Many consumers choose the fish they eat, not just for taste, but also as a way to avoid species high in mercury or that are threatened from overfishing. Mislabeling is higher in California than in other parts of the country.
It's the ultimate accusation of "bait and switch." Over 1,200 samples of fish were tested at grocery stores, fish markets, sushi bars, and restaurants. Nationwide, one third of those samples indicated the fish were mislabeled. Frequently, consumers were paying for more expensive fish but getting cheaper fish.
"I think we can be easily fooled, for whatever reason," Santa Cruz resident Diane Monts said. "The suppliers know that people want certain kinds of fish, and so they say this looks like whatever, so we'll make it be that."
Mislabeling in Northern California was higher than the national average -- 27 percent of the fish purchased in grocery stores, 58 percent served in restaurants, and a staggering 76 percent in sushi restaurants were mislabeled. The fish most often mislabeled are snapper and tuna. The study was conducted by Oceana, a non-profit group.
The manager of Johnny's Harborside Restaurant at Santa Cruz Harbor said she had to change suppliers when they misrepresented what she ordered.
"It just trickles down," manager Ciera Kash said. "You have to pick purveyors you know and you trust, and the good thing about us being here is a lot of the fish we get from friends and neighbors."
Seafood Watch, a program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium that educates consumers about sustainable food, points out restaurants often don't see the whole fish.
"It is shocking," said Sheila Bowman with Seafood Watch. "And I think one of the things to remember is a lot of these retailers and these restaurants aren't getting whole fish. They're getting filets. It's very difficult for even them to tell one filet from the next."
Commercial fishermen and restaurants say fish pass through many hands from the water to the table. And it will take more vigilance, more consumer education, and perhaps new laws to insure people get what the menu or label says it is.
"If they want to get their product correct, everyone's going to have to get involved," said Santa Cruz commercial fisherman Joe Stoops. "And that starts with the consumer."
Lawmakers in Sacramento and in Washington are now working on legislation to provide stronger consumer protection.