Fishing For Answers: How To Choose Fish and Seafood

by | Dec 8, 2010

By sektordua

By sektordua

“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.

*deep breath*

*exhale*

Ok.

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.

Shellfish

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.

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41 Responses to “Fishing For Answers: How To Choose Fish and Seafood”

  1. thomas says:

    because you are talking about omega 3 fatty acids. you might as well mention omega 6 fatty acids and how the balance between those two should be intact
    see: http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/omega-6-000317.htm

  2. You might want to look into the mercury issue. Here’s a good summary: http://www.clovegarden.com/ingred/seafish.html#med And from the same site, an update on one of the common suspects: http://www.clovegarden.com/ingred/seafishv.html (Scroll down to section on tilefish.)

    The original warnings and guidelines erred on the side of caution. More research since then has shown that the danger is nearly as acute as the current guidelines suggest. The health benefits of eating fish probably outweigh the risks for most people.

    It’s sort of like drinking wine for heart health. If you don’t consume *any* of it, you could benefit from starting. But that doesn’t mean you should overindulge in it every day.

  3. Oops, that should have said “the danger *isn’t* nearly as acute”.

  4. Clear and excellent, as always. I stumbled it.

  5. Charles says:

    Fish really is complicated. Concerning the PCBs apparently farmed fish aren’t the only danger, but freshwater fish in general (like trout) as the PCBs are all over river and lake beds and aren’t going away for a few hundred years.

    http://www.edf.org/article.cfm?contentID=3951

    As for the omega-3s, as pointed out earlier a balance is needed with omega-6s, as well as omega-9s (!). Omega-6 are in red meats and cooking oils, which conventional diets encourage us to avoid in favor of fish, poultry and the controversial flaxseed which don’t have any.

    Eating perfectly would require a home chemical laboratory and hundreds of hours of spare time to learn the formulas… er… recipes. It may allow us to live longer and physically healthier, but at the cost of sanity?

    Wow this transitions beautifully to your previous post :)

  6. Darya:
    Great post. Do you know about my annual blog event called Teach a Man to Fish? I’d love to include a recipe or a link to this post in the round up I’m working on now…

    Also for the holidays I’m going to be working on a Feast of 7 Fishes – with a focus on Sustainability.

    Barramundi is also a good choice of responsibly farmed, delicious, healthy fish.

    Cheers,
    Jacqueline

  7. Joan Nova says:

    This issue is more than complicated! It’s also very limiting to most people who want to eat fish for health (and taste) reasons but basically have access to only the ones on your ‘no’ list. But, as always, I appreciate your bringing this info to your readers.

  8. Allie says:

    I’ve been wanting to learn more about this topic for a long time but had no idea where to start. Thanks for providing so many great links to information and resources!

  9. I admit to eating less fish than I probably should for health reasons because of the environmental implications (and finding it so difficult to keep it all straight). I’ve found a few types of fish I like that I can keep track of — shrimp (domestic or wild-caught), sablefish (Alaskan is best, but West Coast is OK), and anchovies (the Environmental Defense Fund says these are sustainable, and they can be added to everything from Caesar Salad to Beef Stew). I also take supplements — I’ve found Country Life brand Omega Mom’s don’t leave a fishy aftertaste.

    Whole Foods has been really great about labeling the fishing method and source of its fish, and whether it’s MSC certified, so that’s another shortcut.

  10. Thanks for the tips, Darya! Wow, this is complicated and confusing. I have a hard time finding decent fish around here and more often than not just end up buying frozen tilapia and catfish. The last couple times I bought salmon it had no taste at all (total bummer as I love salmon!), so I’ve been hesitant to buy more. I need to give it a try again though!

    • Darya Pino says:

      The funny thing about salmon is, it is seasonal too. Remember how they jump up the river?

      I have given up on ordering salmon at restaurants because they never cook it right. Sometimes I make it myself, but usually my salmon comes from cans. When cooking fresh fish I just buy the best looking stuff the market is selling and plan my meal around that.

      • thomas says:

        how do you make sure the salmon in the can was harvested during the salmon season?

      • Darya Pino says:

        Oh, you don’t. Sorry for the confusion. I like Henry & Lisa’s brand. It doesn’t matter that much, but I recommend boneless and skinless or it can be gross. I hate the Trader Joe’s brand.

      • thomas says:

        it’s just that if you are constantly advocate to buy only seasonal stuff, this feels like cheating IMO.

        wouldn’t it be better to buy frozen fish, that got caught/frozen during their season?

      • Darya Pino says:

        Sure, whatever works for you. It is definitely cheating a little, but it’s a nice back up. I mix up my fish sources often.

      • I prefer fresh and seasonal, too. But I’m also a fan of canned. Canning is the way people used to preserve food through the off-season. Because of how it’s sealed, it doesn’t require the preservatives you find in most other packaged foods.

        And while you can’t guarantee when it was harvested, because it’s going in a can the producer has no incentive to try to harvest off-season. It’s actually easier for them to produce and package it in season.

  11. Got Mercury? says:

    People worried about mercury ingestion from fish can estimate exposure by entering their weight, fish choice and serving size into the new
    mercury calculator at http://www.gotmercury.org. You can also use the mobile mercury calculator for cell phone browsers at http://www.gotmercury.mobi. The calculator is based on current U.S. EPA and FDA mercury guidelines, weak as they are. Learn more about mercury-laden fish and how to protect yourself and your family at http://www.gotmercury.org
    or http://www.diagnosismercury.org

  12. Kate says:

    On this topic, I highly recommend the book “Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood”, by Taras Grescoe. It’s very well written, and he really spent a lot of time doing thorough research (including traveling to various places to see the fish harvested in situ–his description of shrimp ponds in India permanently turned me off shrimp unless I am absolutely positive they are wild-caught).

    I also highly recommend canned mackerel if you can find it. In my experience, it’s a lot smoother and richer-tasting than sardines (my experiences with canned sardines is that they tend to be a bit dry). It does look a little icky when you first open the can, but just look away, make a salad with it (I like celery, green olives, and chick peas), and taste it and you’ll be sold. It’s really good.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Awesome Kate, thanks so much for the tips! I’ve added the book to my reading list.

      Do you have any recommendations on where to find canned mackerel? I’d love to try it. I agree with you completely on sardines. My first few experiences were great but I’ve only been getting the big dry ones lately, and I don’t know how to find the smaller ones I like better.

      • Kate says:

        I’ve found canned mackerel in my local grocery store, but they can be hard to find. You could try an Italian grocer (I know there must be some in SF…). You can also try a food co-op (if I recall correctly there’s a pretty good one on Folsom St.)–they often have ones that are certified sustainable.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Cool, thanks! Found mackerel and trout at Whole Foods.

  13. Jamie says:

    “”We think it’s important for people who eat salmon to know that farmed salmon have higher levels of toxins than wild salmon from the open ocean,” environmental affairs professor Ronald Hites of Albany, who led the study, said in a statement.”

    “Studies performed in Canada and the United States have shown elevated levels of carcinogenic contaminants in farmed fish. These contaminants include not only the much publicized mercury that taints nearly every species of wild fish, but polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), which is a synthetic, organic chemical, and various dietary additives, pesticides, antibiotics, and fungicides.

    The toxins, it appears, are introduced through farming practices and via the feed used to grow the salmon in captivity. Farm raised fish are fed pellets rich in fish oils. Because PCBs are stored in fat, the oil-rich feed pellets harbor concentrated amounts of PCBs and are a highly suspected source of PCBs in farmed fish. A controlled diet and an environment that restricts natural movement mean that farmed salmon usually are fattier than those caught in the wild. More fat means more potential for elevated levels of PCBs.”

    From EWG.org

  14. Kristina says:

    This is great information. We often come across articles telling readers to eat more fish and seafood. We seldom come across great articles such as detailed as this. I never thought of tuna being more likely contaminated and to think we are told to prefer tuna. Good post!!!

  15. Josh says:

    I’d also say it’s worth mentioning that the n-3 omega-3 oils (DHA and EPA) are obtained from oceanic phytoplankton. Freshwater fish (tilapia, catfish, rainbow trout, etc) therefore have significantly lower levels of these, and more n-6 omega 3 oils (like ALA). Unless the freshwater fish are farmed, in which case they are often fed a diet containing marine oils.

  16. PhilM says:

    Thanks for this great post.

    As a recovering vegetarian, I eat fish a lot. Okay, I confess! Everyday, in fact! I eat wild caught Alaskan Salmon when it is in season and Trout at other times. My source for these is CostCo. I used to eat Sierra Mackerel but don’t do that anymore since the source for it was the cheap chinese grocery store and I was concerned about mercury levels and the unknown origin of these fish.

    Even after almost two years of research, I feel I haven’t a handle on the health implications of my fish eating ways. For the life of me, I can’t figure out where that CostCo Trout comes from. And, how come it is considered okay even though it is farmed when farmed Salmon is a no-no? Also, environmental concerns seem to play a big role and that could be an emotional issue with less science behind it.

    Here is my problem. I can’t afford to buy fish at Whole Foods. I don’t like canned Salmon. Is the Trout from CostCo a good enough choice? Any other good fish vendors in the peninsula area?

    Thanks!

    • thomas says:

      no farmed fish is good, unless done in an isolated fish tank. then you still have to feed them…

      anyways, tried asking i.e. greenpeace or the wwf? at least here they know about the supermarket chains and their sources. not specifically about trout but it might still be interesting to you: http://go.greenpeaceusa.org/seafood/scorecards/costco.pdf
      http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/campaigns/oceans/seafood/supermarket/

      and i throw in an alternative to both salmon and trout: carp. they are omnivorous, so farming shouldn’t be such an environmental problem.

      • Note that some wild-caught fish are being fished to extinction. In those cases, it’s more environmentally friendly — or at least “less bad” — to eat farmed if you’re going to eat it at all.

      • thomas says:

        and some of those farmed fish are the reason why the wild fish is being close to extinction ;)
        but yea, I can’t see the advantage of catching wild-caught fish on the west coast of africa or west/east coast of latin america, processing that fish into fish meal, shipping it to australian tuna farms and then ship the frozen tuna to Japan, Europe or the US. I rather eat no fish if that is the only fish I can get my hands on.

    • Darya Pino says:

      For cheaper fish sources I’ve been loving boneless/skinless sardines. I especially loved canned smoked mackerel. I agree with Thomas that farmed fish is not so great, because of PCBs. I wouldn’t worry too much about mercury if you’re a grown man.

      Also keep in mind, you don’t need to be eating tons of fish. Just 3-4 ounces a few times a week is sufficient.

  17. Ina Franks says:

    and some of those farmed fish are the reason why the wild fish is being close to extinction ;) but yea, I can’t see the advantage of catching wild-caught fish on the west coast of africa or west/east coast of latin america, processing that fish into fish meal, shipping it to australian tuna farms and then ship the frozen tuna to Japan, Europe or the US. I rather eat no fish if that is the only fish I can get my hands on.

  18. Sparks says:

    What the …?
    The Henry & Lisa’s “Wild Alaskan Salmon” (9 oz) package USED TO say “Wild – Product of USA” — This has been covered by a “PRODUCT OF CHINA” sticker. Is it still as good as when caught in Alaskan waters?

  19. AJ says:

    Darya, what kinds of sushi or sashimi do you tend to order at Japanese restaurants?

    • Darya Pino says:

      I like to order stuff I’ve never heard of before if possible, and ask the chef what is special. My faves are walu, snapper, snow crab, hamachi and salmon. I avoid tuna when possible, but most people like it so it usually gets ordered by someone. I used to like scallops until I got food poisoning from one… still trying to overcome that aversion.

      • AJ says:

        Thanks for your quick response. I always love hamachi and salmon, but when I went to a restaurant last week, I tried walu for the first time and loved it! I am also now avoiding tuna. Looking forward to trying out snapper and snow crab some time…

  20. Melanie says:

    Hi, Darya! I love your newsletter and website. Very inspiring.
    I know I’m quite late here, but hope you see this comment.
    I’ve been concerned about Alaskan salmon since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resulting nuclear power plant disaster. Notice there has been a media blackout the last few months. But we all know radioactive water was poured into the ocean, and we don’t know what is going on currently – but it can’t be good. So I’m concerned about
    the fish from Alaska. What do you think????

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