If you go to a restaurant in Beaufort, Bluffton or on Hilton Head Island, chances are high seafood will be on the menu.
Seafood is a point of pride in coastal South Carolina, where it is served up to locals and tourists who flock to the area expecting fresh, local fare. But it's easy for consumers to be fooled when they sit down at a seaside restaurant and assume what they're paying for came out of nearby waters.
More often than not, the supply chain from ocean to plate is a long one, industry experts say. That salmon could have come from the U.S., or maybe it was raised on a farm in Canada or Chile. Current regulations dictate supermarkets must label the country of origin, but restaurants are not required to.
Knowing the source of seafood is important for consumers wanting to eat authentic dishes and support local fishermen. Although the industry is rife with fraud and mislabeling, there are steps consumers can take to become savvy about their fish.
The best way to ensure you are getting local seafood is by knowing what is in season, said David Harter, president of the Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club. Harter often gives lectures about seafood and what people should expect when they order it at restaurants.
For example, local oysters are most available in fall and winter. If they're on the menu in the summer, they didn't come from here.
Having some basic knowledge about fish species will also help you avoid a scam, Harter said.
Knowing that commercial fishing for Atlantic salmon is prohibited and that any Atlantic salmon found in the market is farm-raised will help you recognize when a restaurant is falsely advertising it as wild. There's nothing wrong with eating farm-raised salmon, Harter said, but farm-raised usually costs $6-$7 a pound and wild-caught can cost $16-$18 a pound.
Or if a menu lists its local fish simply as grouper, the restaurant could be serving a common red grouper and charging for a more expensive black grouper.
"It comes down to asking questions of the server. Do they know what kind of grouper? If they don't know, I expect them to go find out," Harter said.
The biggest issue is price, and passing one fish off for another or using imported fish instead of local fish are ways distributors and restaurants can save money, said Frank Blum, executive director of the South Carolina Seafood Alliance, an industry trade group.
About 20 percent of area restaurants are buying seafood directly from fishermen, estimated Miles Altman, a charter fishing captain who used to own a wholesale fish market on Hilton Head.
"The bulk of these places are serving nice fresh fish, but I'd have a hard time believing it's all local," he said. But just because it isn't local doesn't mean it isn't fresh, he added. "A good frozen fish can be as good as fresh fish. 'Frozen' got a bad name a long time ago as a last-ditch effort to save it. But if you freeze it the right way, right away, it can be just as good as when it was caught. It's really a handling issue."
Another issue is demand, which local fishermen have a hard time meeting, said Larry Toomer, owner of Bluffton Oyster Co.
"It's impossible. Between Mother Nature and regulations, it's hard to catch a bunch of fish," Toomer said. With so many rules restricting the time frame certain fish can be caught and how much one boat can catch, it can tie the hands of local fishermen, he said.
Bad weather further exacerbates the problem. For example, after three years of poor catches, the opening of federal shrimping waters on May 1 was met with uncertainty by area shrimpers. Cold, rainy weather can wreak havoc on harvests, leaving many trawlers less than optimistic about this season's outlook.
Under such circumstances, it can be tempting for restaurants and suppliers to go for imports or substitutes, unbeknownst to customers.
With an astonishing 92 percent of the nation's seafood now imported, seafood fraud is a growing problem. The conservation group Oceana reported last year that 33 percent of the more than 1,200 seafood samples it purchased across the country were mislabeled under Food and Drug Administration guidelines. In a different study, Oceana reported that seafood mislabeling can lead consumers to pay up to twice as much for certain fish when restaurants serve cheaper substitutes.
The deception was a huge problem in the industry, but it's getting much better, at least in the Lowcountry, said Craig Reaves, owner of Sea Eagle Market in Beaufort.
Just as area restaurants are emphasizing farm to table, Reaves said boat-to-table practices are a growing trend. It's becoming common to see what farm a restaurant's vegetables came from, and the next step is seeing the dock, boat and even captain's name next to the fish on a menu, he said. "There's a big shift for that. The public is demanding it."
There are also efforts by state and federal lawmakers to pass laws that help consumers get the seafood they are paying for.
A seafood labeling bill in the S.C. Senate Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources would make it a misdemeanor to intentionally mislabel seafood, including on restaurant menus. It would define "local" seafood as seafood caught or grown in South Carolina, Georgia or North Carolina.
In Congress, the Safety and Fraud Enforcement Act for Seafood would require information about when and where seafood was caught to accompany it through to final sale.
Reaves said more than anything, the goal should be to provide consumers with enough information to make an educated decision about what to buy.
"It's the consumer's choice. There's nothing wrong if you need to buy a $3 tilapia. The problem is people not knowing what they're getting and assuming they're supporting local fishermen."
Follow reporter Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.