You don’t always get what you pay for when you buy what’s advertised as sustainable, wild-caught salmon, research shows. (Learn more about why and how salmon fraud happens.)
The fish may be from a threatened population, or it could be a chemical-laden, farmed-raised cousin. To protect consumers and marine ecosystems, environmental advocates are calling for more precise labeling and for making each fish traceable throughout the entire supply chain. Meanwhile, sustainable seafood experts offer these tips.
When a fish is filleted, it loses most of the visual features that can help shoppers identify the species. That’s why some seafood experts recommend buying whole fish (often fishmongers will fillet it for you). A salmon’s color also is a clue. Sockeye has a deep red-orange hue and a flatter appearance than the plump, artificially blush-colored Atlantic salmon, veined with fat. Be attentive when you want chinook (king salmon), which can look similar to Atlantic salmon. It’s one of the rarest commercial wild species, sometimes commanding more than $30 a pound, tempting unscrupulous sellers to substitute the cheaper fish.
Buy in season
Scientific studies of seafood fraud indicate that buying wild salmon in the summer fishing season can greatly improve a shopper’s chances of getting what they paid for. One nationwide Oceana study showed that salmon fraud happened only 7 percent of the time in the summer, when fresh wild salmon is readily available, but jumps to 40 percent in winter.
Cook at home
Research shows the greatest odds of getting duped occur in restaurants. An Oceana study found that diners are likely to get the wrong fish 67 percent of the time when ordering salmon. Most often farmed salmon is served as more expensive wild species.
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which makes science-based, sustainable seafood recommendations to consumers, advises avoiding all farmed salmon from Canada’s Atlantic region, Norway, Chile, and most of Scotland because of various environmental concerns. Better choices, according to the experts, are farmed salmon from British Columbia, Maine, New Zealand, Scotland’s Orkney Islands, and Denmark’s Faroe Islands. Seafood Watch endorses farm-raised salmon certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and wild-caught salmon certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). MSC certification for some fisheries, such as tuna from Mexico, is controversial because of concerns about dolphins and other marine life caught as bycatch. But Seafood Watch’s senior program manager, Ryan Bigelow, says the Monterey Bay Aquarium has independently verified that all ASC and MSC certified salmon meets its sustainability standards. (For more information, visit Seafood Watch’s quick buying tips and detailed salmon recommendations.)
Choose salmon farmed on land
Recently, some aquaculture operations in the U.S., Europe, and Asia have started raising salmon on land in giant tanks that prevent the pollution of marine ecosystems and reduce disease by continuously cleaning and recirculating the water. Seafood Watch considers such salmon, although limited in availability, to be a “best choice” for sustainability.
Pay the price
Deep discounts or unusually low prices can be an indication of fish fraud. “If the price seems too good to be true,” says University of Guelph seafood fraud expert Robert Hanner, “it probably is.”
Pressure from consumers for stores and restaurants to offer sustainable seafood and provide accurate information about its origins can help shift industry practices, experts say. “Consumers need to ask questions because that pushes businesses to be more sustainable and transparent,” Bigelow says. “You don’t have to feel guilty about not knowing everything or always making perfect decisions. We just need consumers to care.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.