Thinking of some fish for dinner? Maybe a nice red snapper filet? Beware, because the fish you buy may not be snapper at all.
According to a study by Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation group, one-third of the more than 1,200 seafood items purchased by researchers nationwide between 2010 and 2012 was mislabeled. DNA samples showed the fish was something other than what the label claimed. The most commonly mislabeled fish was snapper. Researchers found 87 percent of the snapper they purchased from stores and restaurants was improperly labeled. Among the most common substitutes for snapper: seabream, tilapia and rockfish.
Tony Maltese, who has spent 50 years in the seafood industry as a commercial fisherman and a retailer — he's a former vice president at the Fairway Market grocery chain in New York — says faking fish is all too easy for a crooked merchant.
"The average person looking at it, they can't tell. But you can sell four or five different fish that look like a red snapper and they're not a red snapper," he told CNBC's "American Greed."
The Oceana study blames the widespread fraud on an "increasingly complex and obscure seafood supply chain," making it difficult to determine whether the fraud starts on the boat, at the wholesaler, at the store or a combination of all three.
Maltese says that while most people in the industry are honest, the incentives for some to cheat keep growing.
"Right now, the state of the fishing industry in this country is tough," he said. "I've been doing it my whole life and it becomes harder and harder every year to make a living."
He blames government regulations aimed at controlling overfishing, as well as unscrupulous merchants who can, for example, purchase swai — an Asian catfish — for $3 or $4 per pound, then sell it in the U.S. as grouper for more than five times that amount. The more people cheat, the more difficult it becomes for honest fishermen to make a living.