“This is a request for a Summer Tomato series on fish, and seafood in general. This topic is even more difficult to navigate than organic vs. non-organic and it would be great to learn about it in detail.”
I don’t think there is anything more complicated in the food world than fish and seafood. There are so many life or death issues it’s enough to make you want to close your eyes, plug your ears and live out the rest of your life in a cave on Mars.
But this isn’t really one of those issues we can ignore.
Fish and Your Health
There’s no denying it, fish is good for you.
The latest data I’ve read suggests that vegetarians have more cancer than fish eaters, though both have less cancer than meat eaters. There are also well-documented and significant heart and brain benefits associated with seafood consumption.
Omega-3 fatty acids are usually given the credit for the heart-healthy benefits of fish. The most beneficial omega-3 fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), as well as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are only found in seafood. Vegetarian forms of omega-3s including α-Linolenic acid (ALA) can be converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but the conversion rate is very low and likely insufficient.
Personally I think healthy eating is a lot more difficult if you do not eat fish. (Please direct mild-tempered disagreements to the comments below). Yes, you can be healthy if you are vegetarian or vegan, but it is much more work in my opinion.
The fish and health issue seems to be even more important (and more complicated) for pregnant women. Children of mothers who eat less seafood during pregnancy score lower on cognitive tests than those whose mothers ate the most fish. But at the same time, mercury contamination is a serious concern for pregnant women that requires special attention. Mercury is toxic to neurodevelopment and can injure a developing fetus.
Mercury contamination has in fact become so common that regular, non-pregnant consumers also need to be concerned. Recent testing in New York City revealed that most of the top sushi restaurants serve fish that exceeds the FDA safety recommendations for mercury.
Another health and fish issue is polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These things are all sorts of bad for you. I’ve written extensively on mercury and PCB contamination in fish over at Synapse.
For more on omega-3s, mercury, PCBs and the whole mess, Marion Nestle’s What To Eat is a good resource.
For health, the basic guidelines I follow include:
- Eat fish 2-3 times per week.
- Avoid large fish that accumulate mercury like tuna, shark and swordfish.
- Avoid farmed fish that contain PCBs.
- Seek fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines.
- Avoid fresh water fish caught by friends. Lakes and rivers are almost all contaminated with high mercury levels.
- Enjoy vegetarian omega-3 fatty acid sources such as walnuts, flax and soy.
I don’t take omega-3 supplements, but it is an alternative if you do not eat enough fish. Be sure to get supplements derived from marine sources (and don’t take them before interacting with other humans–icky burps).
All that, and we haven’t even touched on the environmental sustainability issues yet.
Fish and the Environment
I’m going to start with the disclaimer that I am NOT EVEN ALMOST an expert in this stuff. I read about it sometimes and keep up with the basics, but environmental issues aren’t my expertise.
That being said, it is not clear that anyone understands the true damage that the fishing industry is doing to either the environment or the future of the fishing industry. The outlook is not good, but it does seem that there are a few groups that are aware of the problems and taking actions to improve the situation.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, the group I trust most in these matters, recently issued The State of Seafood Report if you’d like to read more.
New York Times food writer and author of Fish: The Complete Guide To Buying and Cooking, Mark Bittman, chimed in on the issue a few months ago in an article explaining the nearly impossible task of choosing fish these days.
To make matters worse, a new report suggests that many eco-friendly fish labels aren’t exactly accurate.
It’s difficult to say how to handle seafood sustainability and I certainly do not have all the answers, but I’ll tell you what I do.
Things I consider when buying and eating fish for sustainability:
- Buy from trusted sources. Since I personally cannot keep up on all the fish sustainability issues, I am sure to shop at places that do. Most small, high-end seafood vendors in San Francisco do a good job of at least telling you where their fish comes from, and will often include sustainability labels.
- Shop at Whole Foods. Though they aren’t perfect, Whole Foods does a great job of labeling the origin of their animal products. This is leaps and bounds over most grocery stores.
- Eat wild Alaskan salmon. The Alaskan fishing regulations are mostly sustainable. I’ve heard this challenged, but Alaskan is still superior to Atlantic or farmed salmon. Did you know that all farmed salmon is dyed pink? Eeeew.
- Eat sardines. These little guys are sustainable, healthy and delicious. I prefer fresh sardines, but I even enjoy the boneless skinless sardines from cans. Pair with dry-as-a-bone white wine. Yum yum.
- Never, ever eat bluefin tuna. These magnificent animals are on the verge of extinction. Don’t do it!
- Eat fish at responsible restaurants. In SF, many of the high-end restaurants proudly label the origin of their fish on the menu. This is not always true, however, especially in Japanese restaurants. Nobu in Manhattan is still serving bluefin tuna.
- Never shop at Asian fish markets. Cheap fish = bad news. Sorry. I know a lot of people rely on these, but personally I do not trust them. Many of the fish sold at these stores are shipped in from China (if they deny it they are likely lying to you). Remember when China was putting poison in baby formula? Don’t assume the fish from there is either safe or sustainable.
- Avoid tuna. Do you still order maguro (tuna) at sushi restaurants? How boring and unethical. Try getting something that you’ve never heard of that may be less likely to be over-fished. And don’t be afraid to ask where it came from.
- Ask the Monterey Bay Aquarium. When in doubt, visit their Super Green List for the best seafood choices at the moment.
Interestingly, shellfish are common on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s best choices list. The reason for this is that many kinds of shellfish can be farmed sustainably with very little environmental impact. This is good news, but doesn’t make shellfish a perfect choice.
Oysters, scallops and shrimp are still among the most common sources of food poisoning in the U.S. every year. Oysters alone are responsible for 15 deaths annually. That means your sources for these items are just as important as they are for any other fish, but mostly for your own protection.
The biggest issue is usually refrigeration (but it is not always), so your best bet is to go with trusted sources that are not likely to skimp on costs and resources. Better yet, buy them live and prepare them yourself.
Taste and Other Adventures
As important as all these issues are, the dominant thought in the back of my mind is always: I love seafood, can I have some?
And yes, sometimes this thought wins out over health, environment and sustainability. But I really do try to do the right thing as often as possible, because I want to continue enjoying seafood for many, many more years.
It is not uncommon to hear these days that we could lose our fishing industries within my lifetime, and no one wants that.
No matter how much we want to deny these issues, they effect us all. Even vegetarians have an interest in preserving the oceans and wild fish populations, since entire ecosystems are dependent upon them.
This is one place where we all need to do our part and be conscientious consumers.
Please share your thoughts, this stuff is complicated!
Originally published November 4, 2009.