There is a sea of confusion swirling around seafood. It’s either really good for you, or it’s not. It’s sustainable, or at the brink of extinction. The truth lies somewhere in between, and it depends very much on where you live and what your local choices are.
The Northwest is known for its seafood. Sweet, succulent spot prawns, briny oysters, mussels, salmon, halibut, cod and rockfish are all harvested from waters up and down the coast and in Puget Sound and the Columbia River. Washington also has a burgeoning aquaculture industry – there’s a large salmon farm right off the shores of Bainbridge Island. Making the right choices help to ensure that this bounty will be something we can pass on to future generations.
So, you’re standing in front of the local seafood counter or reading a restaurant menu trying to decide what’s for dinner. How do you choose? Making sustainable, healthy choices requires more than just the old tests of smell and appearance. Where is it from? Some countries are much better than others at managing their fisheries. Is it farmed or wild-caught? How was it caught? Keep reading for more information about how to sort through these criteria to make your choice or check out our list of good and bad choices for this region.
Where is it from?
USDA rules require that seafood be labeled with its country of origin, and with whether it is wild or farmed. But sometimes one label will list five or six countries for one pile of fillets, meaning that that species of fish sometimes comes from any of those countries. To find out where that particular batch of fish is from, you need to ask. The store is required to keep a record of where each day’s offering was harvested.Choosing fish that comes from close to home means it took less fuel to get it from the water to your fish monger. It also means it is probably fresher. And it may be safer. Almost 80% of seafood purchased in the US is being imported from overseas, particularly from China. Over 400 shipments of seafood from China were rejected in the U.S. last year after being found contaminated with a wide range of bacteria or substances from salmonella to banned veterinary drugs. One of the salmonella-tainted shipments was tested in Seattle. The really scary part is that only a small portion of the imported seafood is tested.
There is a lot of good seafood that comes from very close to home. Penn Cove mussels from Whidbey Island, farmed oysters from all around Puget Sound, halibut, longline-caught rockfish and cod, and Alaskan albacore tuna and salmon. In the case of salmon, the more sustainable choice might be Alaskan, since it is one of the most well-managed fisheries in the world and is certified with the Marine Stewardship Council. Pacific Coast runs vary in their status. The West Coast run collapsed this year, which is what's behind the stratospheric salmon prices this spring. Fresh Alaskan salmon is due to arrive starting this Memorial Day weekend. Bainbridge island resident Bruce Gore makes quality frozen salmon available all winter long. The Fishing Vessel Ocean, owned by Paul Svornich of Bainbridge Island, harvests albacore tuna by longline in Alaska. It is for sale canned every week at the Bainbridge Farmers Market, and occasionally as frozen loins. For a complete list of Washington seafood sources, visit Seasonal Cornucopia.
Farmed or wild?
Another seafood decision is whether to buy wild or farmed. The sustainability of that choice depends on what you’re buying, and where it’s from. One of the biggest controversies in our area is about wild vs. farmed salmon. The farm that’s off the shores of Bainbridge Island is doing a better job than most – their pen density is low, the currents in the area are strong enough to flush away a lot of the waste that is generated, and the fish are fed a diet that is natural enough to get them into the fish case at Whole Foods. But Town & Country Markets never sells any farmed salmon, due to the many concerns that have been raised. For a host of reasons, including contaminants in the feed, pollution of the environment, risks to native salmon stocks, and the impact of cheap farmed fish on wild-salmon fishermen, farmed salmon is not the sustainable choice according to most sources.
For wild-caught fish, how it’s caught can also be a factor. Cod and rockfish are often available at local markets. If caught by longline they are among the most sustainable fish choices. If trawl caught, they are among the worst. Again, you need to ask. I asked recently at Town & Country, and was told that 99% of the cod and rockfish (also sold as red snapper) they sell are longline caught, making both a very good choice.
For other fisheries, farming is often more sustainable than wild. Tilapia, trout and sturgeon are a few of the fish that fall into this category.
There have been a lot of alarming headlines lately in regards to seafood; PCB’s in salmon, mercury in tuna, cholesterol in shrimp, etc. In his book Fish Forever, Paul Johnson suggests that chicken, dairy and beef contribute more PCB’s to our diet than any fish, that the sterols in shellfish can prevent the uptake of cholesterol rather than cause it, and that the type of mercury in fish may be less harmful than was thought. There’s not enough room here to review all of that information, but recent studies by the Harvard School of Public Health and the National Academy of Sciences conclude that the benefits of eating seafood outweigh the risks. There are many online resources to help you sort through the available information and make healthy choices.
As you can see, it’s not easy being green when it comes to fish. But there are resources out there to make it easier. One of the best is the Seafood Watch from California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium. You can download a handy pocket guide or find a customized online guide for the West Coast. You can also search for a specific fish.
Another convenient way to get information about the fish you may be contemplating buying at the grocer or a restaurant is to text "30644" with the message "FISH," followed by the name of the specific fish in question. In a few seconds, an automated response will come back from the nonprofit Blue Ocean Network's FishPhone service with information on the status of the fish in question — and alternatives, should Blue Ocean consider the fish an undesirable choice.
The Environmental Defense Fund has a website that has separate lists rating the eco-friendliness (with recipes) and health concerns of a long list of seafood items. The health section lists how many servings a month are safe for each type of seafood. Among the choices listed as being safe for adults to eat four or more times per month are halibut, rockfish, sablefish, sole and albacore tuna.
For a complete list of Washington seafood sources, visit Seasonal Cornucopia. It lists many local fishing vessels, shellfish farms, and fish mongers.
There's also a new book by Paul Johnson titled Fish Forever. It offers 422 pages of information about the sustainability of every fishery and the health benefits and concerns related to each. Johnson is also a chef, and he offers one of the best collections of seafood recipes I’ve ever seen. The book is available through the Kitsap Library system, and is also available through Eagle Harbor Books.
Check the Sound Food website for information and recipes that will help you navigate your way safely toward making fish a healthy and delicious part of your diet. To find more about choices in this region, check out our short list of good and bad seafood choices.