food elsewhere.
Sea to Table and Dock to Dish both from face-to-face relationships with their fisherman. You can look up all the fishermen they work with on their websites. Dock to Dish reduces all middlemen by connected fisherman directly to restaurants. Sea to Table also connects restaurants directly to fisherman, and restaurants can look up a fisherman’s fresh catch on their website each day. Sea to Table acts as the middleman by being the liaison between fisherman and restaurant.
Listing these organizations isn’t saying there aren’t other organizations making positive steps towards seafood fraud prevention. It’s simply not possible to create a comprehensive list of all the people doing good in one single article.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Subscribe To Weekly NYC Food Policy Watch Newsletter
Subscribe to our weekly email newsletter today to receive updates on the latest news, reports and event information
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will never be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.