Scientists recommend that you think twice before spending $15 for a red snapper filet the size of an index card. A new genetics study suggests a poor ocean cousin might be masquerading as its upscale relative on your dinner plate.
Research at the University of North Carolina shows more than three-quarters of "red snapper" samples from eight states turned out to be different species -- vermillion snapper or lane snapper -- in violation of federal law. Red snapper is increasingly rare and it usually fetches a premium price compared to other reef fish.
Cheating consumers by several dollars per pound with mislabeled fish is only the beginning of the problem, scientists said.
"The remarkable extent of product mislabeling threatens to distort the status of fish stocks, contributing to a false impression that fish stocks are keeping up with demand," reports the study's senior author, Peter B. Marko.
Seafood industry executives said the study was too small to be meaningful, and its results were overblown. They suspected that most of the samples simply were misidentified.
"Vermillion and red snapper are particularly difficult to tell apart," said Linda Candler of the National Seafood Institute, an industry association in Washington, D.C. "Species substitution actually is pretty rare."
Marko's lab started the study not as genetic detective work, but basic instruction in DNA sequencing.
His team analyzed meat from 22 fish bought from nine vendors in Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin. Details appear in the latest issue of the journal Nature.
They found that 17, or 77 percent, of the samples were not red snapper, which lives primarily in the Gulf of Mexico.
Instead, they were lane snapper and vermillion snapper -- both species from the western Atlantic Ocean. But more than half of the species in the study belong to western Pacific species, Marko said.
There are about 100 snapper species worldwide, and a dozen closely related varieties living in warmer U.S. waters, especially around reefs.
The species are called snappers because they sport canine-like teeth on their upper jaw and snap at their prey. At the dock, inspectors are supposed to weigh and identify the catch. The data is used to enforce restrictions and analyze recovery efforts.
Snapper varieties have firm, white, mild-tasting flesh. When the fish are skinned and boned, they are difficult to distinguish by sight, scientists and industry representatives say.
Red snapper, or Lutjanus campechanus, grows to more than 35 pounds and lives more than 20 years, although the commercial catch is smaller.
Many of its populations are overfished, especially by shrimp trawlers that unintentionally scoop them up and discard them as by catch losses.
Since 1996, government restrictions have strictly curtailed the red snapper harvest. But demand has not slackened and prices have been rising fast due to consumer interest in heart-healthy diets and the popularity of recipes that use snapper, like Cajun-style blackened fish.
In recent years, scientists have experimented with aquaculture to boost red snapper populations. And Gulf states have supported the construction of artificial reefs to attract young red snapper away from zones frequented by shrimp trawlers.