SEATTLE -- Wild-caught Pacific salmon is more myth than reality on some Puget Sound restaurant menus, a study at the University of Washington Tacoma has found.
About 38 percent of samples from Tacoma-area restaurants showed a menu was promoting farm-raised Atlantic salmon as wild-caught Pacific salmon, or calling a coho a king. Grocery stores and fish markets got better scores, with only about 7 percent of store samples mislabeled.
"I'm shocked at the number of substitutions that we encountered," said Erica Cline, an assistant professor in the university's environmental program who was one of two biology instructors leading the study.
Cline wanted to give her students some hands-on experience using DNA to distinguish species and thought this project would make the learning more fun. She decided to look at salmon after another study conducted in New York City found many restaurants were serving farm-raised Atlantic salmon and saying it was the wild Pacific fish.
She was hoping that the results would be better so close to the waters where the wild salmon are caught but Cline said she was disappointed.
The students discovered that the most often mislabeled fish were served at inexpensive sushi and teriyaki restaurants. Most of their samples came from establishments near the university and for the most part did not include the fancy, cloth napkin places.
But despite the lack of diversity in the sampling and that salmon from fewer than 50 restaurants and stores were tested, Cline said the results were still significant and point to the need for further study.
A peer-reviewed journal for biology teachers will publish an article by Cline and her fellow researcher Jennifer Gogarten in an upcoming issue. They are waiting to hear from another journal that focuses on food research.
She's hoping other biology teachers at colleges and high schools will duplicate the study in their communities and then they can work together to create a national database on salmon mislabeling. Cline noted that the DNA testing revealed which species the fish was, not where it was caught. Since Atlantic salmon is farm-raised, the results are the same: Pacific salmon is wild and Atlantic is not.
It's difficult to tell wild Alaska salmon from farm-raised Atlantic salmon when it's cut up and cooked, so most restaurant-goers would never know if they were being fooled, Cline said, but she hopes her study and others like it could lead to stronger enforcement of federal laws that prohibit false labeling of fish and other animals.
"It's consumer fraud," she said.
It's also a practice that has hurt the fishing industry and made environmental efforts to maintain fisheries that much more difficult, said Janis Harsila, manager of the Puget Sound Salmon Commission.
Over the years, as farm-raised salmon have entered the market in larger numbers, the price of wild salmon has dropped.
"It's been an ongoing problem for years," she said of the mislabeling. Fishermen take an especially negative view in the Pacific Northwest, where consumers prefer wild salmon and even ask for it. Pacific salmon swim in the waters off Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California, but most are caught from Oregon north.
Harsila said she's seen salmon mislabeled but doubts the average person would be able to tell the difference.
Consumers do have some tools they can use to make sure they're not being sold farm-raised fish when they prefer wild caught salmon, said Kirsten Wlaschin, director of marketing for Ivar's Restaurants, a Washington seafood icon for 73 years.
Chefs can tell by the feel of the fish and its oil content but consumers can ask their server what region the salmon is from, what species it is and if it's fresh or frozen.
"They should be able to answer or find someone to answer," Wlaschin said. If they can't, then they may want to take their business elsewhere.