Turning the Tides

The smartest seafood choices for your health—and the Earth.
By Alison Anton

Buying seafood these days is no easy feat. With wild fish stocks disappearing fast and concerns about the safety of farmed fish rising (not to mention the negative impact it’s having on the ocean environment) health-conscious consumers want to know which is better: wild or farmed?

Unfortunately, no one has a clear-cut answer. With contaminant exposure on one hand and unethical fishing practices on the other, both farmed and wild fish come with their catch of concerns.

What’s healthier?
One thing is certain: Health and nutrition experts agree that eating more of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish is a good thing. According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, higher consumption of omega-3s significantly lowers the risk of coronary heart disease. Eating omega-3-rich fish has also been linked with improved brain function, and another recent JAMA study found that when kids with an increased risk for type-1 diabetes ate a diet containing omega-3-fatty acids, they were less likely to develop a precursor to the disease.

While omega-3s are found in both wild and farmed fish, particularly salmon, mackerel, and sardines, US Department of Agriculture reports suggest that some species of farmed salmon actually contain higher amounts of omega-3s than the average salmon in the wild. Tim Fitzgerald, an ocean scientist with the Environmental Defense Network’s Oceans Alive Program, says that’s because farmed salmon has been bred over the last 20 to 30 years to grow very quickly and be very fatty. “Since they have a high fish oil component in their feed to help them grow fast, they have more omega-3s in their meat,” he says.

However, feeding a high-fat diet to farmed fish has its share of unintended consequences. Independent laboratory reports show that the fat from farmed salmon contains high levels of contaminants like PCBs and dioxins, both known carcinogens. “PCBs accumulate in fat,” says Fitzgerald. “Since the fat given to farmed salmon is reduced down to dense concentrations, the pollutants are also highly concentrated.”

According to tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in Washington, DC, seven out of 10 farmed salmon purchased at grocery stores in DC, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon, contained unsafe levels of contaminants.

Although the FDA recommends eating two servings of fish each week, it doesn’t specify whether the fish should be farmed or wild. Most nutritionists agree that having some fish—regardless of its source—is better than getting none. But most also warn consumers to consider the dietary downside of fish, particularly its mercury content and chemical contamination. An easy tip to remember the next time you’re at the fish market: Choose the smallest fish, says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, RD, a nutritionist in Sacramento, California. “Whether it’s wild or farmed, the small ones have had the least amount of time in the water to absorb toxins, so they’re generally considered safer than the bigger fish.”

Farmed and dangerous?
On the face of it, fish farming seems to be a logical solution to the problems we face with our declining natural fish stocks. With human population growth skyrocketing and today’s high demand for seafood, we have a dire need for alternative sources for fish.

Buffy Baumann, acting director of the Fish Campaign at Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit dedicated to seafood sustainability, says that fish farming could be a good solution, but only under certain conditions. Today, no one enforces any environmental standards for open-net fish pens, and that, says Baumann, poses several problems:

Escaped fish. Large numbers of farm-raised fish that have been given antibiotics and hormones escape from the nets. These fish can breed with the truly wild species that surround the farms and are sometimes caught as “wild” in the open ocean. Just how many fish are fleeing farms? The Norwegian government reported that more than 1 million fish from Norwegian-based farms escaped into open waters in 2006 alone.

Decreased ocean resources. Large amounts of seafood are fished from the ocean every day to feed carnivorous farmed fish like salmon. This decreases the population of small fish that are eaten by the larger, carnivorous species in the wild.

Waste. Feces from thousands of fish held captive in a small area—plus high levels of the antibiotics and algae-inhibiting chemicals used to treat them—can pass freely into the surrounding environment, polluting the habitat of wild fish, sea mammals, and aquatic plant life.

Offshore fish farming may work reasonably well for certain low-impact or vegetarian varieties like shellfish, catfish, bass, and tilapia, but it poses a significant threat to the environment and to the wild habitat surrounding the farms when used for most other species.

As an alternative, Food and Water Watch suggests inland fish farming, which locates pens away from coastal waters and allows for better control of waste.

In deep waters
It’s a sad fact: Overfishing and the use of damaging fishing practices are causing the world’s wild fish stocks to rapidly disappear from our seas.

According to the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA), 75 percent of the world’s marine stocks have been either fully exploited or overexploited. In its 2006 World Review of Fisheries and Aquaculture, SOFIA warns, “The maximum wild-capture fishery potential has probably been reached, which reinforces the calls for more cautious and effective fisheries management.”

Management of US fisheries has been in a leaky boat from the beginning. Marine scientists and environmentalists argue that management councils are comprised almost entirely of members who have a special interest in the business of fishing, rather than in the environmental and ecological impacts of the industry. According to Mark Powell, director of fish conservation at the Ocean Conservancy, the vast majority of council members include commercial fisherman, seafood processors, and private sport-fishing companies.

“It’s a deeply conflicted situation,” says Powell. “Managers seem to be reluctant to put restrictions on fishing, backing the notion among fishermen that there’s a ‘right to fish,’ even though the fish are dwindling to frightening levels. As it is, there are too many fisherman chasing too few fish.”

A new wave of sustainable seafood
Ever since Wal-Mart committed in 2006 to gradually source 100 percent of its wild-caught seafood from fisheries that meet sustainable seafood standards, fishery advocates have hoped that other big names will follow suit.

Sustainable seafood comes from fisheries that allow depleted fish populations time to recover and prevent thriving species from becoming threatened. The Marine Steward- ship Council (MSC), an independent, third-party certifier of sustainable seafood, currently sets the highest standards on a global scale. Wal-Mart, as well as a handful of other major retailers like Whole Foods, Safeway, Target, and Costco, stock sustainable seafood under MSC certification.

“We have a window of opportunity here,” says Powell. “Large seafood buyers who have an interest in sustainability have the potential to change the way fishing and aquaculture play out over the next decade.”

Although optimism runs high, Wal-Mart’s commitment to sustainability may be difficult to achieve. As it stands, too few fisheries meet MSC standards to provide large-scale buyers with sustainable options. If the major grocery chains want to buy sustainable seafood and it’s just not available, they may throw in the towel and go back to stocking nonsustainable seafood products.

In the meantime, the MSC continues to add more names to its list of certified fisheries. If they remain on this course, it’s possible that sustainable fishing practices will become the norm in the next decade. “If Wal-Mart wins, everybody wins,” says Powell.

Fortunately, no one’s saying that giving up seafood is the ultimate solution; nor is taking the dogmatic approach of buying only wild or farmed fish. There’s a middle way—but it can only work if the fisheries are managed sustainably and if consumers take a more mindful approach when choosing fish. If we can adhere to this ethical code, there’s a good chance we’ll have a positive impact on our oceans for years to come.

The eco-best choices:

Abalone (farmed, US)
Arctic char (farmed)
Catfish (farmed, US)
Caviar (farmed, US)
Clams (farmed)
Crab (Dungeness, stone, and Canadian snow)
Crawfish (US)
Halibut (Pacific, Alaska)
Herring (Atlantic)
Mackerel (Atlantic)
Mahimahi (Atlantic, US)
Mussels (farmed)
Oysters (farmed)
Sablefish/black cod (Alaska)
Salmon (wild, Alaska; canned pink/sockeye)
Scallops (bay, farmed)
Shrimp (Oregon, Canada, US farmed)
Spot prawns
Striped bass (farmed)
Sturgeon (US farmed)
Tilapia (US)

The eco-worst choices:

Chilean seabass/toothfish
Cod (Atlantic)
Halibut (Atlantic)
Orange roughy
Rockfish/rock cod (Pacific)
Salmon (farmed, Atlantic)
Shrimp/prawns (imported)
Sturgeon (wild)
Swordfish (imported)
Tuna (bluefin)

Source: Environmental Defense Network’s Oceans Alive. To print a wallet-size version, check out Web Exclusives at naturalsolutionsmag.com.

Quick tip: Frying sears in pollutants that could be in the fish’s fat. The solution? Grilling, broiling, or poaching, which lets the fat drain away.

Easy, Eco-Friendly Fish Swaps

Have a recipe that calls for one of the eco-worst seafood choices? Here are three smarter swaps, according to Environmental Defense Network:

1. Farmed striped bass can be used as a substitute for many species of depleted fish, including Pacific rockfish, grouper, snapper, orange roughy, and Chilean sea bass

2. Most shrimp production outside the US entails considerable habitat destruction. California trap-caught spot prawns (which are excellent frozen) and northern pink shrimp from Newfoundland are the best choices.

3. US-farmed crawfish make an excellent and less expensive replacement for spiny lobsters, which are overfished in many places.

Alison Anton is a nutritional chef, cooking instructor, and food writer based in Boulder, Colorado.


Tilapia Tortilla Stew
Serves 4

4 tablespoons fresh lime juice, plus 1 tablespoon for sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro, plus extra for garnish
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 pounds US tilapia
1 (16 ounce) jar tomato salsa
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth cups
4 small handfuls broken tortilla chips
1 tablespoon olive oil, for drizzling
1 avocado, diced

1. Mix 4 tablespoons of lime juice with garlic, cilantro, and salt in a large casserole dish. Lay the tilapia fillets side by side atop the marinade. Let sit 15 minutes, turning once or twice to coat all sides.

2. Bring salsa and chicken broth to a simmer in a large skillet. Add the tilapia with juices. Simmer 10 minutes, until fish is firm and opaque. Break the fish into large pieces with a wooden spatula.

3. To serve, line four bowls with a handful of bro- ken tortilla chips. Spoon stew over chips and drizzle with a touch of the remaining lime juice and olive oil. Garnish with avocado and cilantro.

Nutrition info per serving: 310 calories; 14.5 g fat; 1.7 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 34 g protein; 16.4 g carbohydrates; 4.5 g fiber; 627 mg sodium

This Mexican salsa soup is a kid-friendly meal. Top with a dollop of sour cream and shredded cheese if little ones need luring, or serve with taco sides so they can choose their own toppings. Making it for yourself? Freeze leftovers in an air-tight container and defrost in the fridge—not the microwave—to keep fish freshest. Choose organic tortilla chips to avoid GMOs, which are prevalent in conventional corn products.

Pan-Seared Halibut Steaks
Serves 2

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons herbes de Provence spice blend (or 1 1/2 teaspoons each dried thyme, rosemary, savory and lavender)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 wild Pacific halibut steaks, 1/2 pound each
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 to 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon sugar
Zest of 1/2 lemon (for garnish)

1. Mix flour, dried herbs, salt, and pepper in a small dish. Rub over all sides of the fish.

2. Heat oil over medium heat in large sauté pan. When pan is hot but not smoking, place the fish into the pan. Cook four minutes, flip and cook another three to four minutes on the other side, until the fish flakes open.

3. Remove fish from pan and quickly add garlic, cooking 30 seconds. Add lemon juice and sugar, whisking to bring up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Simmer one to two minutes to reduce the sauce. Drizzle over fish and garnish with lemon zest.

Nutrition info per serving: 481 calories; 20.6 g fat; 2.9 g saturated fat; 92.9 mg cholesterol; 61.7 g protein; 10 g carbohydrates; 1.7 g fiber; 1,321 mg sodium

Stovetop-Smoked Wild Salmon
Serves 2 to 4

1 tablespoon each dried dill and parsley
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 (1 pound) wild Alaskan salmon fillet, 3/4-inch thick
1/2 lemon, thinly sliced

1. Follow brand instructions for preparing a stovetop smoker and smoking chips.

2. Mix herbs, salt, pepper, and garlic powder in a small dish. Rub spices onto the fillet. Place lemon slices on top of the fish.

3. Place fillet on the rack and close lid. Place the smoker on the burner and cook 25 minutes at medium heat, until the fish flakes.

Nutrition info per serving: 210 calories; 9.3 g fat; 1.4 g saturated fat; 80.5 mg cholesterol; 29.1 g protein; 1.1 g carbohydrates; 0.3 g fiber; 66.7 mg sodium (based on 4 servings)

Shrimp Skewers in Thai Peanut Marinade
Serves 4 as a main dish or 24 as an appetizer

Thai Peanut Marinade
1/4 cup peanut or almond butter
1/2 cup coconut milk
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
1 small shallot
2 cloves garlic
1/2-inch piece ginger, peeled
2 teaspoons sugar or agave nectar
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
Pinch red chili flakes (optional)

24 prawns, both shelled and deveined
1 (14 ounce) can pineapple chunks
6 (12-inch) skewers, or 24 toothpicks

1. Blend sauce ingredients in a food processor until smooth. If making a double batch for dipping, reserve half the sauce. Marinate the prawns in the remaining sauce for 30 minutes, up to eight hours. Stir occasionally.

2. Heat the grill to medium-high. Slip three shrimp and four pineapple chunks onto each skewer (for appetizers, place one each onto 24 toothpicks). Grill three minutes each side, until shrimp turn pink and pineapple chunks are slightly browned. Remove from heat and serve with the optional remaining sauce.

Nutrition info per serving: 253 calories; 19.3 g fat; 6.8 g saturated fat; 45.6 mg cholesterol; 9.2 g protein; 13.4 g carbohydrates; 1 g fiber; 54.7 mg sodium (based on 4 servings)