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Jul. 15 2009 - 9:38 am | 182 views | 4 recommendations | 21 comments

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.

Yukon chum salmon

Yukon chum salmon./Photo by Kim O'Donnel

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.

* Another one to let go of at the sushi bar: freshwater eel (aka unagi).  It’s just about gone — as in 95 percent gone.

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.


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    Got ya bookmarked, Kim. Now tell me if South American tilapia is still OK.

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    Kim, Good job! Really great help to distill the sea of data into a few good rules of thumb. We all need help. I try to encourage folks to feel okay with not always knowing the answer. You gotta get there if you’re going to commit, it’s always changing.

    I want to give dacoyle another recommendation. Australis Barramundi is a mild, versatile fish that is one you can eat safely and without worry. I believe it’s now available in WF? Anyway, it’s safely farmed and vegetarian fed so no environmental concerns and no pressure on feeder populations.

    As the founder of “Teach a Man to Fish” the sustainable seafood event, I welcome your readers’ participation in or even just perusal of the dozens and dozens of recipes and resources we gather each year.

    Hope that helps!

    Congratulations on the move!

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    What did you mean when you said “There is no more wild Atlantic salmon to speak of.” Does that mean there is absolutely no more wild Atlantic salmon to be bought anywhere? I am buying wild salmon from Trader Joe’s and enjoying it so I am confused.

  4. collapse expand

    Hey Kim – Welcome to the new site. It looks great.

    Of course, since it’s Wednesday, I missed the “meatless Monday” recipe. And today’s fish column doesn’t really intrigue me because fish tastes like, well, fish. But I am interested in the description of unhealthy conditions in fish farms (and other food production facilities). One more reason to either grow your own or know where it came from!

    I made a summer fave yesterday – gazpacho – and it occurred to me that a lot of my summer recipes lack protein. Any suggestions? I make it up a lot with my favorite flavored cheves from South Mountain Dairy, on crackers or bagel chips.

    Also, I’m still looking for a substitute for wine in recipes, something without the dreaded sulfites so I don’t die.

    And finally, at some point I’d still like to hear your take on Chinese milk ending up in domestic cheeses.

    Again, best wishes on your new location. Glad you were only gone for two days. Linda

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    I don’t think I’ve ever seen barramundi at my Giant. Since I only have to cross the street to shop, I rarely drive to other markets. But I’ll keep my eyes open. I love a mild fish that likes many spices.

  6. collapse expand

    How’s gulf shrimp rate. That’s pretty much all I’ve been buying lately. A few bucks more, but worth it, no?

    Also, I’ve heard reports that farmed tilapia is actually full of saturated fat because of the feed they give it. Got anything on that? I’ve stopped buying it and most farmed fish.

    Great new blog!

    • collapse expand

      Hey Mike, you touch on something I mention in my piece — and the problem here is how to find out which farms are feeding lean feed and which aren’t. Sigh. I think you might have better results sourcing US-farmed tilapia.
      Re: gulf shrimp: of the wild varieties still available, they’re my favorite. Less in love w/ the smaller spot prawns from Ore & Alaska. Acc. to Environmental Defense, spot prawns get a higher eco rating than Gulf, which rank “OK.” Whatever you do, don’t buy dem shrimps from Asia. I’ll source more info for you on US shrimp farms doing good work. Cheers.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    Kim, thanks to you I know to not buy ANY Asian source seafood.

    If you’re looking for future blog topics, see my latest on FB. I’d love for you to do another piece (and lots of comments) about easy but satisfying after work meals.

  8. collapse expand

    Hi Kim!

    It’s good to see you in your new home. I’m sure the dust is still settling from the movers, but it looks like a good home.

    I’m a fan of Carolina shrimp, especially the head-ons that I get at Slavin & Sons. Rockfish (also known as striped bass) is a local and I think sustainable fish. I’m also an oyster fan as well as a lover of Alaskan salmon (finally in season!)

    I’m curious about the ratings of farmed tuna. My brother-in-law is visiting shortly and I was planning on ordering some from a Catalina mail order place.


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    Enjoyed the article, and agree with almost all of it, but wondering about eel.

    Most of the eel we see here in Seattle is from China, not Europe (where the 95% decline is occurring). Japan, Taiwan, and China are all major sources for eel.

    Now, I’m not so crazy about eating eel from China due to general concerns over Chinese food safety issues, but I’m not sure eel should be included for scarcity reasons.

  10. collapse expand

    Bravo! Tackling this complicated issue takes some serious guts, and I applaud that. I actually volunteer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and frequently talk about sustainable seafood. You did a good job with this. If I could add a couple more wrinkles. MSC-Marine Stewardship Council. Give them a look. And an important factor to keep in mind when seafood shopping is method of catch. Tuna is not all close to extinction, there are varieties that are actually on the Green list. The tricky part is how they are caught. Troll/pole. This means they are caught with as many hooks as one boat can hold lines and poles for. Remember Old Man and The Sea? Why is this important? Glad you asked. Some tuna is caught by long-lining, where miles of hooks are in the water at one time, and by the nature of the open ocean, not just tuna are going to take the bait, and so turtles, birds, sharks, etc, all end up dead, because by the time the ship checks their hook, they have been eaten, or drowned, or starved. Sad. Again, thanks for doing this, and nice job. Welcome to the site.

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    The End of the Line is a highly-spun biased piece on commercial fishing paid for by the folks who want to stop commercial fishing in the US. Pew, Packard, EDF and the rest of the jackbooters who want to financially squeeze Mom & Pop fishing businesses out of existence, all the while congratulating themselves on how they saved the fish that were already saved.

    Basically Fundamentalist Conservangelism. It would help if they were honest in reporting the facts, not just repeating advocacy science, but guess that’s too much to ask for.

    For a truly comprehensive site re US fisheries, with a plethora of data to boot, try http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/fishwatch/ .

    As a starting point, if it’s a US landed fish, it’s on a fishery management plan-quotas, limits, seasons, closed areas, rolling closures, gear modifications et al, no open-ended derby fishing.

    Overfished does not equal extinction. Out of almost 250 commercial fisheries in US, almost 80 % overfishing is not occurring, three out of four are not overfished. All are on fishery management plans.

    Those that are overfished are often on a reduced catch quotas so as to recover within the 10 year time frame of the Magnuson Stevens Act; none are on the verge of extinction. None.

    You can even trust eating a fish from an overfished stock if it’s landed in the US because US landed fish are all on fishery management plans.

    Buying a US landed fish means it’s truly a “green” fish. Good for the fish, the fishermen and their communities.

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    About Me

    You might know me from The Washington Post, where for a dozen years I dished up cooking content, both as Web chat hostess ("What's Cooking") and daily blog minx ("A Mighty Appetite").

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