San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

How to spot a shark in Costa Rica (on your dinner plate)

From the print edition

Demian Geneau sees these scammers every time he goes out to the fish market: Vendors sell catfish or other low-grade fish as sea bass. Endangered species are disguised with nonsense monikers. Shark is marketed under every name except shark.  

The owner of Product C, a restaurant with a focus on fresh seafood, has developed a keen eye for distinguishing one type of fish filet from another.

But unacquainted consumers end up buying species like barracuda or eel, two fish that when filleted look like more valuable sea bass.

As for catfish, the difference in flavor becomes obvious at first bite. 

“It’s insane,” Geneau said. “You got these fishermen who go out and handline real sea bass, and they try to sell it for ₡3,000 [$6] or whatever, and they call it sea bass. And then this guy that imports bassa [shark catfish] from China says it’s sea bass, and they sell it for ₡1,000 [$2].” 

The fish fraud makes for a major headache for the local fishing industry. To fight the deception, the government passed a law establishing a labeling system for fishery products. The legislation went into effect on Aug. 14. To alert consumers, the nonprofit MarViva Foundation released an “Identification Guide for Fish and Seafood Filets” this week. The guide can be downloaded at MarViva’s website (Or click here, to download the guide directly).

The “Labeling of Fishing Products Law” intends to prevent importers and local fishing fleets from undercutting market values. Besides being fraudulent, the cheap charge also makes it difficult for Costa Rican artisanal fisherman to compete and make a living. 

Sellers use fantasy names to sell endangered species like sailfish, marlin or shark in Costa Rica, said Jorge Jiménez, MarViva’s general director. These protected fish often are caught illegally as bycatch by longliners and trawlers.

Shark meat, especially, is sold under several ambiguous names like bolillo, cazón or cornuda. Shark is a common ingredient in local ceviches even if consumers do not realize they’re eating it. The new law stipulates that shark meat must include the word “tiburón” (Spanish for “shark”) on its label.

The guide states that all seafood filets, whether sold fresh, frozen or prepackaged, must be labeled under a common name. A passage in the guide states that this is not the scientific name, but the name the species is “best known by.” 

For example, the law bans the use of the word “corvineta” for catfish.  The word corvineta is a made-up word that happens to look similar to corvina, the Spanish word for sea bass. Instead, catfish should receive labels like bagre, bassa or pangasio, depending on the species.   

The law also asks vendors to include the seafood’s country of origin. (Bassa or pangasio often are imported from Asian countries like China and Vietnam). Frozen or prepackaged fish need to include an expiration date. 

Three government entities worked together to create the law: the Economy Ministry, the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry and the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute. MarViva also gave input for the law. The organizations are training food inspectors at the National Animal Health Service and at the fisheries institute to spot fish-market mislabeling. Members of large seafood distributors and sellers are receiving instructions on the law.  

Economy Minister Mayi Antillón said the government has a “sincere” strategy to make sure the plan reaches all of Costa Rica. Officials acknowledge the challenge of getting these regulations out there to docks and markets where fishermen work.

“We still have a ways to go to adopt this policy because we have to bring this information to all consumers in all corners of the country,” Jiménez said.

MarViva hopes to place the guides at points of sale for fresh fish throughout Costa Rica, Jiménez said. At the supermarket, customers could leaf through the guide to make sure filets on sale match images in the book.

The guide, available only in Spanish, show pictures of common fish filets sold in Costa Rica, detailing characteristics of each species including the common names, colors and average sizes.

Identify Fish

New rules state that all seafood filets sold fresh or frozen in Costa Rica must be labeled under a common name. A Spanish-language guide, above, will be distributed at stores to help shoppers verify labeling. “Guide for Identifying Fish Filets and Seafood”

Jiménez, Antillón and Agriculture Minister Gloria Abraham spoke at a press conference Monday about how the law represented a step forward for protecting Costa Rica’s oceans by bringing awareness to the consumer. The oceans are a key issue for the current government as the waters remain under siege due to overfishing by fishing flotillas.      

Officials brought Geneau to the press event to show off the benefits of sustainable fishing practices. The upscale Product C brand started in Malpaís, on the southern Nicoya Peninsula, and now has two locations in southwestern San José suburbs.

In the presence of posters promoting the new law and photos displaying that consumers should “eat this, not that,” Geneau catered the press event. He supplied shucked oysters cultivated from seedlings in Punta Cuchilla, a rural community in Puntarenas. Attendants doled out pompano ceviche and strips of róbalo (snook) caught by handline fishermen in small, coastal villages.

Geneau turned jack crevalle, which he said has a reputation for being “cat food” in Costa Rica, into a tastefully smoked hors d’oeuvre served on a thin slice of bread. 

The chef always has been puzzled by why Costa Rica imports so much seafood instead of promoting “the two seas on both sides” of the country. He hopes the label law will encourage sustainable fishing and eating locally.  

“Any other product in the country comes with a label, with the brand, the process and the ingredients of the product. Fish doesn’t have that. You simply buy the filet,” Geneau said. “But if you buy a fish that’s certified, at the least you’re ensuring a good practice.”

Demian Geneau

Chef Demian Geneau serves seafood from his restaurant Product C. Courtesy of Evelyn Arroyo / MEIC

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