By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. seafood fraud -- where farmed, imported or endangered fish is sold as wild, local and sustainably-managed -- is hurting efforts to preserve ocean diversity, conservation advocates said on Wednesday.
The widespread practice is also hitting consumers who are occasionally sold cheaper or even dangerous products at premium prices, according to the marine conservation group Oceana.
While 84 percent of U.S. seafood is imported, the Food and Drug Administration inspects only 2 percent of imports for health concerns, and less than 0.001 percent of imports for fraud, said Michael Hirshfield, the group's chief scientist.
Seafood fraud can include substituting a common species for a rare one, an endangered species for one that is sustainably managed, a cultivated species for one that is caught in the wild, Hirshfield said at a briefing.
Labels on some frozen fish don't help, the group said in a report issued as part of a campaign to stop seafood fraud. The country of origin on the package refers to an imported product's last stop before coming to the United States, not where the fish was caught, the report found.
A fish caught anywhere in the Pacific Basin could be labeled as originating in China if that is where it was processed. If seafood is served in a restaurant or comes with a sauce, it's exempt from this label.
"Seafood fraud hurts our oceans by being the key way we facilitate illegal fishing," Hirshfield said. "It also undermines the general impression about how well a particular species may be doing in the ocean. If everywhere you go, you see red snapper for sale, you're not necessarily going to be believe the scientists who say red snapper's in trouble."
TRACING FISH TO WHERE IT WAS CAUGHT
Red snapper is listed as one fish to avoid by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, which offers science-based recommendations on "ocean-friendly" seafood at http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/content/media/MBA_SeafoodWatch_NationalGuide.pdf.
Red snapper is among those considered overfished, or caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life.
As an illustration, the group served journalists samples of red snapper and tilapia, both with an identical lemon caper butter sauce. Few in the room could taste the difference, but the difference in price is dollars per pound.
Mislabeling can also pose health hazards. If crab or other shellfish is included in packages of fin fish, those with shellfish allergies won't know to avoid it, the group said.
To combat seafood fraud, "the most important step is traceability," Steve Vilnit of the Maryland Fisheries Service said in an email. "Knowing the specifics about where, how and by whom your seafood is harvested greatly reduces the risk of fraud."
Todd Gray, chef at a Washington restaurant that promotes sustainably caught seafood, said that while it is now relatively easy to know where produce, dairy items and meats come from, seafood is more difficult to track to its source.
"We can meet our farmers," Gray said. "It would be great if we could get there one day with our seafood."
(Editing by Vicki Allen)