09/23/2014 10:37 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

Gov. Brown: Take a Stand for Healthy Oceans, Consumer Protection, and Sustainable Seafood

Adam Gault

We believe everyone has the right to know what they are eating. We're particularly picky when it comes to fish.

Over the past few years, Oceana conducted DNA testing on seafood sold in grocery stores and restaurants around the country. Our results were shocking -- 33 percent of the seafood samples we tested were mislabeled, according to FDA guidelines. In other words, when consumers thought they were purchasing one species, they were really being sold another. Called seafood fraud, this mislabeling was even more frequent in California, where more than half of the seafood tested in Los Angeles and Orange Counties was mislabeled.

Seafood mislabeling can take on many forms, from intentionally swapping one species for a completely different species to simply not disclosing what species of fish is being sold. This is unfortunate as the United States, and California in particular, offers a beautifully diverse bounty of seafood products in the marketplace -- a source of passion and inspiration for many chefs and restaurateurs and a treat for seafood lovers. But consumers need to know that not all seafood is created equal and they have the right to know exactly what seafood species they are getting.

There are health concerns when seafood is mislabeled. Some types of seafood, like tilefish, king mackerel, swordfish, and sharks, are not recommended for pregnant or nursing mothers because of the potential high levels of mercury. Escolar, a type of snake-mackerel, can cause gastrointestinal distress in some people, but it is frequently sold as "white tuna" at sushi restaurants. Sometimes, cheaper fish is substituted for a more premium one, such as summer flounder being sold as Pacific halibut. The uncertainty over what seafood exactly is on the plate erodes consumer confidence, which is unfortunate because people should eat more fish from sustainable sources.

More than 90 percent of the seafood we eat is imported, much of it from places in the world without the same environmental safeguards as in the U.S. This makes it hard for fishermen, suppliers, and retailers who want to provide sustainable seafood products to compete in the marketplace. For example, cheap, imported farmed salmon that degrades the ocean competes with well-managed, locally caught wild salmon. Some seafood is caught using gear that damages the seafloor or catches high numbers of un-intended species like threatened fish, sea turtles, sharks, and sea lions. Seafood caught this way still makes its way to the market and mislabeling makes it impossible to distinguish the damaging products from the responsible ones. Furthermore, by disguising illegally caught fish, seafood fraud also undermines efforts to reduce overfishing and protect wildlife.

Eating more seafood that is well-managed can actually help the ocean, by supporting fisheries for species that are at healthy levels where responsible fishermen are fishing sustainably. While it may seem counter-intuitive coming from an ocean conservation organization, we truly can save the oceans and feed the world by eating more of the right types of fish and fighting for better fishery management. But in order for all this to work, consumers need to be able to find out exactly what they are buying.

Californians are paying more attention to what seafood they eat. We want to make the right choices for ourselves, the environment, and the economy, and that requires honest and accurate labeling of seafood. With the right information, we are empowered to be part of the solution.

California State Senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) authored Senate Bill 1138, which will make huge strides to solving seafood fraud by requiring retailers and wholesalers to label exactly what species of fish they are selling. This will give California the ability to enforce accurate labeling through DNA testing of seafood. The bill passed the California legislature with bipartisan support and is now on Governor Brown's desk awaiting his signature. SB 1138 provides flexibility and liability protections for businesses, and has garnered a wide body of support from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to seafood restaurants and fish markets, to Los Angeles County, to some of the larger seafood companies in the state.

California has a track record of leading the nation in consumer protection and awareness. Providing accurate information about seafood will ultimately benefit consumers, fishermen, the ocean, and is good for business. We hope Governor Brown will take this golden opportunity to take a strong, reasonable step forward to restoring confidence in our seafood market by signing SB 1138 into law.