AP Investigation: Local fish isn't always local

Luen Thai Fishing Venture boats are docked at the Majuro port in the Marshall Islands on Feb. 1, 2018. Luen Thai is one of the companies that was supplying fish that entered the supply chain of Sea To Table. Men work around the clock, getting little pay. (AP Photo/Hilary Hosia)
A fishmonger rinses swordfish carcasses just pulled from their shipping containers at the New Fulton Fish Market in New York on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. The U.S. seafood industry is worth $17 billion a year, more than 90 percent of which is made up of imports. Experts say one in five fish is caught illegally worldwide. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Fishermen at the Majuro port in the Marshall Islands unload yellowfin tuna on Feb. 1, 2018 for Luen Thai Fishing Venture, one of the companies that was supplying fish that entered the supply chain of Sea To Table. Men work around the clock, getting little pay. (AP Photo/Hilary Hosia)
Boxes containing imported headless tuna sit on a pallet on Thursday, July 6, 2017, marked to be picked up by a driver from the Bob Gosman Co., at the New Fulton Fish Market in New York. Bob Gosman Co., a supplier for Sea to Table, gets some of its fish from Fulton, a place in the state where many fish can always be found, regardless of the season. (AP Photo/Robin McDowell)
Fishermen at the Majuro port in the Marshall Islands unload yellowfin tuna on Feb. 1, 2018, for Luen Thai Fishing Venture, one of the companies that was supplying fish that entered the supply chain of Sea To Table. Men work around the clock, getting little pay. (AP Photo/Hilary Hosia)
A forklift driver makes his way to the loading dock to move an order of seafood onto a truck at the New Fulton Fish Market in New York on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. More than 90 percent of all seafood that ends up on U.S. dinner tables is imported. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A fishing trawler makes its way through the inlet into Lake Montauk to bring its catch to one of three commercial docks in Montauk, N.Y., on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A fishing trawler passes Gosman's Dock as it enters the inlet to bring its catch to another commercial dock on Lake Montauk in Montauk, N.Y., on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Sulistyo, left, an Indonesian fisherman who was forced to work on a foreign trawler that delivered fish to a Sea To Table supplier, watches local fisherman sort fish at a fishing port in Jakarta, Indonesia on Saturday March 31, 2018. Conscientious consumers, troubled by illegal practices plaguing the global seafood industry, were paying top dollar for what they believed was American-caught fish provided by national distributor Sea To Table. However, an Associated Press investigation found that some companies in its supply chain were linked to the very practices it vowed to fight. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)
A fishing trawler makes its way to open water from Montauk, N.Y. for a day trip to fish off the coast Long Island on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Surrounded by ice, commercial fishing boats are docked in their slips after more than a week's worth of frigid weather froze the harbor in Lake Montauk in Montauk, N.Y., on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. Only a few commercial boats remain in Montauk harbor during the winter months fishing for species such as porgy, tilefish, monkfish and black sea bass. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Recreational fishing boats sit in dry dock wrapped in plastic in Montauk, N.Y., on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017. With many of the saltwater fishing seasons closed and some species such as tuna heading for warmer waters, both charter and some commercial boats either dry dock in Montauk or head for warmer climates in the winter leaving the vast majority of boat slips inside Lake Montauk empty. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Protected from high seas by the safety of Lake Montauk, calm waters lap up against the pilings that support some of the Bob Gosman Co. complex in Montauk, N.Y., on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. Extending from the town dock to the inlet entrance, the multi-million dollar complex includes Gosman's Dock as well as retail shops, a fish market, restaurants and motels. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A fishmonger pulls boxes of whole tunas from an airline shipping container in New York on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. More than 90 percent of all seafood that ends up on U.S. dinner tables is imported. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Fishmongers prepare orders for buyers at the New Fulton Fish Market in New York on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. The nine-acre refrigerated warehouse just outside Manhattan is the second-largest facility of its kind worldwide, moving millions of pounds of seafood each night, much of it flown in fresh from across the globe. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Tuna loins sit on ice for buyers from restaurants and wholesalers at the New Fulton Fish Market in New York on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. Slabs of the imported high-grade tuna were on display for several nights in December, January and February, as well as other times throughout 2017, when Associated Press reporters visited the market. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A tuna imported from South America sits on a table waiting to be filleted at the New Fulton Fish Market in New York on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. A vast variety of fish species from around the world are offered for sale here, regardless of the season. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A fishmonger cuts the loins from a yellowfin tuna imported from South America at the New Fulton Fish Market in New York on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. More than 90 percent of all seafood that ends up on U.S. dinner tables is imported. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A fishmonger pulls tilefish for a buyer at the New Fulton Fish Market in New York on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. The U.S. seafood industry is worth $17 billion a year, more than 90 percent of which is made up of imports. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Boxes containing imported headless bigeye tuna sit on a pallet on Thursday, July 6, 2017 marked to be picked up by a driver from the Bob Gosman Co., at the New Fulton Fish Market in New York. Bob Gosman Co., a supplier for Sea to Table, gets some of its fish from Fulton, a place in the state where many fish can always be found, regardless of the season. (AP Photo/Robin McDowell)

MONTAUK, N.Y. — Caterers in Washington tweeted a photo of maroon sashimi appetizers served to 700 guests attending the governor's inaugural ball last year. They were told the tuna was from Montauk.

But it was an illusion. It was the dead of winter and no yellowfin had been landed in the New York town.

An Associated Press investigation traced the supply chain of national distributor Sea To Table to other parts of the world, where fishermen described working under slave-like conditions with little regard for marine life.

In a global seafood industry plagued by deceit, conscientious consumers will pay top dollar for what they believe is local, sustainably caught seafood. But even in this fast-growing niche market, companies can hide behind murky dealings, making it difficult to know the story behind any given fish.

Sea To Table said by working directly with 60 docks along U.S. coasts it could guarantee the fish was wild, domestic and traceable — sometimes to the fisherman.

The New York-based company quickly rose in the sustainable seafood movement. While it told investors it had $13 million in sales last year, it expected growth to $70 million by 2020. The distributor earned endorsement from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and garnered media attention from Bon Appetit, Forbes and many more. Its clientele included celebrity chef Rick Bayless, Roy's seafood restaurants, universities and home delivery meal kits such as HelloFresh.

As part of their investigation, reporters staked out America's largest fish market, followed trucks and interviewed fishermen who worked on three continents. During a bone-chilling week, they set up a time-lapse camera at Montauk harbor that showed no tuna boats docking. The AP also had a chef order $500 worth of fish sent "directly from the landing dock to your kitchen," but the boat listed on the receipt hadn't been there in at least two years.

Preliminary DNA tests suggested the fish likely came from the Indian Ocean or the Western Central Pacific. There are limitations with the data because using genetic markers to determine the origins of species is still an emerging science, but experts say the promising new research will eventually be used to help fight illegal activity in the industry.

Some of Sea To Table's partner docks on both coasts, it turned out, were not docks at all. They were wholesalers or markets, flooded with imports.

The distributor also offered species that were farmed, out of season or illegal to catch.

"It's sad to me that this is what's going on," said chef Bayless, who hosts a PBS cooking series. He had worked with Sea To Table because he liked being tied directly to fishermen — and the "wonderful stories" about their catch. "This throws quite a wrench in all of that."

Other customers who responded to AP said they were frustrated and confused.

Sea To Table owner Sean Dimin stressed that his suppliers are prohibited from sending imports to customers and added violators would be terminated.

"We take this extremely seriously," he said.

Dimin also said he communicated clearly with chefs that some fish labeled as freshly landed at one port were actually caught and trucked in from other states. But customers denied this, and federal officials described it as mislabeling.

The AP focused on tuna because the distributor's supplier in Montauk, the Bob Gosman Co., was offering chefs yellowfin tuna all year round, even when federal officials said there were no landings in the entire state.

Almost nightly, Gosman's trucks drove three hours to reach the New Fulton Fish Market, where they picked up boxes of fish bearing shipping labels from all over the world.

Owner Bryan Gosman said some of the tuna that went to Sea To Table was caught off North Carolina and then driven 700 miles to Montauk. That practice ended in March, he said, because it wasn't profitable. While 70 percent of his yellowfin tuna is imported, he said that fish is sold to local restaurants and sushi-bars and kept separate from Sea To Table's products.

"Can things get mixed up? It could get mixed up," he said. "Is it an intentional thing? No, not at all."

Some of Gosman's foreign supply came from Land, Ice and Fish, in Trinidad and Tobago.

The AP interviewed and reviewed complaints from more than a dozen Indonesian fishermen who said they earned $1.50 a day, working 22 hours at a time, on boats that brought yellowfin to Land, Ice and Fish's compound. They described finning sharks and occasionally cutting off whale and dolphin heads, extracting their teeth as good luck charms.

"We were treated like slaves," said Sulistyo, an Indonesian who worked on one of those boats and gave only one name, fearing retaliation. "They treat us like robots without any conscience."

Though it's nearly impossible to tell where a specific fish ends up, or what percentage of a company's seafood is fraudulent, even one bad piece taints the entire supply chain.

Dimin said the labor and environmental abuses are "abhorrent and everything we stand against."

For caterers serving at the ball for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who successfully pushed through a law to combat seafood mislabeling, knowing where his fish came from was crucial.

The Montauk tuna came with a Sea To Table leaflet describing the romantic, seaside town and the quality of the fish. A salesperson did send them an email saying the fish was caught off North Carolina. But the boxes came from New York and there was no indication it had landed in another state and was trucked to Montauk. A week later the caterer ordered Montauk tuna again. This time the invoice listed a boat whose owner later told AP he didn't catch anything for Sea To Table at that time.

"I'm kind of in shock right now," said Brandon LaVielle of Lavish Roots Catering. "We felt like we were supporting smaller fishing villages."

____

AP journalists Julie Jacobson in New York and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia contributed to this report. Mendoza reported from California.

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