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Sustainable Seafood 101

January 22nd, 2009 · 16 Comments

If your new year’s resolutions included healthier eating, you’re probably looking to include more fish in your diet. It’s one of my goals, anyway, but a trip to the fish counter is often headache inducing as I try to remember which fish is “safe.” Sustainable seafood guides look at several factors, and unfortunately it’s not as simple as “farmed fish = bad, wild-caught = good.” Wild-caught salmon is good, yes, but some farmed fish also get the green light from the Blue Ocean Institute and other guides. We often hear about the health benefits of fish, particularly the omega-3 fatty acids that are important for brain development and heart health, so it’s important to make smart choices to make sure the health benefits are not out-weighed by the risks.

Health and sustainability issues surrounding seafood tend to fall into two general areas:

  1. over-fishing, ocean health and species survival
  2. health risks from mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

1. Ocean Health: Our oceans are over-fished and too many countries do not adequately regulate fishing practices. Fishing techniques for certain species also endanger other species. We all remember the dolphin-safe tuna campaign of the 80s, and while “dolphin-safe” labels now appear on tuna cans, other dangerous fishing practices are still in use. Blue fin tuna and Chilean sea bass top the list of endangered species to avoid. For more on the problems of over-fishing, see the Environmental Defense Fund on “Fishing Responsibly.”

2. Human Heath Risks: Pollutants in water are ingested and stored in fish. Certain fish retain a higher concentration of mercury and PCBs, chemicals from fertilizers and industrial waste which pose brain development risks, particularly to developing babies and young children, and are linked to cancer. These toxins build up and are stored in fat cells, so choosing less fatty fish and using cooking techniques that reduce the fat (avoid frying, drain fat during cooking) will help reduce your exposure. For more on issues surrounding farmed food, particularly the fish meal feeding that concentrates toxins in certain species, read this informative post on the Green Fork Guide.

Sustainable Fish Resources: The guides produced by the Blue Ocean Institute and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafod Watch rate fish by their sustainability index, and they offer on-the-go tools that are a lifesaver when your mind goes blank in front of the seafood display at the store. You can download an iPhone application from Seafood Watch or simply text 30644 with the message FISH and the name of the fish in question for an instant response from the Institute’s “Fish Phone.” “Organic” seafood is going through its own challenges, but you can look for fish with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. Using the Environmental Defense Fund‘s lists of most and least-contaminated fish, narrowed to highlight the more commonly found, here are the “top 5” best and worst to remember:

Top 5 Fish To Look For: Wild Alaskan Salmon, Yellow-Tail Snapper, Tuna – Albacore or canned light, Black Sea Bass, Tilapia – US farmed.

Top 5 Fish To Avoid: Blue fin Tuna, Striped Bass – wild, Salmon – farmed/Atlantic, MackerelSwordfish

We tend to eat a lot of Alaskan salmon, as it happens to be my favorite as well as one of the safest. My husband is a reluctant seafood eater, so finding types he will willingly eat is another challenge. Tilapia was a recent success, though, and this week’s Sustainable Family Supper (below) features this nutrient-rich, easy-to-find and affordable fish.

Tags: fish · food for thought · healthy eating · seafood · sustainable family supper

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 how to cook with oven | How to cook with mircrowave oven // Jan 23, 2009 at 12:21 am

    […] » Blog Archive » Sustainable Family Supper Project … […]

  • 2 mncheese // Jan 23, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Hey, this popped up on Minnesota Monthly’s Web site this morning – a new sustainable seafood restaurant at the Guthrie Theatre!

  • 3 Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener // Jan 25, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    That’s a great overview with a nice simple summary at the end: top 5/ worst 5. Useful for anybody, not just parents!

    Thank you


  • 4 Ed B ruske // Jan 27, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Good for you, talking up sustainable fish. I’m touring the food blogs today, and it’s shameful how many high-profile bloggers (and chefs, and food mags, etc.) pay absolutely no attention to what’s happening in our oceans. You’d think they could at least give a glance at Seafood Watch occasionally.

  • 5 JessTrev // Jan 28, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Love this! I am reading BottomFeeder right now and it’s pretty eye opening. I’m hoping I end up with more than anchovies and sardines at the end. 😉

  • 6 » Blog Archive » Shellfish on Friday // Feb 27, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    […] that Lent is here, I have even more incentive to try new seafood recipes to incorporate more sustainable seafood into our diet. This was actually our Shrove Tuesday pancake meal, but we will definitely be making […]

  • 7 Veithhielt // Mar 14, 2009 at 6:19 am

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  • 8 How to Get Six Pack Fast // Apr 15, 2009 at 11:09 am

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  • 9 » Blog Archive » Going Green Begins at the Kitchen Table // Apr 17, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    […] unsustainable fish […]

  • 10 Sustainability website // May 3, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Great tips about what fish (or not) to eat!

    Please feel welcome to share your knowlege on our website (

  • 11 Doug // May 4, 2009 at 1:07 am

    Good well ballanced article, there are a lot of misconceptions about wild versuses farmed, the devil is in the details.

  • 12 » Blog Archive » Sustainable Fish Soundbites // Jun 12, 2009 at 2:11 am

    […] which guides are scientific and which are just clever marketing. Here’s a look back at a “Sustainable Seafood 101″ post I wrote earlier this year, part of the FoodieTot’s Sustainable Family Supper […]

  • 13 » Blog Archive » Wild Salmon Salad (mayo-free) // Feb 16, 2010 at 8:03 am

    […] is really important for pregnant women and young kids alike.  But it’s important to eat the right fish, and canned wild salmon is both an affordable and sustainable alternative to some other types […]

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