Monday, February 25, 2013

Something Smells Fishy

Q: What types of fish should I avoid?

A:  Buying fish today causes both moral and health dilemmas. Overfishing is one of the greatest single threats to marine wildlife and their habitats and mercury contamination is hazardous to human health, especially for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Fish is also a great source of protein and high in the essential omega-3 fatty acids which have been extensively studied for their effects on reducing inflammation, asthma and heart disease.

When figuring out which fish is the best to consume, you are likely to encounter contradictory advice. Answers are usually a single perspective, such as this fish is best for your health or this fish poses less of an ecological threat. A good example is farm-raised salmon. It is high in omega-3 fatty acids and very low in mercury and therefore, promoted as safe and healthy. However, environmental groups consider it a fish to avoid because over-crowded pens pollute the water, causing the fish to become diseased and antibiotics used leak out into the water. Another dilemma consumers are faced with is a lack of data available in restaurants and grocery stores that is needed to make fully informed choices, such as the origin of the fish or the fishing methods.

Now what?

For simplicity-and sanity’s- sake, let’s focus on three widely consumed types of fish and seafood: shrimp, salmon and tuna.

Ninety percent of shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported. Though it is low in mercury, farmed shrimp is host to a slew of contaminants: antibiotics, chemical residues and E. coli to name a few. Less than 2 percent of all imported seafood gets inspected before it is sold. Coastal mangrove forests have been cut down to make room for shrimp farms to meet the international demand for shrimp. This is not a sustainable practice. Waste builds up, making the ponds uninhabitable for shrimp, and the farm relocates to a new area.  The destroyed forests are crucial for protecting coastal areas. If this hasn't squelched your appetite, always buy domestic shrimp.

Choose wild Alaskan salmon for its heart-healthy benefits in lieu of Atlantic salmon. It is actually illegal to fish for wild Atlantic salmon because the stocks are so low. This demise is partly due to the detrimental consequences of salmon farming.  All fish that is labeled “Atlantic salmon” is from aquaculture. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration are considering allowing genetically engineered salmon to be sold, unlabeled, to consumers. Watch out…         

Pregnant women and small children should avoid eating tuna. The rest of the population should limit tuna consumption as much as possible due to its mercury content and its lack of sustainability. Limit canned light tuna to six servings or fewer per month and canned Albacore or Yellowfin tuna to three servings or less per month. Atlantic Bluefin tuna has the highest levels of mercury of any type of tuna. It is harshly over-harvested to the point of reaching near-extinction levels. 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch provides consumers with a downloadable Seafood Watch Pocket Guide that you can keep with you and use as a reference when ordering sushi or deciding what looks best at the market.

This is an unfortunate situation, but as consumers, we can help to control the demand of fish and seafood, and educate ourselves on how to make informed decisions that will least impact our health and the environment. 

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