Is the Halibut You Just Ordered Really Tilapia? Fishmonger Jon Alexis, of TJ’s Seafood, on Seafood Fraud

<em>Ripped from recent headlines:

New York Times: “Under Many Aliases, Mislabeled Foods Find Their Way to Dinner Tables”

KSEE 24 News:  “Bait & Switch Seafood”

Glamour Magazine: “That Seafood You Just Ordered? Yeah, It May Not Be What You Think It Is.”

Last month, the consumer watchdog organization Oceana studied then reported that there is “widespread seafood fraud” in New York City, and likely across the country. They reported 39% of seafood from 81 grocery stores was mislabeled.

The report went off a like a bombshell.  How does this happen…and why?

The good news is that exotic seafood from every corner of the globe is now available in more restaurants and markets than ever before.  The bad news is that this new influx of variety has made it even more difficult for consumers to know exactly what they are eating.

Unfortunately, the main motivation for mislabeling seafood is to make more profit.  The same reason restaurants lie about “grass fed beef” or “organic tomatoes.”   You may notice the difference if a restaurant substitutes grilled tilapia for halibut, but they are banking on you not noticing the substitution in a fish taco.

If they taste so similar, what’s the big deal?  Besides integrity? For starters: your health.  Both fish are light, low calorie sources of lean protein.  But Tilapia isn’t as nutrient rich as other fish. Halibut has nearly twice the potassium, and 231 mg of vitamin D, compared to zero in Tilapia.

Not to mention getting rippled off! Halibut is better than Tilapia…and thus costs 2-3 times as much.


Furthermore, we are getting more educated about the fish we eat and how it is sourced.  Switching one species that is overfished for a species that is sustainably fished is unfair to a consumer trying to make responsible seafood choices.

What makes identifying the fish you are eating even more confusing is the seafood industry’s practice of giving fish “trade names” that are different from their actual scientific name.

One of the examples in the report was escolar being labeled as “White Tuna.”  That is not mislabeling, but just a confusing trade name.  The purveyor wasn’t trying to swap out an expensive fish with an inferior one… Escolar (also known as butterfish, ecobar or walu) is a significantly more expensive fish than the canned albacore known as “white tuna.”   Instead, they were giving the fish a more comprehensible name that would help the customer know the texture and taste, which is very tuna-like.

This is a decades-old practice in the industry.  Patagonian Toothfish wasn’t selling on menus, but when they changed the name to “Chilean Sea Bass” it became one of the world’s most popular fish.  Would you order “Slimehead?” Neither would I.  But the same fish renamed “Orange Roughy” seems more appetizing.

Confused yet?  Just wait.


Barrelfish is a delicious fish found in the Gulf of Mexico.  In Australia, it’s called “Blue Nose.”  But someone started calling it “Blue Sea Bass” to capitalize on Chilean Sea Bass’s popularity.

So if a Barrelfish and a Toothfish can both be called a “Sea Bass”, even though neither are bass and have no relation to each other…and this falls under the “correct” labeling…how the hell do we expect the average consumer to know what fish they are eating?

Use Common Sense.

If the down and dirty Japanese fast food place is selling “Kobe Beef” appetizer for $5, you can probably guess it’s not Kobe Beef.  If sea bass tacos are $9.99, they probably aren’t sea bass tacos.

Get the Whole Picture…With Whole Fish

Whenever possible, buy fish from places that bring in whole fish.   First, it’s the freshest way to transport and store fish.  But it is also the best clue to know what you are eating. The report mentioned Tilefish being substituted for Halibut.  Maybe a challenged to identify a precut filet, but would you mix up these two fish?

Shop At Reputable & Knowledgeable Restaurants and Markets.

There is a reason that despite increasing presence of “gourmet grocery stores,” fish markets are a GROWING part of the Dallas food scene.  Fish is complicated.  Shop at places that make their entire livings on fish.  If the counter person can’t explain the taste difference between two fish, how can you be confident they know what fish they are putting in your bag?

Jon Alexis, a long-time contributor to, is the owner/fishmonger of TJ’s Fresh Seafood Market & Catering, 11661 Preston Road, Dallas, and the new TJ’s Seafood Market & Grill.