A recent study by Oceana researchers claims consumers may be overpaying for mislabeled seafood by as much as 134 percent at grocery stores and 80 percent at restaurants nationwide.
Destin's Harbor Docks is using statistics from the study in a campaign of TV, online and print advertisements aimed to educate people on the work required to get the seafood to their plate, and urge Floridians to buy local.
Oceana researchers tested seafood from around the U.S. for the study, titled "Seafood Sticker Shock: Why you may be paying too much for your fish." Their results showed that popular fish like Atlantic cod and wild salmon is mislabeled as often as 70 percent of the time in the U.S., and 93 percent of the fish labeled as red snapper that the researchers tested was not red snapper at all. Often the "red snapper" was actually tilapia, which wholesales for less than one-third the price of red snapper and costs an average of 47-percent less at restaurants.
"You might buy something that says, 'local Gulf seafood,' but it might actually be something from far away, something unrelated," Oceana researcher Margot Stiles told The Log. The senior scientist and other researchers have been studying fraud in the seafood market for more than two years.
Once fish are filleted and packaged, it's difficult, if not impossible, for most customers to differentiate between many species. For instance, fillets of grouper, a species that is fished in large quantities in Gulf waters off the coast of Destin, looks similar to tilapia, most of which comes from farms in Thailand and Vietnam and are fed pig feces. In Florida, 20 percent of fish labeled grouper is actually another species.
At Harbor Docks, customers can rest easy that they are getting the fish they pay for, said restaurant manager Eddie Morgan. Diners who would rather eat the less-expensive tilapia from Asian farms shouldn't expect to find it on Harbor Docks' menu.
"(When) a place right around the corner is selling tilapia as red snapper and undercutting everybody, it's not fair. It's not fair to the customer and it's not fair to the people catching the fish," Morgan said.
Harbor Docks runs a seafood dock as well as a restaurant, located on Highway 98. Its new ad campaign is an attempt to teach seafood lovers to spend their money on fish they can be confident is properly labeled, and not just at the Harbor Docks restaurant. The ad campaign, along with Harbor Docks' website, encourages diners to eat at more than 40 Destin-area restaurants that serve seafood from the docks, located just out back of the restaurant.
More than 100 fishing boats supply seafood directly to Harbor Docks operations from Pensacola to Panama City. Morgan said the ultimate goal of the ad campaign is to give those fishermen the credit they are due.
"More than anything for us, it's doing right by the fishermen. It's showcasing what they do and their hard work," Morgan said.
Even the few species like salmon, which most consumers can identify by sight, are not immune to mislabeling. Restaurants in Washington State were caught labeling farm-raised salmon as wild salmon up to 38 percent of the time, thus overcharging diners about 27 percent.
The focus of the Oceana study was how mislabeling affects seafood buyers' wallets. But there can also be serious health costs for customers who don't know what they are eating. Farm-raised fish are often given antibiotics, which can promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria that can make diners sick. Also, fish such as king mackerel and tilefish, which the FDA has warned contain high levels of mercury, are often mislabeled as other species. Unknowingly eating those fish that are high in mercury can be harmful, especially to pregnant women.
While Harbor Docks is working to educate people locally, Oceana is working to implement federal regulations that require more traceability and accountability from the global seafood market. The organization is pushing for the passage of the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act. The bill is currently in the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Livestock, Rural Development and Credit, and would require more regulation of seafood.
"You should be able to tell what species you are buying. You should be able to tell if it's wild or farmed, and it should be traced all the way back to the boat," Stiles said.
Harbor Docks supplies seafood to dozens of local restaurants, including Ali's Big City Bistro, Basmati's, Bay Café, Boshamp's Seafood & Oyster House, Bud & Alley's, Café 30A, Camille's at Crystal Beach, Christiano's, Criolla's, Crush Wine Bar, Dewey Destin's, First Choice Buffet, Fish Out of Water, Fuji Sushi & Seafood Buffet, Goatfeather's, Jin Jin, Kiku Hana, Louisiana Lagniappe, La Paz, La Playa, Lighthouse Restaurant, Mitchell Fish Co., Marina Café, Mulhollow's Bistro, Nick's Seafood Restaurant, Old Florida Fish House, Picolo Restaurant, The Red Bar, Pranzo, Red Ginger, Sakura, Shan Kishi, Sound Side, Staff's, Steamboat Bar & Grill, Stewby's, Stinky's Fish Camp, Tommy Bahama, Tuscany Italian Bistro, Vintij, VKI Japanese Steak House and Wild Olive.