If you’ve eaten fish recently, there’s a decent chance you got screwed.
A recent Oceana review of studies that analyzed 25,000 seafood items at restaurants and markets around the world revealed that about one in five were mislabeled.
“Obviously, it’s a problem because it’s a form of fraud,” says L.A. chef Michael Cimarusti, who is a proponent of sustainable seafood at his establishments, which include the widely acclaimed Providence fine-dining restaurant. “It doesn’t reflect well on the industry.”
In L.A., for example, a sushi chef was sentenced to probation and fined after serving whale meat at a Santa Monica restaurant. In Brazil, 55 percent of “shark” samples tested were identified as critically endangered largetooth sawfish. And there are so many occurrences, like haddock being passed off as cod, of fish being sold as a more expensive kind of fish.
So Dock to Dish, the community-supported fishery program that Cimarusti helps lead, has launched a $75,000 Kickstarter campaign to create an advanced traceability system for seafood. The system, which Dock to Dish plans to unveil in Montauk this summer, would allow restaurants and other buyers of fish to track seafood from a fisherman to its arrival point. Fish would be loaded into bar-coded plastic totes, with real-time tracking technology that uses satellites to update the location every five minutes, “from the point it’s picked up at the dock to it winding up at your back door,” Cimarusti says. “This technology is something that, if it’s applied on a larger scale, could certainly fight seafood fraud.”
Dock to Dish’s L.A. operation is located at Cape Seafood and Provisions, Cimarusti’s new sustainable-seafood shop, which doesn’t sell any farm-raised fin fish. Dock to Dish also supplies fish to L.A. restaurants like Niki Nakayama’s n/naka and Bruce Kalman’s Union.
“What’s completely different with Dock to Dish as compared to the larger seafood system is that it’s supply-based and not demand-based,” Cimarusti says. “What you get depends on what the fisherman are catching the day before. It’s all fully traceable, never inventoried. If it’s caught today, it’s going to be delivered tomorrow. There are no other people in the supply chain.”
There are many reasons Cimarusti believes in serving better fish. It’s about the environment and the importance of the American fisherman and not wanting antibiotics in your food. It’s also about better flavor.
“Wild fish absolutely tastes better,” Cimarusti says. “Farm-raised fish has definitely come a long way; there are people out there being mindful of the environment and doing the right thing, but farm-raised fish for the most part are fed a diet that doesn’t reflect what their wild counterparts eat.”
And when farm-raised fish such as “ranched bluefin tuna” eat forage fish, the act of pulling those forage fish out of the ocean disrupts the ecosystem.
Dock-to-Dish and this Kickstarter campaign are just the beginning of a movement toward more transparency and sustainability in the seafood industry.
“As with any sort of change, someone has to prove that it works,” Cimarusti says. “This Kickstarter campaign is an effort to make that point, that this is something that can be done. It’s going to start with a handful of fisherman and a handful of restaurants.”
Sometimes, it takes a small step for you to start making a major wave.
“Once you prove that this is a system that delivers traceable seafood without adding a tremendous cost, people will start to demand it,” Cimarusti says. “People in the larger, more traditional seafood business will start making changes. Once you establish this example, they will want to be part of this whole movement.”