That grouper you had for dinner last night may not actually be grouper at all. According to a recent report from Oceana, an international ocean-protection organization, seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25% to 70% of the time, at least in part because of the economic incentives to label cheaper species as more expensive ones. But consumers who actually want to know what they're eating will soon have a choice thanks to Gulf Wild, a initiative from the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance that puts numbered, digitally printed tags on individual fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico.
Gulf Wild was born as a response to the Gulf oil disaster "as a solution to prove that our fish didn't come out of oily water," explains Jason DeLaCruz, a commercial Gulf fisherman who works with the organization. Fishermen who participate in the program individually tag each fish caught on their boat (on a grouper-catching boat like the one DeLaCruz operates, up to 1,000 fish can be tagged on a trip). When consumers, retail buyers, and chefs buy the fish, they can look up the tags on Gulf Wild's website to learn about the species, the fishermen who caught it, and the 10 square mile harvesting location in the Gulf. The organization also tests the fish for toxins.
"The number one focus is to make this a fisherman-driven program, to make sure he's getting a premium price for his product," says DeLaCruz. "A lot of guys in town are having to compete selling our fish to different restaurants with other things labeled as grouper that aren't actually grouper. There are so many fraudulent fish." Hopefully, if restaurants start advertising their tagged fish, consumers will shy away from potentially counterfeit products, providing a boost to local fishermen.
The pilot Gulf Wild program, which launched in March, works with restaurants in Alabama and Florida, as well as with fishermen and fish markets in four out of the five Gulf States. In the next few weeks, the program will launch with one million tags, 38 high-production commercial fishing boats, and 100 fishermen. The program will cover 19 species, including red snapper and grouper.
Gulf Wild has no plans to expand outside of the Gulf anytime soon, but there are other organizations starting similar initiatives. San Francisco seafood supplier Cleanfish is experimenting with an electronic tagging system of its own, and the California Ocean Protection Council is working on a protocol for a larger fish barcoding system in the state.
DeLaCruz, for his part, just wants to see fishermen get the compensation they deserve for correctly labeling their catches and working with high sustainability standards in mind. "We want to get the fisherman to make as much money as he possibly can," he says.
[Image: Gulf Wild]