Sustainable Seafood 411: Wading Through the Waters
Lean protein that’s good for the heart and the brain. Rah, rah, Omega-3s. That’s what the doctor will tell you about fish. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends a minimum of two servings a week.
I wish it were that simple. Eat fish, save your ticker from conking out and your brain from turning into mush, and everybody’s happy, right?
For several years, I’ve been consumed by the ways and means of how our food is grown, raised and processed. As I educated myself about the difference between organic and conventional, grass-fed versus free range, the meaning of COOL, CAFO and RbGH and the intricate web of profit, manure, corn and E.coli that is industrialized livestock production, I digested this stew of knowledge as quickly and thoroughly as possible to make it decipherable for my readers (at least that was my hope).
Of all the topics under the umbrella of “sustainability,” the one that continues to both fascinate and irritate me is seafood. I’m schooled on beef versus chicken versus pigs, and sure, I can riff on organic versus local, seasonal and/or conventional in the produce section. But fish? That’s the whole wide ocean sea we’re talking about!
And that sea is boiling more and more, not just every day, but nearly every minute. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re fishing our fish into extinction. At this rate, scientists predict, there will be nothing left but jellyfish and algae by 2048. Math: 39 years. I’ll be an old lady by then, but I sure would like to know I could have a fish dinner if I wanted.
This uplifting topic is the subject of a new documentary, “The End of the Line,” a sober investigation into why the seas are emptying day by day.
But. (And with seafood there are several buts.) We here in the West are eating fish because the doc is telling us to do so, but we also have menu choices. What about folks in parts of the world – coastal Africa, most of Asia and western Alaska, to name a few – where fish is the only thing on the menu, that if there were no more fish, there’d be nothing left to eat?
(I warned you, this is bleak.)
At this point, some of you may say, “Screw it, let’s give the oceans a much-deserved break” and some of you may say, “Screw it, I’m going to eat whatever I want whenever I feel like it.”
Here comes yet another wrinkle. Should you decide to ignore all the environmental red flags and continue eating your favorite fruits of the sea, now you’ve got to factor in the toxins.
As in PCBs and mercury.
These lovely extras are especially partial to big, predatory fish – swordfish, tuna, shark, salmon, for example – which love to attach to their fatty skins (PCBs) and their older flesh (mercury).
Here in the USA, our seafood palate is fairly unadventurous, and all of our favorites have issues. Two of the aforementioned toxin-loving species — tuna (in a can) and salmon — are America’s second and third runners up. And shrimp, our number one fave, is by and large coming from farms in southeast Asia and central America, where environmental standards are inconsistent and unregulated.
If you’re wondering how in the world does one keep track of all this data, join the club. It makes my head spin, even with a walletfull of the well-meaning seafood cards from Monterey Bay Aquarium, Environmental Defense Fund and Blue Ocean Institute.
So if you want to keep eating seafood (I still am) and can’t be bothered with a seafood card (or even know what I’m talking about), here’s my advice: You may not be able to remember the status of all your favorite species or how they’re caught, but you can learn a few rules of thumb.
With some help from Tim Fitzgerald, a scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, here are a few themes to keep in mind – at the fish counter, in the frozen aisle, at the sushi bar or at the neighborhood seafood joint. Bear in mind — these are guidelines, and as always with seafood, there are exceptions to the rule and constantly changing conditions.
* Eat fewer big, predatory fish (swordfish, tuna, shark, salmon): they live the longest and accumulate the most toxins. Exceptions to this rule: Wild salmon from Alaska and smaller albacore tuna from the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, which are both relatively well-managed fisheries.
* Eat smaller on the food chain (sardines, anchovies, clams, mussels, oysters) which have shorter life spans, reproduce more readily and as a result are more resilient to fishing pressure.
* Eat a variety of fish rather than a lot of one type, which will likely reduce your exposure to contaminants
* When shopping for fish at the supermarket, look for the country of origin labeling on fresh and frozen fish. Generally speaking, US/Canada means green light; Central America means yellow light and Asia means red light. Caveat: This is not to say that all – or even most – North American fisheries are sustainable.
What to avoid
* Most ahi (yellowfin/bigeye) tuna. That goes for bluefin tuna, too, which is nearing extinction. (P.S. Celeb sushi restaurant Nobu continues to serve it, despite major ‘outing’ by Brit investigative journalist Charles Clover in “End of the Line,” who compares it to eating orangutan.)
* imported farmed shrimp
* farmed salmon, which is usually sold as Atlantic salmon. P.S.: There is no more wild Atlantic salmon to speak of. The crowded conditions of salmon farms in Chile has resulted in infections viruses over the past few years. Even Wal-Mart has stopped buying salmon from Chile.
Believe it or not, I’ve only scratched the surface. We didn’t even get to talk about the collapse of the west coast salmon fishery or why farmed bivalves are an amazing success story. Add your comments and questions and we’ll keep talking about this issue as long as it takes.