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It’s not just your crab cakes that may not be what they seem. A new study from Oceana reveals widespread mislabeling of salmon, too. The ocean conservation and advocacy organization DNA tested 82 salmon samples from restaurants and grocery stores across multiple states last winter and found 43 percent were mislabeled. Of the D.C. samples, 45 percent were mislabeled. Most commonly, “wild salmon” was actually farmed Atlantic salmon. 

Mislabeling appears to be far more rampant in the winter during the off-season for wild salmon. Previous testing by Oceana during peak commercial salmon fishing season found only seven percent of samples were mislabeled across multiple states. Salmon was also five times more likely to be mislabeled in restaurants than in grocery stores.

While diners might be able to spot the deep reddish-pink flesh of wild sockeye salmon, wild king salmon and farmed salmon can look very similar. “We’ve had doppleganger-type exhibits where we’ll have a fishmonger cut fish fillets to look similar and people have to guess which is the wild salmon, which is the farmed salmon,”says Oceana Senior Scientist Kimberly Warner, a lead author on the report. “It’s really hard, even for chefs sometimes, to tell the difference.”

Oceana began its study by searching for online menus that listed wild, king, and Alaskan/Pacific salmon. They visited a range of places from grocery stores to sushi spots to takeaway joints to very high-end restaurants. “I wouldn’t say any particular type of venue is exempt,” Warner says of the mislabeling.

Oceana doesn’t name the restaurants it investigates because they might not necessarily be the ones responsible for the seafood fraud. Mislabeling can happen anywhere in the supply chain, including with the fisherman or the distributor.

Warner says that mislabeled fish is typically advertised with very vague information. She advises diners who are concerned about the origins of their seafood to ask a server if they can check with the chef about where specifically the salmon was caught or what kind of wild salmon it is. “If they can’t give you more specific answers or if it looks like they’re just making up an answer to make you happy, you might want to choose something else.”

Some farming operations use antibiotics and pose environmental threats. Most of the farmed salmon available in the U.S. comes from overseas.

Oceana has long pushed for better seafood traceability, and now there’s some hope: Last year, the White House established the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud. Warner says they expect to hear plans from the task force this December.

“There’s a lot of mystery in the supply chain, which is why we keep putting out reports and asking for seafood traceability,” Warner says.

Photo via Shutterstock