Bait and switch: Local fish sellers ensure real deals

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

David Moyse, general manager of Fishbones, holds a farm-raised Atlantic salmon delivered fresh Wednesday morning. "I trust my fish monger," Moyse said about the controversy surround some restaurants mislabeling their daily catches and seafood dishes. One of the best ways to avoid confusion, he said, is to buy whole fish.

LEWISTON — David Moyse, the general manager and executive chef of Fishbones, is no fish fool.

Sustainable seafood logo
Supplied image

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute is using its sustainable seafood logo to brand fish that is harvested responsibly along the Maine coast. It covers haddock, northern shrimp, American lobster, Atlantic cod, Atlantic sea scallops, Atlantic pollock and whiting.

For almost five years, Moyse has bought and cooked fish for the downtown restaurant. And he makes sure Fishbones' fish — from haddock and salmon to tuna and cod — are all the genuine article.

But he knows there are unscrupulous fish sellers out there. He's heard stories of people serving an inexpensive fish in place of a pricey one, capitalizing on the similarity in appearance and taste between different species.

"It is kind of easy to substitute fish in and fish out," Moyse said. "I could get fooled."

Fish sellers are fooling lots of people.

The Boston Globe recently completed a five-month-long investigation of fish sales in Massachusetts. The newspaper bought fish in 134 restaurants, grocery stores and seafood markets. It then sent 183 samples to a DNA lab.

They found that almost half — 48 percent — were mislabeled. Escolar was sold in place of tuna. Hake was sold for baby cod. Frozen Pacific cod was sold as fresh New England cod.

Another study, published in the December edition of Consumer Reports magazine, collected 190 seafood samples at restaurants and stores around New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Their DNA tests found that about one quarter of the fish had been mislabeled.

"That's staggering," Moyse said of the reports.

The news has left consumers in a bind over how to buy fish.

Moyse's number one piece of advice sounds simple: Know your fish. The more someone can learn how a particular fish ought to look, smell or taste, the less likely they can be fooled.

People can also help themselves by learning where it came from, something that ought to help someone decide whether a fish has been frozen, raised on a farm or caught within sight of the Maine coast.

The Gulf of Maine Research Center, which is on the Portland waterfront, is also helping.

In February, the organization kicked off a branding program meant to identify fish that are responsibly harvested in Maine. It hopes to encourage people to buy fish that are being caught in a way that doesn't hurt the long-term sustainability of the industry.

The logo is used by several wholesalers and Portland restaurants and is prominent on the seafood counters at both Hannaford and Shaw's supermarkets.

"(Sellers) have to demonstrate that they can trace their product back to the Gulf of Maine," said Jen Levin, who runs the institute's sustainability program. Without something like the logo, it's impossible to know where the fish came from or if a switch has taken place.

"At the end of the day, I think it also puts a bit of fear into the supply chain in saying, 'Gosh, I don't want to be caught doing that,'" Levin said.

A call to a representative of Shaw's supermarkets went unanswered. A Hannaford spokesman sent a prepared statement.

"Hannaford Supermarkets has long-standing relationships with seafood vendors who understand our commitment to integrity," spokesman Eric Blom said. "These vendors are expert in their field and at procuring specific varieties of seafood."

"We provide these vendors with detailed specifications, including the species and genus they are to provide," he said. "We also are particular about the labeling of that product, from the time it arrives at Hannaford, so that each variety of seafood is clearly identified as it moves through our distribution system and into stores."

Always Fresh La Rochelle's Seafood on Mill Street in Auburn also works with a variety of sellers to supply it with seafood such as yellow fin tuna and farm-raised salmon. La Rochelle's stands by it all, said Jessica Woodward, who ran the counter on Friday. 

She has direct knowledge that their biggest seller, haddock, is the real deal.

The fish arrives whole at Auburn. She cuts up much of it herself.

"We know it's real," she said. "We know it's fresh." 

On a good week, the shop will sell as much as 100 pounds of haddock, Woodward said.

Fishbones' Moyse also stressed the need for knowing the wholesaler.

"You've got to have some serious trust in your suppliers," he said. Customers need to feel that the person at the seafood counter or the waiter at the restaurant can be trusted, too.

"I'm a big believer in truth in menu," Moyse said. "If I say I'm selling customers tiger shrimp, then I'm selling them tiger shrimp. If I'm selling free-range chicken breast, then it's got to be free-range chicken breast."

And he's careful never to promise something he cannot deliver.

"I stay away from the halibuts and the snappers," Moyse said. They might show up as a special, but their supply is too uncertain to make them part of the permanent menu. "If I run out, I run out. I know I won't have to try and fix it on the menu."

Like LaRochelle's, he is up-front about the fact that his salmon is farm-raised rather than caught in the wild. Often the wild-caught salmon sells for a far higher price. Some people believe it tastes better.

"My salmon is farm-raised, and I'm proud of it," he said. "It's Maine farm-raised salmon. It's a great quality salmon, and it stays at a great price point, and it's sustainable. It goes from the tank to the warehouse to my shop in like three days."

Lots of Moyse's hints for buying fish are common sense.

"The people at the fish counters hate me because, before I buy any piece of fish, I want to touch it and I want to smell it," he said. With time, people can tell the fine differences between cod and haddock, for instance. 

"They're very similar," he said. "They're flaky, white fish."

Yet, the cod fillets he uses are usually much larger. The seasoned diner or shopper knows the difference.

"Do your research and make sure you're buying the highest quality, especially when it comes to seafood," Moyse said. "And you want to use it the day you buy it or the very next day. Fish is super-perishable."

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KRIS KUCERA's picture

Yeah, and business can regulate itself.

Sure it can. Just like Wall St. regulated itself, along with AIG, BP, Enron, etc. For instance, the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act in '98 was a huge mistake, allowing banks to delve in (very risky) proprietary trading, unsupervised and FDIC insured. Look where that got us. (Yes, Clinton deserves a good share of the blame.)

Capitalism without supervision -- to wit, government regulations -- is a recipe for disaster. To say otherwise it to disregard history and the very real causes of Great Recession. It wasn't too much regulation that got us where we are -- Turdsville, USA -- it was too little oversight.

For every honest LaRochelle's and Fishbones, there are countless miscreants without any conscience.


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