Published: December 2008/January 2009
The Cold Hard Truth About Fish
Yes, you can be eco-conscious and still eat seafood—with a few catches.
Text by Christopher Percy Collier

Americans’ seafood consumption—16 pounds per person per year—is at an all-time high. But the facts on fish are more confusing than ever. Health experts say we still aren’t getting enough of it, while marine biologists swear that if we eat any more, we’ll wreck the planet. Thankfully, there are responsible ways to consume seafood without contributing to the damage.

1. How Much Is Too Much?
The news from scientists is grim: Almost 75 percent of the planet’s fisheries have been classified as either overfished or depleted altogether. Some shark species, for instance, have been reduced by 99.9 percent due to overfishing in the past hundred years. Forecasters say marine ecosystems around the world will start to break down if fishing continues at its current pace. We could face a complete "global collapse"—meaning fish populations have been depleted by 90 percent or more—as soon as the middle of this century.

But things are looking up. In September, researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a paper endorsing a "catch-share" model of fish harvesting that could halt—and even reverse—the downward trend. This groundbreaking method divides ownership of fisheries among individuals, ensuring that fishermen comply with catch limits. "Now the answer is out there," says Tim Fitzgerald, a marine scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. "It’s just a matter of implementing this plan on a large scale." Still, such a process could take years. And even if we do get our national fisheries under control, more than 80 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from abroad.

Next: The Ethics of Consuption

The Ethics of Consumption
Since 2004, major supermarkets have been required to label all unprocessed seafood with its country of origin and to indicate whether it was farm-raised or caught in the wild. But you can’t always judge a fish by its packaging. Salmon labeled "Atlantic salmon," for instance, is almost always farmed, while canned tuna is always ocean caught. And those distinctions can make all the difference to the environment.

Domestically farmed shrimp, for example, is a far better choice than imported. It’s the most popular seafood in America, but 90 percent of the shrimp we eat originates abroad, mostly from Asia and Central America, where environmental regulations are sorely lacking. To make way for lucrative shrimp farms, for instance, more than 35 percent of Thailand’s coastal wetlands have been cleared since 1986—resulting in the loss of a protective barrier the country’s coast desperately needs. Many overseas operations also rely heavily on strong chemicals, such as antibiotics to help speed shrimp growth. That not only wreaks havoc on the marine environment—it also harms the consumer. Just last summer, the Food and Drug Administration banned five major types of farm-raised seafood from China, including shrimp, after test results turned up overwhelming amounts of contamination from antibiotics and carcinogens.

The FDA is charged with regulating the safety of all food brought into the U.S., but given the agency’s staffing and budget restrictions, Fitzgerald says, it actually inspects less than one percent of all imports. That leaves room for a lot of contaminated seafood to sneak into the country—and onto your grocery shelves. To be safe, stick to shrimp farmed in the U.S. or caught in the Gulf of Mexico.

International and domestic farms for salmon—the third most popular seafood in the States—have also come under scrutiny. As Sheila Bowman of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program puts it, "Dogs are nice, but imagine 100,000 of them showing up in your neighborhood one day." That, she says, is what it’s like for wild fish when a farm net breaks and hordes of farmed fish are released into native waters. A 2008 study at Halifax-based Dalhousie University found more than a 50 percent reduction of the wild population when farmed are introduced. Your best bet? Wild Alaskan salmon. "Alaska is the most naturally sustainable salmon fishery in the world," says Henry Lovejoy, owner of EcoFish, Inc., a pioneering sustainable seafood company. "There are virtually no contaminants. That’s what I recommend when people say, Just give me one sustainable fish I should eat." Sound expensive? It doesn’t have to be: It’s available canned, like tuna.

Next: Why Bother

Why Bother
Everyone knows fish is a good source of lean protein—but then again, so is chicken. What makes seafood worth all the trouble is its abundance of omega-3 acids, a polyunsaturated fat that helps lower heart disease rates, prevent cancer, even decrease depression. "Omega-3s really are just as good as you’ve heard," says Jose Antonio, Ph.D., CEO of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Recent studies have found the nutrients especially helpful to athletes: O-3s have anti-inflammatory properties and can help your body recover after exercise. "Fish is the single best food an athlete can eat," Antonio says.

Fatty fishes like salmon, sardines, and albacore tuna are the best sources. Eating two three-ounce servings a week is all adults need to get the most out of o-3s. But most Americans aren’t even near that mark. If you simply don’t like the taste of fish, there are other options. Some plant sources, especially walnuts and canola and flaxseed oil, contain o-3s too, but not the same beneficial types as in seafood. Meanwhile, major food companies have started lacing popular foods—everything from OJ to white bread—with o-3s extracted from fish. These nutraceuticals can also be taken alone as dietary supplements. "It doesn’t matter where you’re getting the omegas, from fresh fish or fish oil pills, as long as you’re getting them," Antonio says. "But fresh is best because then you reap the benefits of the protein too."

Next: The Bottom Line

The Bottom Line
If you remember only one thing, Fitzgerald advises, "Eat low on the food chain." Mercury and other harmful toxins enter the food web in the water, where they’re picked up by plankton, then smaller fish, then larger fish, and so on. "Contaminant levels become more concentrated as they’re absorbed up the chain," Fitzgerald says. "The bigger the fish, the more mercury it’s got." So go for anchovies and sardines over toothsome sharks and mighty tuna. Smaller fish tend to reproduce more frequently too, making them naturally more sustainable. Sardines generate a billion eggs, while sharks reproduce at a rate closer to humans. In other words, why cut down a redwood when you can eat a dandelion?