There's a new sheriff in town, but unlike his land-roaming brethren, these cops are after aquatic crimes. From shrimp heists to illegal fishing, dolphin shootings to whale ship strikes, fishy crimes (in the literal sense) are abundant, but thankfully NOAA's fish cops are on hand to fight the lawlessness of the sea. All suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
One such crime unfolded recently in Los Angeles. The investigation began innocently enough, but as it deepened, it uncovered a crime ring as widespread as the Southland and as rampant as a freeway traffic jam. The crime? Fraudulently labeled seafood. The culprit? Restaurants and retailers throughout the city -- and not just your underground mom and pop establishments, but household names and well-known chains, including Trader Joe's, Ralphs and P.F. Chang's. The Los Angeles Seafood Task Force found that 74 percent of surveyed seafood products were mislabeled -- crawfish sold as lobster, farmed salmon sold as wild -- with consumers none the wiser.
Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated incident. Last year a Boston Globe investigation found that half of seafood in restaurants and grocery stores was mislabeled, and similar findings emerged across the country. When even seafood expert Chef Barton Seaver gets duped at the fish counter, we have a serious problem on our hands.
Though NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement is a valuable resource for protecting the safety of consumers and fishermen, regulation of the seafood industry is still leagues behind the meat industry. We need to support legislation that enforces stricter seafood labeling, so that as consumers we don't fall victim to further fish capers. We can also make smarter choices at restaurants and the fish counter. We may not all be lucky enough to live near a dock, but we can ask questions and demand traceability and a clear story behind the fish that we purchase. And with 91 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. coming from overseas through an opaque supply chain, choosing wild American seafood is an obvious step we can all take to improve traceability and support traditional fishing communities and jobs.
Consumer demand leads to positive change. Choose wisely.
Note: This article originally appeared on HuffPo.