Six Tips on Buying Fish, From Cod & Capers Owner Steve Gyland

In the wake of Oceana's recent report on South Florida fish fraud, Clean Plate Charlie had a chat with Cod & Capers' owner Steve Gyland to learn more about how to buy fresh fish. These tips are from a guy who's been working with the ocean's bounty for more than three decades.

Gyland began his career as a commercial fisherman in the '70s and eventually moved to dry land when he opened the Palm Beach Gardens fish market Cod & Capers in 1983.

Today, his new, 8,000-square-foot market and indoor/outdoor bistro-style restaurant offers more than 20 cuts of fish from all over the world, as well as a large assortment of shellfish, shrimp, and prepared seafood dishes.

Here, Gyland gives us tips for how to purchase fish -- whether you're out to dinner or in the grocery store.

1. Eat Farmed Fish
Farmed fish can be just as good -- if not better -- as wild fish, according to Gyland.

"We try to market as much local Florida fish as we can, but we can't have it all 365 days a year," said Gyland. "We have to learn how to farm our oceans responsibly, and aquaculture is the only way."

Although most people associate farmed fish with low-quality, less-healthy options, Gyland claims it's almost the exact opposite so long as the farmed fish come from distributors practicing healthy, natural methods. Some farmed salmon -- those that eat a natural diet -- provide almost double the amount of omega-3 fatty acids as wild Alaskan salmon, he says. In fact, all Atlantic salmon is farmed.

Why? It's illegal to commercially fish the dwindling Atlantic salmon species, and farming that particular fish provides a relatively cheaper option when compared to wild Alaskan catches.

In Cod & Capers, information about each farm Gyland buys from is available to consumers, which means you can do a little light reading about the organic salmon he gets from Scotland. (Unlike in the U.S., European standards allow fish to be categorized as organic.)

2. Know Your Seasons
Although buying farmed fish can be good, it doesn't protect you from fraud. Take king and sockeye salmon, the two most common wild Alaskan salmon sold to consumers. Typically a dark-red color, it's easy to spot compared to the farm-raised Atlantic salmon you see sporting wide ribbons of fat between light-orange layers.

However, sometimes it can be mistaken for other farm-raised species that look almost identical. How? Wild salmon have a busy life cycle, adults spending several years in the North Pacific before gorging on food in preparation for a long swim up the Alaskan rivers, where they spawn annually. That swim happens every year in the warmer months, usually from May to September.

So, if you see sockeye salmon being sold in December, be wary, said Gyland, because that's not a time when fishermen are harvesting that particular species. And that brings us to...

3. Frozen Equals Fresh
The idea that fish is only a few hours old -- even just a few days -- is simply not realistic, said Gyland. The reality is that most fish is sold to the consumer at least five to seven days after harvest. Anyone who tells you it's just a few days old or "came in today" may be referring to the shipment -- not the actual catch date.

(Gyland was quick to point out that some independent markets or Whole Foods often do have local, fresh catches bought from locally licensed fishermen.)

Many people don't know that almost all shrimp are frozen, said Gyland. Shrimping boats can be out for days at a time before they are ready to take in the catch, so fishermen are forced to freeze what they catch in order to bring in a good harvest. So if it's frozen, don't shy away from buying it thinking it's subpar.

4. Be Careful Where You Buy Fish
There's a big difference between buying from a private market and your local Winn-Dixie, said Gyland, and not just when it comes to price. Independent suppliers like Cod & Capers are able to pick and choose which distributors and farms they buy their fish from, whereas a large corporate grocer is less likely to be doing any small-scale buying from purveyors that offer organic (European only) or wild fish.

Gyland also works with a well-educated staff at all times -- people trained to tell a sole from a bass. Think it's not so hard? The picture above shows how a similar cut from two different fish can look almost identical (left is sole; right is bass).

5. Test It
So how do you spot the freshest fish possible? Don't be afraid to ask the guy at the fish counter -- or even the server at your favorite restaurant -- to let you see the fish you'll be eating up-close and personal before it's cooked. "I am constantly handing my fish to my customers to smell and feel," said Gyland. "It's totally OK to do that."

Next, check the odor and texture. If fish has an overly strong, foul, fishy odor, it's probably past its sell-by date. Similarly, if the fish falls apart easily and can't hold up to gentle poking or prodding, it might be going bad. Last, if the fish is slimy or gooey -- if it has a tacky, sticky feeling when you press your fingers or hands together after handling -- bring it back and ask for a refund. That's a good sign the fish is going bad, said Gyland.

6. If It Sounds Too Good to Be True...
If that bargain price for fresh grouper seems amazing, question it, said Gyland, who also believes consumer knowledge is the single most powerful way to fight fraud.

"If you suspect a restaurant or store is selling mislabeled fish, it's important you report it to the state and federal agencies that handle that sort of thing," he said. "When people see their [business] name in the paper or on the news, they'll make sure fraud doesn't ever happen again [in their store]. I truly believe that."

For a list of local restaurants and stores that were found by Oceana researchers to be mislabeling fish last year, see this list compiled by the Palm Beach Post.

Gyland, like many independent fish-market owners, upholds rigorous quality-control testing to ensure that his fish isn't just the freshest around but also the right kind. His new location has several freezers and refrigerators, including a chilled room reserved for his garbage to eliminate the bacteria and pests associated with tons of fishy waste. There's also a large cutting room where his employees slice fillets off whole fish, a great way to ensure that the correct product is being sold under the right name.

So go with your gut: Question the source of the fish when in doubt. It can't hurt to ask your fish purveyor or server where the fish was sourced, see proof of its purchase, and take a closer look yourself.

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