The more I read about seafood, from overfishing to mercury contamination, the less comfortable I feel about eating it. This is sad because seafood used to be my protein of choice. Lately, I’ve been leaning toward nut butter and eggs and have made fish a special occasion food. I’m choosing to give most fish a break, in hopes that others will, too, and there will be enough for us to continue to eat fish and support healthy ocean ecosystems.
That means that many items are off my list, but there are still a good number I feel all right about eating. It’s a complex story that requires a bit of work to sort out. Seafood wallet cards by Monterey Bay Aquarium, Blue Ocean Institute and other environmental organizations are great, but they don’t supply enough information. They also require you to ask tough questions of your fishmonger about origin and catch method.
It’s fine to ask. It’s actually really good to ask. That’s the only way retailers and restaurants will know you care. If the waiter of fishmonger doesn’t know the answer to my question about an item on the menu or in the fish counter, I simply won’t buy it. If enough of us do this, that will most certainly send a message that consumers want more sustainable choices. (It’s best to ask in a matter-of-fact rather than confrontational manner.)
Here’s my scheme for what to eat and why. These are my choices. Many people will not agree with me – I tend to err on the side of conservation. We all have environmental lines we won’t cross and they are different for everybody. (Skip down to the end of the post for the 11 sustainable choices.)
The big three: tuna, shrimp and salmon
These are the most consumed fish in America, and as such, you can make a bigger difference by knowing what types, if any, are better choices.
Shrimp: Have you noticed that as shrimp became more available more cheaply, it stopped tasting good? There’s a reason that shrimp went from being a special occasion treat to an all-you-can-eat buffet at Red Lobster. And that reason is poor farming practices.
This fascinating article in Orion magazine lays out the entire cost of that cheap shrimp. Today, 90 percent of our shrimp – more than 1 billion pounds a year – come from foreign farms. Those farms have a high environmental price, including destruction of the world’s mangrove forests.
Wild caught shrimp caught by ocean trawler is no better. This method of fishing causes a huge bycatch, including endangered species like sea turtles.
So what kind of shrimp do I eat? I eat wild caught shrimp caught using traps, which is definitely a special occasion food. Spot prawns qualify, as do trap-caught shrimp from Nova Scotia. There are probably others in other parts of the country. Oregon pink shrimp (these are the little ones you put in shrimp cocktails) are certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. It’s just not worth it to eat commodity shrimp.
Tuna: Tuna is one of my favorite foods. I used to love those little cans of olive oil-packed Spanish or Italian tuna. I’ve given it up. Why? Many species, like the bluefin, are endangered or caught using harmful practices. And many others are high in mercury. This includes many canned tunas. Just because there isn’t a warning, doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat, due to the FDA’s cozy relationship with the canned tuna industry.
That’s not to say that tuna can’t be sustainable. I will eat smaller species of tuna, like skipjack (smaller species are lower in mercury) that are pole and line caught (not long-line caught). All of this means I don’t really eat tuna because it’s so hard to obtain this information and difficult to afford the fish once you do.
Salmon: The rise of farmed salmon commodified salmon in the same way shrimp farming commodified shrimp. By now most people are familiar with the problems around farmed salmon, as they’ve been pretty well-publicized.
What about “sustainable farmed salmon”? There are salmon farms doing a pretty good job of eliminating escape, keeping things clean and eschewing the use of antibiotics. But, I won’t eat farmed salmon, or any carnivorous fish simply because it’s so inefficient. It takes about 4 pounds of little wild fish to make 1 pound of salmon. When one-third of the world’s population depends on fish for its protein needs (including these little fish that we would call trash fish) it’s just unconscionable for me to eat farmed salmon.
Watch out for “organic fish” too. It isn’t. Up until a few years ago, wild caught Pacific salmon from northern California up to Alaska was a tasty sustainable choice. The California and Oregon commercial fisheries were closed in 2008 and 2009 due to surprisingly low populations. And now populations are dwindling in Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. I will buy wild salmon maybe once or twice a year and enjoy it immensely but I think we need to give it a break.
What else is there left in the sea to eat? Turns out, plenty. You just have to get a little adventurous.
1. Sardines: I’ve said it before. Sardines are one of the best choices of all fish. Why? They are small and low on the food chain so they don’t accumulate toxins. They grow fast and the way they are caught minimizes bycatch and damage to the ocean floor. I’m happy to see I’m not the only one singing their praises. Here’s a Washington Post article about the Sardinistas, a group of sardine lovers working hard to help people love sardines.
2-4. Farmed mollusks like clams, oysters and mussels. Why? Because they are farmed without harming the environment and they are filter feeders so they can actually restore the eco-system where they grow.
5-6. Lobster and some crab. Bad news for the oceans is good news for lovers of large crustaceans. Changes in the ocean environment mean there’s plenty of these to go around. Choose Dungeness or stone crab. Not blue, king, or snow.
7. Pacific Halibut: Expensive but it’s tasty and on the “green” list in the Seafood Watch Guide.
Image: naotakem (herbed mackerel shown with crusted sardines)
8. Mackerel: the small kind. Not king Mackerel, which are high in mercury. Mackerel grows fast and is caught with gear that doesn’t harm the ocean floor or contribute to significant bycatch. Mackerel is a strong tasting fish that lends itself well to the types of preparations we used to do with tuna or swordfish, except it comes in fillet form, not steaks. (Here’s a great recipe for mackerel.) It makes sublime sushi, appearing as saba on the sushi bar menu. If you’re a sushi lover and feel dismayed by this post, check out one of the newish sustainable sushi guides.
9. Black Cod or Sablefish from British Columbia or Alaska: Look for Marine Stewardship Council Certified black cod as the California and Pacific Northwest fisheries are less abundant. This fish fills a culinary hole left by the forbidden snappers and rock fishes, though not perfectly. It’s a mild white fish that is versatile enough to pan sauté, use in fish tacos, broil, bake or fry.
Image: ralph and jenny
10 & 11. US farmed striped bass and trout: US farmed freshwater fish is what the experts are always telling us to eat because they are farmed in closed systems that don’t pollute the environment and they are fed vegetarian feed so there isn’t an overall loss of protein. The problem for me is that most of them don’t taste very good. I will marinate and grill or bake a whole trout now and then, stuffed with lots of aromatics. Striped bass are pretty good stuffed with garlic, ginger and green onions, and steamed whole with the head on Chinese-style, but try as I might, I just can’t love tilapia or catfish.
There’s a new domestically-farmed fish that just made the green list, Cobia. I’ll be investigating it and serving up my findings in the form of a recipe soon.
Image: Logan Cyrus