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Fish fraud police: Are you getting what you pay for?

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
WDFW Officer Erik Olson inspects a seafood market for mislabeled fish.

SEATTLE – Some seafood sold in the Northwest isn't what it seems.

Mislabeled fish is more common than you might think according to the few cops trying to make sure you get the species you paid for. Now those who are on patrol are looking for higher penalties to deter fish cheaters.

Washington Fish and Wildlife Officer Erik Olsen trained to become a game warden, but his job has also turned him into a seafood connoisseur.

Funny business on the label

On a recent morning, Olsen drops in unannounced at the seafood counters of half a dozen stores and markets in Seattle. He's on the lookout for misbranded fish, which he sometimes can spot with the naked eye. Other times it takes a lot more sleuthing.

"It's kind of hard when it doesn't have the head on it and everything else," Olsen says with a chuckle.

Funny business on the label is also a tipoff. At an Asian market, the manager gets a gentle scolding for omissions.

"I know that is probably farm raised Atlantic salmon, but you need to actually say that on there," Olsen tells the grocer.

"Say on the label?" he asks.

"Correct. On the label so the consumer can make an informed decision."

It's about the money

Olson could write a ticket, but the contrite manager gets off with a verbal warning. The officer saves his ire for bigger fish, you might say.

"Quite honestly all this stuff, it's always about the money," Olsen says. "It's always about the bottom line."

The ill-gotten profit comes from misbranding farmed salmon as more expensive wild-caught. Or swapping among species, say less expensive sockeye for premium king. Or a switcheroo like cheap imported Greenland turbot for Pacific halibut.

Those are all examples of rip-offs that state or federal agents have busted in this region. Fish fraud can happen at any stage of the supply chain.

DNA testing

Olson figures about 15 percent of seafood in the marketplace is masquerading as something other than what it actually is. His is in the middle range of various estimates.

For the past three years, a University of Washington-Tacoma environmental scientist has assigned students to run DNA tests on salmon sold at retail and in South Puget Sound restaurants.

Professor Erica Cline says more than a third — 38 percent — of the restaurant samples came back as a different species than what the menu said.

"That was the really high shocker," she says.

By contrast, Cline says the vast majority of tested grocery stores were honest.

"There could be a number of things going on there. I think grocery stores probably are mostly larger chains and are pretty heavily scrutinized."

Cooked fraud harder to discover

Cline says once a fillet is cooked and sauced in a restaurant, it's hard to prove fraud without a DNA test. Cline says when she dines out she asks about where the fish came from. If she gets a dodgy answer, she orders something else.

In Washington state, the deputy chief of the Fish and Wildlife police is looking for a legislator who'll champion higher penalties. Mike Cenci says seafood mislabeling is currently a misdemeanor with a maximum $200 fine for the first offense.

"If you're at the retail level and have got a mislabeled package or two, that might be enough deterrent," Cenci says. "But if you are dealing in tens of thousands of dollars in seafood products — major fraud there — that would be the cost of doing business. That's not a disincentive to discontinue that kind of practice or fraud."

Cutbacks hampering efforts

The feds will sometimes throw the book at big time bait and switchers. Cenci separately has to stave off budget cuts to the few cops on this beat.

In Salem, a state police lieutenant says Oregon Fish and Wildlife troopers have the authority but rarely the time to conduct inspections for misbranding. Earlier this year, a report from the conservation group Oceana called the national enforcement effort against fish fraud "virtually nonexistent."

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Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.