If you’re craving seafood for dinner, you can find some at nearly every restaurant in the Lowcountry ... but be aware, they’re not all made equally.
Some seafood was farm-raised while others were wild-caught. Some are listed under their specific sub-type, while others are labeled more vaguely.
No matter what seafood you’re ordering, you’ll want to make sure you know where it came from, what it is and if you’re paying an appropriate price for it.
This week I sat down with David Harter, president of the Hilton Head Island Fishing Club, to find out what consumers should know before ordering seafood at Lowcountry restaurants.
Here are some takeaways.
Note: Prices reflect cost for restaurant and not diner.
Farm-raised vs. Wild-caught
The difference between farm-raised and wild-caught seafood is fairly simple.
Farm-raised seafood are grown in pens either on land or submerged in ponds, lakes and salt water. Wild-caught seafood, in comparison, are caught in their natural environments by fishermen.
More than 50 percent of seafood produced for human consumption is farm-raised, and that number is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2030, according to World Bank.
Due to overfishing of various seafood species, farm fisheries present a welcome alternative. But international fisheries, not including those in the U.S., use antibiotics and pesticides in their fishing methods. They are also known to use growth hormones to grow fish as quickly as possible.
Red Snapper is offered as the premier seafood at many restaurants across the Lowcountry. But you may not always be getting what you pay for.
True American Red Snapper is sold for about $20 per pound. Vermillion Snapper, which is a subgroup of red snapper, only goes for $9 per pound.
“If you’re paying thirty-something dollars for red snapper, you want to make sure you’re getting what you paid for,” Harter said. “Vermillion Snapper is a good snapper, too, but it’s only worth half the price, so you shouldn’t be paying big money for that.”
When a menu just lists “snapper,” the seafood you’re ordering could be any one of 200 species of snapper, Harter said.
“More than likely it’s an import, and whatever it is, it’s really cheap,” Harter said. “You should only expect to spend a premium cost if it’s true America Red Snappper.”
MahiMahi is all wild, not farm-raised.
Locally caught Mahi will sell for about $9 per pound, but when it’s shipped over from China, Mahi sells for about $4 per pound.
Therefore, a lot of the Mahi you will find at restaurants and grocery stores in the Lowcountry is likely imported, according to Harter.
“We have a lot of them here, but the price difference is just too much,” Harter said.
Grouper accounted for a range of subtypes — black, red, gag and scamp.
Black Grouper is the highest prized grouper sold in restaurants. If a restaurant has it, they will advertise it, Harter said.
Black Grouper is sold for about $22 per pound, while red grouper is sold for about $10 per pound.
If you’re ordering a grouper sandwich, for instance, it’s probably made with red grouper, according to Harter. Gag and scamp grouper are also high quality grouper sold in the same price range as black grouper.
“There’s nothing wrong with eating any of these types of grouper, you just want to get what you pay for,” Harter said.
Nearly 85 percent of Cobia caught in South Carolina is caught in Beaufort County, however a lot of the Cobia you see served at restaurants is farm-raised.
The farm-raised Cobia comes from Puerto Rico and the Carribbean and are not treated with drugs or antibiotics like elsewhere, according to Harter.
Local wild Cobia often contains high levels of methylmercury. Therefore, according to Harter, the farm-raised cobia is “actually better to eat that local ones.”
Wild shrimp goes for $10 a pound, while farmed shrimp sells for $3 to $4 per pound.
Farmed shrimp can be shipped to the Lowcountry from all across the globe. During the shipment process, shrimp are then thawed and refrozen numerous times before arriving at your dinner table, Harter said.
Although Salmon is not caught locally, you will still find this seafood on many Lowcountry menus.
Wild-caught salmon is sold for about $19 per pound, while farm-raised salmon goes for about $10 per pound.
Unless a restaurant is offering a named salmon like “King Salmon” or “Copper River Salmon” from Alaska, it was probably a farm-raised fish.
Most restaurants don’t receive a steady stream of wild-caught salmon, so 98 percent of it is farm-raised. You can tell if it’s farm-raised because it’s usually not as pink as a wild-caught salmon and it doesn’t have “nearly the same amount of flavor,” Harter said.