That ‘Wild’ Salmon You Splurged On May Really Be Cheap Farmed Fish

A new report from Oceana found that 82 percent of fish samples tested were mislabeled.
(Photo: Juanmonino/Getty Images)
Oct 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Currently, the price for wild Alaskan king salmon fillets at Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market is $30 a pound. For $20 a pound, you can buy a whole king salmon, which is still far more than you’ll pay per pound for a piece of farmed Atlantic salmon at the supermarket. And when it comes to salmon from some of the most famed fisheries in Alaska, such as the Copper River, the high price tag comes with huge amounts of flavor, healthy fats, and sustainability bona fides. As for that farmed salmon? It depends on where and how it was raised—but even the best-tasting, but ecologically sounds farmed salmon will still cost less.

Diners and shoppers who are paying that premium for king or other types of wild salmon may be getting duped, however, according to a new report from Oceana. The conservation group found that 43 percent of the 82 salmon samples bought in Virginia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York in the winter of 2013-14 (when wild salmon are out of season) were mislabeled—and 69 percent of those mislabeled pieces of fish were farmed salmon being sold as wild.

“When consumers opt for wild-caught U.S. salmon, they don’t expect to get a farmed or lower-value product of questionable origins,” Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana, said in a press release. “This type of seafood fraud can have serious ecological and economic consequences. Not only are consumers getting ripped off, but responsible U.S. fishermen are being cheated when fraudulent products lower the price for their hard-won catch.”

Most wild salmon fisheries in the U.S. are listed as Best Choice or Good Alternative by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which rates the sustainability of retail fish options. Atlantic salmon raised in net pens from Scotland, Chile, British Columbia, Norway, and Chile all get the red “avoid” label from Seafood Watch. There are some types of farmed salmon that earn the better ratings, but Oceana doesn’t specify how the farmed Atlantic salmon being passed off as wild was raised.

Salmon is the most popular fish in the United States, our hunger for it outstripping that of both shrimp and tuna. But while our domestic salmon fisheries—which supply some of the most prized salmon in the world—could supply 80 percent of that demand, 70 percent of the American catch is exported. But because the average American diner values low prices and bland flavors over flavorful, high-quality fish, salmon is not the exception to the rule, and much of America’s best, most sustainable fish is sent overseas.

The wild salmon that either stays or makes it way back to the United States after being processed abroad (which is a thing), is more likely to dependably show up in places that you wouldn’t expect. According to Oceana, consumers have a better chance of getting actual wild salmon—or whatever type of salmon the label promises—at the grocery store, and fish purchased from major grocery chains are eight times less likely to be mislabeled than at a smaller retailer that may not have the same requirements for labeling retail items.

If there’s any good news to be gleaned from the report, it’s that the results were worse than a similar round of testing conducted in 2012 during the wild salmon season. Only 7 percent of the samples were mislabeled then, so if you want to make sure the wild salmon you spend extra cash on was actually plucked out of a river, not a pen, buy it while it is in season.