Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Know Thy Snapper 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Will the Real Red snapper please stand up?Next time you purchase "red snapper" at a restaurant or seafood counter, be warned: it probably isn't.

A University of North Carolina Chapel Hill science class discovered (by accident, during an experiment to sequence red snapper DNA) that about 75% of fish marketed as "red snapper" (Lutjanus campechanus) is actually one of two more common - cheaper - species, the lane snapper (Lutjanus synagris), or vermilion snapper (Rhomboplites aurorubens). But before you say, "I don't really care if it's red snapper, vermilion snapper or a gosh-darned scarlet snapper!" - consider that customers like yourself are being defrauded of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars each year by paying premium prices for a mislabeled, relatively cheap fish.

You're best off purchasing whole fish: not only can you personally verify the freshness of your finny purchase, but there are subtle visual difference between the species. For example, marinefisheries.org states that the real Red McCoy is...
"color pinkish red over entire body, whitish below; long triangular snout; anal fin sharply pointed; no dark lateral spot"
the lane snapper is
"color silvery-pink to reddish with short, irregular pink and yellow lines on its sides; diffuse black spot, about as large as the eye; the dorsal fin centered above the lateral line; outer margin of caudal fin blackish."
...while the imposter vermilion snapper,
"color of entire body reddish, with a series of short, irregular lines on its sides, diagonal blue lines formed by spots on the scales above the lateral line; sometimes with yellow streaks below the lateral line; large canine teeth absent; orientation of mouth and eye give it the appearance of looking upward; no dark lateral spot."
There's also a major difference in size - the red snapper generally weighs up to 20 pounds (the record was a 46-and-a-half-pounder), while the lane and vermilion are usually one pound or less. All of this, of course, is moot if you're buying skinless, cut filets or cooked snapper. In that case, you should probably talk to the students at UNC Chapel Hill about a DNA test. For the fish, not you.

Even more disturbing: your fancy appetizer may actually be Devils on a Manta Ray's Back - it is also alleged that a large percentage of what are sold as "scallops" are actually circular pieces of meat cut from the "wing" of skates and rays. But, as Begging To Differ points out,
In the Case of the Fake Red Snapper, I'm guessing that most people won't care whether or not their snapper is red or lane, as long as it tastes good. A small number higher end restaurants and suppliers may take steps to prove that they're really selling Lutjanus campechanus, but that's about it. Everyone else will gladly eat lane snapper while calling it red snapper just as others eat skate ray meat cut out with a cookie cutter and call it scallops.
According to Dr. Peter B. Marko, assistant professor of marine sciences at UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences,
"Red snapper is the most sought-after snapper species and has the highest prices, and many people, including me, believe it tastes best," Marko said. "Mislabeling to this extent not only defrauds consumers, but also risks adversely affecting estimates of stock size for this species if it influences the reporting of catch data used in fisheries management. The potential for this kind of bias in fisheries data depends on at what point in the commercial industry fish are mislabeled, which is something that we currently know little about."
It's possible the snapper switcheroo has been going on for many years, considering the international range of aliases for lane snapper:
English language common names include lane snapper, candy striper, rainbow snapper, bream, godbless, mexican snapper, moonlight grunt, pot snapper, redfish, redtailed snapper, snapper, spot snapper, and williacke. Other common names include areoco (Portuguese), argente (French), bermejuelo (Spanish), biajaiba (Spanish), chino (Spanish), coral largu (Papiamento), kisenfuedai (Japanese), luciano-riscado (Portuguese), lucjan smugowy (Polish), manchego (Spanish), mancheva (Spanish), paguette (French), pargo (Spanish), pargo biajaiba (Spanish), pargo guanapo (Spanish), pargo viajaiba (Spanish), rayado (Spanish), rouge (French), royac (French), sarde (French), vermelho-arioco (Portuguese), villajaiba (Spanish), vivaneau gazon (French), vivaneau raye (French), and yeux de boeuf (French).
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill press release
Science Daily
Marginal Revolution: "Fishy Fraud"
Begging to Differ: A Free Market Failure