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Whole Gourmet Natural Cooking

Alison Anton's Natural Cooking Blog offers healthy recipes, inspirational food articles and culinary advice for the natural chef, and features dessert recipes from her upcoming cookbook, Desserts for Every Body.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Delicious Fishes

This is a rather long, informative entry. Click here for the printer-friendly version. Scroll to the bottom for delish fish recipes!

Fishes are indeed delicious, and with all the health research backing their ability to combat heart disease and cancer, fish are becoming an increasingly popular staple food for people all over the globe. Most health experts agree: eating more fish is a good thing.

But with our world's fish stocks disappearing from our seas because of over-fishing and the use of damaging fishing practices, the need to purchase seafood from fisheries that use ocean-friendly methods is imperative for turning the tides and keeping our oceans from their current downward spiral.

The Quandary of Farmed Fish

To counteract the depletion of our ocean's food supply and to eliminate many of the hardships of the fishing industry, off-shore fish farming (open ocean aquaculture) was implemented. Open ocean aquaculture refers to offshore fish farms located anywhere from three to 200 miles off of the coast, where fish are raised in giant cages or net pens. Hundreds of varieties of fish are raised in this way, the most common being salmon, red snapper, cod, tuna and halibut.

The recent upsurge of farmed fish available in food markets everywhere has put many consumers into a quandary. Which is better for health and the environment - farmed or fresh? Most of us want to do the right thing, but we might be confused as to what the "right thing" actually is.

The Pros and Cons of Farmed Fish

Farmed fish can provide an economical, year-round supply of seafood that does not deplete the available stock of wild fish. That's good, but according to the Food and Water Watch, a non-profit organization that supports sustainable fishing practices, ocean aquaculture poses several problems:
  • Waste from thousands of fish in a relatively small area passes freely into the surrounding environment, polluting the wild habitat. Pollutants include feces, excess food, antibiotics fed to the fish and algae-prohibiting chemicals placed into the cages. These waste products pass on disease, and some of the chemicals are suspected to cause immune suppression in marine mammals like dolphins, seals and sea otters.
  • Farmed fish can escape from the cages and interbreed with wild fish of the same species. Many farmed fish are fed hormones and antibiotics which can jeopardize the health and hardiness of wild fish. Worse yet, some species of farmed fish have been genetically modified to conform to certain market traits. If these GMO fish breed with the natural fish in the wild, the gene structure in the offspring will in turn be altered, affecting the constitution of the wild fish population.
  • The commercial feed for the farmed fish contains high levels of chemical pollutants, including PCBs, which are known carcinogens. Studies indicate that the farmed fish themselves have higher concentrations of these chemicals within them. Most of these fish are also fed antibiotics. Since "you are what you eat", this can pose a health threat to the humans who consume them.
The Solution: Sustainable Seafood

According to Whole Foods Market, 60 percent of the world's marine stocks are either depleted, over-exploited or recovering at a slow rate. With the demand of seafood growing, it is crucial that sustainable seafood practices are followed to ensure that our oceans maintain their diversity and that the waters (and the food, plants and animals that live in them) are clean, safe and healthy for our future generations.

Whole Foods describes sustainable seafood as "seafood that comes from fishing practices that allow a depleted or threatened fish population to recover to healthy levels [and] that prevents healthy fish populations from becoming depleted."

Sustainable seafood comes from well-managed sources where fishermen follow specific practices set by The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) an international organization focused on implementing sustainable fishing standards for fisheries around the globe. Fisheries certified through MSC ensure that the fish provided by them were not over-fished or harvested in ways that harm the ocean's environment. Noted fisheries certified under MSC are the Alaskan salmon fisheries; in fact, Alaska's state constitution requires that the salmon habitat be conserved and protected. Way to go Alaska!

Fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council will be labeled and promoted by the store providing them. Look for their white and blue oval label.

Mercury in Fish

Unfortunately, higher than desired levels of mercury from the runoff of power plants are increasingly contaminating our waters. Fish absorb the mercury in the water by feeding off aquatic organisms. Smaller fish eat plants that are contaminated, and the larger fish eat the smaller fish that are contaminated. Since the larger fish live longer lives and feed on larger amounts of contaminated organisms, they are the fish that accumulate the highest levels of mercury.

High risk fish: king mackerel, shark, swordfish, tilefish and tuna (fresh, canned and frozen).

Lower-risk fish: catfish, cod, crab, flounder/sole, grouper, haddock, herring, lobster, mahi-mahi, ocean perch, oysters, rainbow trout and farmed trout, salmon, sardines, scallops, shrimp, spiny lobster, tilapia.

Mercury is most harmful to the developing brain of unborn children and young children. It may also affect the nervous system and kidneys. For pregnant women, women who want to become pregnant, nursing mothers and children, the FDA recommends avoiding the high-risk fish completely, and to limit the low-risk fish to one meal per week. All others should significantly lower their consumption of high-risk fish, and eat a wide variety of low-risk fish in moderation, no more than two meals per week.

Buying Fish

Taking all of the above into consideration as we find ourselves at the fish counter, how do we know which species of fish are thriving? Which ones are depleted? And how do we know which seafood was fished with the appropriate ethical and environmental factors considered?

There are hundreds of varieties of fish out there, and no one expects anyone to remember every kind of fish that is being depleted or fished in an indecent manner. To make it easier for consumers, several environmental agencies have created handy little pocket guides for fish buying that can be whipped out at the fish counter. Red means no, yellow means caution, and green means moderation. Download yours now!

Monterey Bay Aquarium Fish Buying Pocket Guide
Audubon Society Fish Buying Wallet Card

There are a few general fish buying guidelines we can remember, though. In general, Food and Water Watch reminds us to eat a variety of fish and to choose wild, sustainably fished seafood over farmed (look for the Marine Stewardship Council label). Buy local if you can, but if you don't live near the coast, try to stick with US fish, as these will travel less distance and will be fresher. They also remind us that we have a right to know where our seafood comes from and to get in the habit of asking the fishmonger or restauranteur about any fish before we buy it.

RECIPES:
Smoked Wild Salmon on the Stove-Top Smoker
Pan-Sauteed Halibut Steaks

Article references:
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program
Food and Water Watch
Whole Foods Market Seafood Sustainability

6 Comments:

At 4:23 PM , Blogger aquaken said...

Thanks for blogging the issue. For folks who want to get further ideas and tastes of sustainable seafood, check out Monterey Bay Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions events on May 18-19, www.cookingforsolutions.org. Whole Foods Market has been involved since the beginning. (Full disclosure: I'm the PR guy for the aquarium.)

 
At 6:09 AM , Blogger Maketta said...

That was a good post. I, too, have heard that you shouldn't buy farmed fish. The first time I heard of the Whole Foods Market was on the Pbs channel. They were talking to the owner about the future of Whole Foods.

 
At 7:03 AM , Anonymous David said...

It's dangerously over-simplified to say that farmed seafood is bad. There are almost as many ways to farm fish as there are fish.

In fact, the Monterey Bay Aquarium resource that you link lists no fewer than 12 "best choices" as explicitly farmed [e.g. "abalone (farmed)"]. The other farmed best choices are US barramundi, US catfish, caviar, clams, mussels, oysters, bay scallops, striped bass, sturgeon, US tilapia, and rainbow trout. So 12 of the 30 best choices are farmed!

 
At 9:57 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know who "whole foods market" is, in the quote "Whole Foods Market, 60 percent of the world's marine stocks are either depleted, over-exploited or recovering at a slow rate", but this is presumably a misquotation of the FAO biennial "Status of global Fisheries and Aquaculture" report SOFIA, which says that something like 25% of the percent of the world's marine stocks are either depleted, over-exploited or recovering.

 
At 10:42 AM , Blogger Alison Anton said...

Regarding the "farmed fish is bad" issue from David's post: Yes, I think you are right to some degree. After reading my article again, I realized that I didn't emphasize enough that there ARE good choices of farmed fish. In many cases, as David pointed out, it's better to choose farmed over wild because of over-fishing or unethical fishing practices. I gave the links to the fish buying guides so that readers could have an educated view of which ones to buy wild and which to buy farmed. In general, though, I am an advocate of wild fish that are caught ethically and that are not over-fished. That's just my personal preference. My suggestion to the general public is to follow the guidance from the fish-buying pocket guides.

 
At 4:38 PM , Blogger Alison Anton said...

This is in response to the above anonymous comment regarding the percent of fish stocks that are over-fished. I reviewed the writings from the link she posted (SOPHIA) and found that, in a nutshell, 25 percent of the stocks are doing okay, 50 percent are at their limit and the other 25 percent are completely over-fished. Basically 75 percent (not the 60 percent that I originally quoted from Whole Foods Market) of our fish stocks are in serious trouble.

Here's the quote from SOPHIA: "It is estimated that in 2005, as in recent years, around one-quarter of the stock groups monitored by FAO were underexploited or moderately exploited and could perhaps produce more, whereas about half of the stocks were fully exploited and therefore producing catches that were at, or close to, their maximum sustainable limits, with no room for further expansion. The remaining stocks were either overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion and thus were yielding less than their maximum potential owing to excess fishing pressure. This confirms earlier observations that the maximum wild capture fishery potential from the world’s oceans has probably been reached and reinforces the calls for more cautious and effective fisheries management to rebuild depleted stocks and prevent the decline of those being exploited at or close to their maximum potential."

 

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