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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.
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.
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.
Smoked Wild Salmon on the Stove-Top Smoker
Pan-Sauteed Halibut Steaks
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program
Food and Water Watch
Whole Foods Market Seafood Sustainability
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