Why you might not be getting the salmon you paid for

America’s favorite fish is swimming in a sea of controversy, from alleged corporate price fixing and false sustainability claims to mislabeling and fraud.

Underwater viewing windows at the Little White Salmon hatchery in Cook, Washington, allow visitors a close-up look at young chinook salmon (also known as king salmon). Farmed chinook raised in indoor tanks or wild chinook certified by the Marine Stewardship Council are considered “best choices” for sustainable seafood shoppers.
Photograph by COREY ARNOLD, Nat Geo Image Collection

Salmon is the most popular fish in the U.S.—Americans collectively consume nearly 450,000 tons each year—and the choices are countless: farmed Atlantic, wild-caught sockeye, king, pink, smoked. Some are green-certified, others are labeled “all-natural.” How to choose? And can you trust that your purchases will deliver on the promise of protecting wild species and safeguarding your health?

That question is at the heart of a growing number of scientific investigations, conservation campaigns, documentary films, and multiple recent class-action lawsuits against the Norwegian seafood company, Mowi USA LLC.

Mowi, which supplies a fifth of the global demand for farmed salmon, is accused of misleading consumers by marketing its Ducktrap River smoked Atlantic salmon as “all natural,” “sustainably sourced,” and “from Maine.” Court documents state that the company acquires its salmon from industrial farms outside the United States where fish in crowded marine pens are often treated with medicines and chemicals, including formaldehyde-based formalin and bleach, to prevent disease and sea lice infestations.

A federal judge in the Southern District of New York has preliminarily approved a proposed $1.3 million settlement that would include requiring the multibillion-dollar company to remove the questionable marketing claims from its packaging. (Meanwhile, Mowi and a handful of other Norwegian salmon companies are under investigation by officials in Europe and the U.S. for allegedly illegally exchanging competitively sensitive information to control the price of farmed salmon.)

Mowi’s communications director, Ola Helge Hjetland, would not comment on the class-action lawsuits, except to say that the company ranks as “the world’s most sustainable animal protein producer,” according to Coller FAIRR Initiative, an investor network that highlights environmental, social, and governance risks and opportunities associated with intensive animal agriculture. She added that Mowi “undergoes third-party audits founded by trusted environmental and food safety organizations.”

Experts say deception at the fish counter is facilitated by seafood’s byzantine route from boat to plate, a fact substantiated by a National Geographic in-depth examination. A salmon, for example, may journey from an Alaskan fishing boat to a processing plant in China to a New York grocery store or restaurant. As it travels, information about the fish, including the species and where and how it was caught or farmed, can get lost or altered.

In 2015, the nonprofit marine conservation organization Oceana tested the DNA of 82 samples of salmon collected from restaurants and grocery stores in numerous U.S. cities. Nearly 70 percent were farmed Atlantic salmon sold as pricier, wild-caught Pacific fish.

“By choosing wild-caught salmon, consumers think they're making a better choice for the ocean,” says Beth Lowell, deputy vice president of U.S. campaigns at Oceana, which has done more reports on seafood fraud than any other group. “But they’re often getting ripped off.”

Conservation groups and scientists are calling on the U.S. government to require documentation and boat-to-plate trackability for salmon and every other type of seafood.

“Any time a fish is changing hands is an opportunity for a bait and switch,” Lowell says. “Every piece of seafood should have documentation about where it was either caught or farmed, and that piece of fish should be traceable all the way to the consumer’s dinner plate. That way it's harder to make swaps happen, and easier for the government to track them when they do.” And, she adds, it means that “consumers can have confidence that they’re actually getting what they paid for.”

Pitfalls of farmed salmon 

It might seem that eating farmed salmon would be good for the environment—farming reduces pressures on wild populations and protects other wildlife, including threatened and endangered species, from being caught as bycatch in fishing nets. But environmental groups have compared salmon aquaculture facilities to floating pig farms for their high rates of pollution, disease outbreaks, antibiotic use, and infestations of sea lice, marine parasites that feed on the flesh and blood of their fish hosts, causing injury and stress.

Long ago, wild Atlantic salmon—named the “king of fish” for their streamlined, powerful form—reigned rivers in Europe and in North America, from northern Quebec and Newfoundland to Long Island Sound. Each year, tens of thousands instinctively fought the tides to return to the gravel streambeds inland where they were born. But decades of overfishing, damming the rivers, chopping down the forests, and polluting the waters depleted—and in some places eliminated—salmon runs. As a result, commercial fishing of wild Atlantic salmon has been banned in the U.S. since the late 1940s.

With wild Atlantic salmon populations dwindling, fisheries began raising the fish in seawater enclosures close to shorelines. Today, more than two-thirds of the Atlantic salmon consumed in the U.S. is farmed, often imported from as far away as Chile, Scotland, and Norway.

Now, amid mounting pressure to be greener, some Atlantic salmon aquaculture companies are halting the use of antibiotics and introducing so-called feeder fish to control sea lice. The environmental ills of salmon farming in marine pens recently convinced Argentina to become the world’s first country to ban the practice.

“It’s a toxic industry,” says Don Staniford, director of the environmental activism group Scottish Salmon Watch, who regularly sneaks onto Scottish salmon farms, including some owned by Mowi, to record video of dead and dying salmon. He calls Argentina’s decision a “watershed victory.”

In its science-based sustainable seafood recommendations, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch advises against buying most farmed salmon. Exceptions include Atlantic salmon certified by the nonprofit Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), which verifies compliance with the organization’s sustainable aquaculture protocols, and salmon raised on land in giant tanks that prevent the pollution of marine ecosystems and reduce disease by continuously cleaning and recirculating the water.(Here's how to make sure you're getting the salmon you're paying for.)

Spotting imposters

Many environmentally conscious seafood lovers avoid the pitfalls of farmed salmon by buying wild-caught species such as sockeye. A corruption of the indigenous word suk-kegh (red fish), sockeye have a deep reddish-orange hue, and they’re flatter than the plump, blush-colored Atlantic salmon.

Sockeye are also significantly more expensive—often twice the cost—tempting unscrupulous seafood sellers to substitute cheaper farmed filets for a bigger payday. A 2018 investigation by the New York attorney general’s office found that 30 percent of “sockeye salmon” samples from grocery stores across the state were farm-raised Atlantic salmon.

Consumers aren’t the only losers when cheap filets are substituted for wild caught fish.

“One of the things that pisses me off about fraud is sellers are stealing the market share from legit producers,” says seafood fraud expert Robert Hanner, a biologist at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. “When the market is saturated with cheap product, it costs both producers and consumers.”

Hanner dedicates much of his research to finding ways to expose seafood fraud. One of his testing techniques is DNA barcoding, the method used in the New York state investigation. Just as a supermarket scanner matches the barcodes on merchandise to an inventory, DNA barcoding compares a short DNA sequence from a particular gene found in most fish to a database of species barcodes.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency responsible for assuring the safety and security of the country’s food supply, collaborated with the Guelph laboratory and the Smithsonian Institution’s Laboratories of Analytical Biology to publish a protocol 10 years ago for seafood DNA barcoding to make it possible to confirm various fish species.

The agency, however, doesn’t use DNA barcoding to spot-check seafood as it travels from boat to plate, a measure Hanner says is essential to prevent widespread fraud.

Meanwhile, he and his Guelph colleagues are testing another technique, called “stable isotope analysis,” that can trace a fish to the exact body of water it came from. “Barcoding has helped uncover huge problems in the seafood supply chain,” Hanner says. “It’s great for telling us who your parents are, but not for where you grew up. For that, we’re using stable isotope analysis.”

Here’s how stable isotope analysis works: Every molecule in a living organism is comprised of different ratios of stable isotopes and fatty acids gleaned from the environment. As fish forage and absorb water from their surroundings, those so-called biotracers leave a “fingerprint” in the fish tissues that can be used to track their geographic origins. The scientists need a reference database of many fish fingerprints from around the world. None exists yet, but the Guelph scientists are remedying that, starting with sockeye salmon from Alaska, British Columbia, and Russia.

Knowing where a piece of sockeye came from is essential for determining how it was fished, and at what cost to the environment. Alaska is widely considered to have a sustainable sockeye fishery. British Columbia’s salmon industry recently withdrew from the Marine Stewardship Council’s eco-certification program for its wild chum, pink, and sockeye in 2019 because it couldn’t meet sustainability conditions and didn’t want to risk failing an audit. Many sockeye fisheries in eastern Russia are threatened by habitat loss, industrial pollution, and large-scale poaching, believed to be driven by organized crime in East Asian markets.

Hanner and Guelph biologist Kevin McCann invited me and Dane Chauvel, co-founder and CEO of Organic Ocean Seafood Inc., a sustainable seafood supplier in British Columbia, to carry out a first test of stable isotope data for sockeye salmon against random samples in the marketplace. The scientists would also do DNA barcoding to check the species’ identifications. 

Chauvel voluntarily has been submitting his company’s fish to random DNA testing by Guelph scientists. “The most important thing is providing the assurance that the consumer is getting what they pay for,” says Chauvel, who worked for 25 years as tech industry executive before starting his seafood business. “The regulators aren’t requiring it, but the market seems to want it. The researchers come on a random basis, and we give them unbridled access to our products. After they do the analysis, they publish the results on our website in a tamper-proof fashion. If there’s a mislabeled fish, it would be there for all the world to see.”

For our small study, Chauvel would supply samples of sockeye from his freezers, and I’d buy salmon from grocery stores in New York state, where I live—and where the attorney general’s 2018 investigation found that more than one in four samples from grocery stores was sold with something other than the official market name for that species. Some fish—including wild salmon, red snapper, and lemon sole—were mislabeled 27 percent to 87 percent of the time.

Five grocery chains received warnings. A spokesperson for New York Attorney General Letitia James says the investigation remains ongoing.

Equipped with the knowledge of markets where mislabeling had been found in the past, I bought 21 samples of mostly sockeye salmon from more than a dozen grocery stores spanning roughly 300 miles from Rochester to New York City’s Union Square. I carefully labeled and placed each into a cooler with frozen gel packs. Then I prayed that UPS would succeed in getting my cargo to Canada before it thawed into reeking fish slush. After a nail-biting, three-day delay at the border, the fish arrived thawed and stinky, but seemingly good enough for the analyses to proceed.

A few weeks later, Hanner and McCann had some results to report. DNA barcoding and stable isotope analysis revealed that Chauvel’s samples were accurately labeled by species and where they were caught.

The results of my samples were less tidy. Spoilage during the holdup at Canadian customs caused bacterial DNA to swamp the fish DNA in some samples, resulting in inconclusive identifications of 12 pieces of sockeye.

Of the nine samples tested successfully, five labeled as sockeye were authentic. Ditto for two species labeled as king, or chinook, salmon. One sample from a bag of frozen kosher filets labeled generically as “salmon” proved to be inexpensive chum salmon. A box of salmon burgers loosely identified as Alaskan wild-caught were made from pink salmon, the most abundant and cheapest of all the species (and therefore, some might say, the best choice for grinding into burgers).

The stable isotope analysis revealed the misrepresentation of some samples’ origins. “We’re comfortable saying that four of the sockeye appeared to be from Russia instead of the U.S.” as labeled, McCann says. It also showed that the scientists need a lot more data to build a robust reference library that would enable the exact origin of any salmon in the marketplace to be pinpointed.

What’s in a name? 

Experts say fraud could be greatly reduced if governments would require seafood to be labeled with precise scientific names. There are six species of wild salmon sold in North America, and most go by multiple common names—chinook (king), sockeye (red), coho (silver), pink (humpback), chum (dog, keta, or silverbrite), and steelhead trout.

“This creates ambiguity and opens the door for fraud or honest mistakes,” Hanner says. “It also makes it difficult to track species at conservation risk or indicate if a fish is tainted with banned veterinary drugs, toxic algae, or heavy metals such as mercury.”

The European Union illustrates the advantage of switching to scientific names, Hanner says. In 2010, a series of studies showed that as much as 40 percent of all seafood tested in the EU was mislabeled, but five years later, after the adoption of stricter labeling laws requiring scientific names, the rate dropped to less than 5 percent. Sockeye salmon, for example, is listed as Oncorhynchus nerka. King salmon is Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, and so on.

 As with common names, “country of origin” labels, as they’re used now, also fall short, Hanner says. “What it really means is ‘country of last transformation’—wherever the thing was packaged or processed last.” As a result, you may find Russian salmon packaged in the U.S. labeled as a “product of the U.S.” and Canadian salmon filleted in China labeled as a “product of China.”

“As a consumer, if I see a product from the U.S.A., I assume that it’s, you know, American,” Hanner says. “Not God-knows-what salmon from wherever it happened to be put in a package.”

The next helpful measure, according to Hanner, will be to implement random DNA testing all along the supply route. “Consumer surveys show 60 percent of people care where their seafood comes from,” Hanner says. “We can vote with our wallets, but we have to have transparency in the supply chain. We need governments to say, We have to do this, and do it well.”

Lowell agrees. “The onus should not be on consumers to figure out if their seafood is mislabeled,” she says. In the U.S., NOAA’s Fisheries’ Seafood Import Monitoring Program, launched in 2016, requires catch documentation for 13 common groups of seafood identified as particularly vulnerable to illegal fishing and fraud: Atlantic cod, Pacific cod, abalone, blue crab, king crab, dolphin fish (mahi mahi), grouper, red snapper, sea cucumber, shrimp, swordfish, sharks, and tuna (albacore, skipjack, bigeye, yellowfin, and bluefin). Salmon, the most popular fish in the country, aren’t included.

Conservation organizations are urging the U.S. to expand the list to salmon and all other seafood. In response, NOAA Fisheries spokesperson Michael Milstein provided a statement saying that the 13 seafood groups represent about 1,100 species—45 percent of imported seafood by volume—that are vulnerable to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud. “The program includes audits of seafood imports and deters the import of IUU fish and fish products,” he says, “giving consumers additional confidence that they are buying seafood that is legally harvested and accurately represented.”

When asked about why salmon wasn’t included on the list, NOAA spokesperson Kate Brogan says that at the time in 2015 when salmon species were evaluated by an interagency task force, NOAA determined that salmon weren’t at high risk of IUU fishing or seafood fraud. The agency is now doing another review.

Lowell says that although NOAA indicated from the outset of the program that the list would be expanded, “There has been no progress on this front,” creating “a perverse incentive for illegal importers to mislabel fish to avoid the additional documentation requirements on the species. For a species not covered by the program, an importer can simply call a product “frozen fish,” giving no more information about what fish it is, or where and how it was caught.”

In February 2021, the FDA issued a proposed rule, Requirements for Additional Traceability Records for Certain Foods, which if finalized would establish further traceability record-keeping requirements for foods including salmon and other finfish, crustaceans, and mollusks. A coalition of Oceana, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and nearly 20 other conservation groups support the rule, which the agency is required to finalize by November 2022.

In the meantime, Lowell offers some practical advice for salmon consumers. “Be that annoying person at the restaurant or the fish counter who asks a lot of questions,” she says. “If the person selling the fish can’t provide the information, pick something else.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sept. 27, 2021, to clarify that New Zealand does not farm-raise Atlantic salmon.

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.

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