The Quick Facts: We all know that eating fish is important for our health. However, when faced with the labels, claims, and prices at the seafood counter it is hard to know what to choose. Practical tips include: Choose fish that is healthy and sustainable, usually wild-caught (but not always); Avoid farm-raised finfish, especially salmon; Look for certified seafood; Buy local or domestic; Eat a variety of fish; Choose high-quality fresh or flash-frozen fish; Ask questions.
We all know that eating fish is important for our health. However, when faced with the labels, claims, and prices at the seafood counter it is hard to know what to choose.
To help parents and caregivers understand the pros and cons of seafood choices, we have broken down some of the seafood choices available and provided practical thoughts to help guide parents and caregivers in making the right seafood choices for their family.
Federal Labeling of Seafood
Since 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has required seafood to carry labels that identify the Country Of Origin and if it was farm-raised or wild-caught. However, the USDA labeling program exempts “processed seafood,” leaving 50% of seafood sold in U.S. without such labels, and wholesale markets, leaving 90% of fish sold from fish sellers without such labels. As with many federal programs, there is a lack of enforcement with inconsequential fines.
Farm-raised fish, also referred to as “aquaculture” or “ocean-raised,” are fish raised in pens in the ocean or ponds, depending on the species. In this system, fish are confined to pens so they are not able to swim around due to their large numbers, may be more prone to disease due to their close proximity to each other, and are fed antibiotics to ward off such disease. If the fish do escape the penned area, they compete for available food and habitat with wild fish, inbreed with wild fish thereby changing the genetic makeup of wild stocks, and infect wild fish with pathogens or parasites.
In terms of environmental impact, farm-raised fish pollute and degrade water quality in the immediate area of the pen due to the large amount of waste (fecal) matter and uneaten food, as well as the pesticides, antibiotics and other additives used to promote growth or provide color to the fish (i.e., in the wild, salmon absorb carotenoids from eating pink krill. On the aquafarm, their rich pink hue is supplied by canthaxanthin, a manufactured synthetic pigment).
In addition, eating farm-raised fish actually increases the pressure on wild stocks. This is counterintuitive but it takes between two and three pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of farmed fish such as salmon. So pressure on wild forage fish used to make fishmeal (such as anchovies, herring, and menhaden) is increased, placing stress on other parts of the marine food web that depend on these wild fish for food.
For seafood choices that are both healthy for your family and for the planet, choose wild-caught fish over farmed-raised most of the time. Wild fish are often associated with fewer health risks for consumers than most farm-raised fish because they are not grown in large crowded cages necessitating the use of antibiotics or additives.
Although eating wild fish is generally better for your health, depending on the fishery, it might not be better for the environment. Eating wild fish from some populations may result in environmental damage because their stocks are at low levels due to poor management or the lack of appropriate fishing restrictions to catch them. In addition, some wild-caught species may contain higher levels of mercury (see Real Mama’s article “Tuna Fish: Is it Mercury in a Can?”).
At the Store
Choose fish that is healthy and sustainable, usually wild-caught (but not always). Although wild fish have fewer health risks, depending on the fishery, they may contain higher levels of mercury or may be mismanaged resulting in environmental damage. Consult the list http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/content/media/MBA_SeafoodWatch_NationalGuide.pdf for information about the health of various fisheries as well as fish that may contain higher levels of mercury.
Avoid farm-raised finfish, especially salmon. Due to the issues discussed above, these fish may have more health risks associated with them. Plus they are often run by large businesses that are impacting independent fishermen and local fishing communities.
Look for certified seafood. Fishery certification programs exist in conjunction with the Marine Stewardship Council that work with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public to promote the best environmental choice in seafood and label those fish that are being harvested in a sustainable way.
Buy local or domestic. As with food on land, the shorter the distance food travels to get to your table, the less fuel is used to get it to you. U.S. seafood has to comply with U.S. safety, environmental, and labor standards and it may help the U.S. economy to buy domestic.
Eat a variety of fish. To limit exposure to possible seafood contaminants and reduce pressure on popular choices of wild fish, do not stick to just one type of seafood. In addition, kids eating a variety of fish expose them to different flavors, textures, etc. For example, my daughter recently decided that she has “out-grown” shrimp but she still likes salmon.
Choose high-quality fresh or flash-frozen fish. Fresh is best, of course, but do not discount flash-frozen fish.
Ask questions. I often get a funny look from the server when I ask about the origin of fish at a restaurant but at those restaurants who know, or who take the time to find out, I have had some of my best dining experiences since they are interested in pleasing the consumer.
Information used in this article was found at the following sources, which you can visit if you want to find out more about this topic:
http://www.fwwatch.org/fish/seafood/labeling (Food & Water Watch is a non-profit organization working with grassroots organizations around the world to create an economically and environmentally viable future)
http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_recommendations.aspx (Factsheet from the Monterey Bay Aquarium recommending which seafood to buy or avoid, helping consumers and businesses become advocates for ocean-friendly seafood)
http://www.msc.org/ (The MSC’s fishery certification program and seafood ecolabel recognize and reward sustainable fishing. MSC is a global organization working with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public to promote the best environmental choice in seafood)
http://www.pewtrusts.org/news_room_detail.aspx?id=23586 (Pew Charitable Trust organization partners with a diverse range of donors, public and private organizations and concerned citizens who share their commitment to fact-based solutions and goal-driven investments to improve society, 2005 Trust Op-Ed piece)