file fish

The conservation group Oceana tested fish from 21 restaurants, grocery stores or seafood markets in the Charleston area for its latest Seafood Fraud report. File/AP

Somewhere in Charleston, a catfish Po'Boy might be served that's not catfish at all. It might be flathead, a type of sole.

That would be seafood fraud — a practice becoming more rare here but still a serious problem nationwide.

The conservation group Oceana genetically tested fish from 21 restaurants, grocery stores or seafood markets in the Charleston area for its latest Seafood Fraud report, which was just released. Only one came back as not the species advertised: the Po'Boy a local restaurant sold.

The group does not identify the individual locations.

Misrepresenting and mislabeling catch to make more money on it is a problem that, despite heightened public awareness, continues to plague the business from worldwide distribution down to the restaurant plate.

The results in Charleston were a welcome contrast to national results where one of every five fish tested was mislabeled among 449 tested overall.

Other findings included:

  • Some of the most commonly collected seafood types in the study — sea bass and snapper (species other then red snapper) — had the highest rates of mislabeling, 55 and 42 percent.
  • One in three establishments visited sold at least one item of mislabeled seafood.
  • Seafood was more frequently mislabeled at restaurants and smaller markets than at the larger chain grocery stores.
  • Depleted fish species that are not sustainably caught were labeled and sold as fish considered more sustainable, or less threatened by overfishing. 

On face value, the study seems to indicate an overall improvement from earlier studies. A 2013 Oceana study found 33 percent of more than 1,200 seafood samples tested nationwide were mislabeled. In 2016, a global study found 30 percent were.

But this study doesn't indicate improvement, said Kimberly Warner, Oceana senior scientist and the report's lead author. This time, testers didn't select fish passed off as more restricted species like red snapper or tuna.

They tested for the everyday purchases less subject to restrictions: catfish, sea bass, halibut, scallops, lobster, flounder and sole.

"I don't think we can say things are getting better, but rather we can say there's still a problem," Warner said.

The federal government in 2014 began requiring traceability, or identification of species and source, as well as other restrictions for a number of species. That came five years after the U.S. General Accountability Office characterized seafood mislabeling as a major economic and food safety problem and called for a more concerted effort among federal agencies to fight it.

Fishing and conservation groups took up the campaign.

In Charleston, local efforts such as the South Carolina Aquarium's Good Catch program began promoting the freshly caught fish from the region as tastier and more responsible. People responded, said program coordinator Andrea Margiotta.

"They really do follow through with 'Farm to Table, Boat to Plate,'" she said.

Stopping the fraud is simple, both Margiotta and Warner said, by patrons speaking up and asking questions. For local catch, you can even ask the boat it came from and when. 

"Ask wherever you buy your seafood," Warner said. "Ask where it came from. Ask if it is traceable. It's important because we all want seafood to be around for us and for our children. Illegally caught fish undercut the future of seafood."

Margiotta was cautious, as well.

"We're being lied to. I think we all as consumers to speak up about what we want," Margiotta said.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.