How to Find the Safest Seafood
by Judith Fertig
We love our seafood, a delicious source of lean protein. The latest data reports U.S. consumption of more than 4.8 billion pounds of seafood, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with the average American eating 3.5 ounces of seafood a week. About half of the catch is wild-caught and half farmed. Yet how do we know which fish and shellfish are safe to eat and good for ocean ecology?
The best approach is to choose seafood carefully. Oil spills, waste runoff and other environmental disasters can compromise the quality of seafood with toxic contaminants like mercury and other heavy metals and industrial, agricultural and lawn chemicals. These pollutants can wash out from land to sea (and vice versa). As smaller fish that have eaten pollutants are eaten by larger ones, contaminants accumulate and concentrate. Large predatory fish like swordfish and sharks end up with the most toxins.
The truth is that no one fish can be seen as a sustainability darling, because if it is, it’s sure to be overfished.
Beyond today’s top-selling shrimp, canned tuna, salmon and farmed tilapia, more retailers and restaurants are also providing lesser-known seafood varieties like dogfish and hake as alternatives to overfished species such as sea bass and Atlantic cod. These new-to-us, wild-caught fish can be delicious, sustainable and healthy.
Choices Good for Oceans
An outstanding resource for choosing well-managed caught or farmed seafood in environmentally responsible ways is Seafood Watch, provided through California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium. Information on the most sustainable varieties of seafood is available in a printed guide, updated twice a year. The pocket guide or smartphone app provides instant information at the seafood counter and restaurant table. Online information at SeafoodWatch.org and via the app is regularly updated.
The Blue Ocean Institute, led by MacArthur Fellow and ecologist Carl Safina, Ph.D., supports ocean conservation, community economics and global peace by steering consumers and businesses toward sustainably fished seafood. It maintains a data base on 140 wild-caught fish and shellfish choices at BlueOcean.org.
Hoki, for instance, might have a green fish icon for “relatively abundant” and a blue icon for “sustainable and well-managed fisheries,” but also be red flagged for containing levels of mercury or PCBs that can pose a health risk for children. As species become overfished, rebound or experience fluctuating levels of contaminants, their annual ratings can change.
Choices Good for Us
To help make choosing easier, Seafood Watch has now joined with the Harvard School of Public Health to also advise what’s currently safe to eat. Entries on their list of “green” fish, which can shift annually, are low in mercury, good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and caught or farmed responsibly.
If the top-listed fish and shellfish aren’t locally available, look for the Seafood Safe label, started by EcoFish company founder and President Henry Lovejoy, furnishing at-a-glance consumption recommendations based upon tests for contaminants. Labels display a number that indicates how many four-ounce servings of the species a woman of childbearing age can safely eat per month. (Find consumption recommendations for other demographics at SeafoodSafe.com.) Expert-reviewed independent testing of random samples of the fish currently monitors mercury and PCB levels. Lovejoy advises that other toxins will be added to the testing platform in the future.
The international fishery industry operates in a constant state of rebalancing while competing interests look for ways to harvest natural resources without destroying them altogether.
“My dream is to have all seafood sold in the U.S. qualify to bear the Seafood Safe label, because consumers deserve to know what they’re eating,” says Lovejoy. “We need to be a lot more careful in how we use toxic chemicals and where we put them.”
Some retailers also provide details on their seafood sourcing. Whole Foods, for example, offers complete traceability of the fish and shellfish they carry, from fishery or farm to stores. Their fish, wild-caught or farmed, frozen or fresh, meet strict quality guidelines in regard to exposure to antibiotics, preservatives and hormones. They also display Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute ratings at the seafood counter.
Wise seafood choices feed and sustain our families, foster a healthier seafood industry, support responsible local fisheries and keep Earth’s water resources viable.
Judith Fertig blogs at AlfrescoFoodAndLifestyle.blogspot.com from Overland Park, KS.
According to Seafood Watch and the Harvard School of Public Health, the Super “Green” list includes seafood with low levels of mercury (below 216 parts per billion [ppb]) and at least 250 milligrams per day (mg/d) of the recommended daily consumption of omega-3 essential fatty acids. It also must be classified as a Best Choice for being caught or farmed in environmentally responsible ways at SeafoodWatch.org.
The Best in July 2013
- Atlantic mackerel (purse seine, U.S. and Canada)
- Freshwater Coho salmon (tank system farms, U.S.)
- Pacific sardines (wild-caught)
- Salmon (wild-caught, Alaska)
- Salmon, canned (wild-caught, Alaska)
The “honorable mention” list includes seafood that contains moderate amounts of mercury and between 100 and 250 milligrams per day (mg/d) of the recommended daily consumption of omega-3s. It also must be classified as a Best Choice for being caught or farmed in environmentally responsible ways at SeafoodWatch.org.
More Healthy Choices
- Albacore tuna (troll- or pole-caught, U.S. or British Columbia)
- Sablefish/black cod (from Alaska and Canadian Pacific)