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Published on December 17th, 2007 | by juliereid

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Fresh Fish and Sustainable Seafood

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By staying informed and making knowledgeable choices about the fish you consume, you can enjoy the numerous health benefits of eating sustainable fish and seafood, while ensuring that marine life will flourish and continue to be around for future generations.

Current studies on the perilous state of the world’s ocean life reveal grim results: Marine scientists released a report last year stating that if  current fishing practices continue, the world’s major fish populations will be extinct by mid-century.  Hair-raising statistics like this one have prompted a growing percentage of consumers to seek alternatives to endangered ocean species.  But when trying to decipher what constitutes a green seafood, consumers must also consider a whole set of seemingly constradictory information.

Marine scientists released a report last year stating that if  current fishing practices continue, the world’s major fish populations will be extinct by mid-century.

While it is publicized as important to avoid depleting wild seafood populations, information also circulates stating that fishSchool of Fish farming is harmful to the environment, and that eating farmed fish is less healthy than wild fish.  Which is better, sustainable ocean fish or sustainable fresh water fish?  While the health benefits of eating fresh fish are widely publicized, warnings about the mercury content and additional toxins found in fish and other seafood can leave consumers bewildered as to whether there is any choice that is beneficial for both their health and the sustainability of the ocean environment.

Type and Origin in Relation to Toxins and Nutrients

With careful attention to the nature and origins of the fish and seafood you consume, you can effectively reduce your impact on marine populations while also enjoying its flavors and health benefits.  The best way to avoid the toxins present in many fish is to drastically decrease your consumption of salmon, tuna, swordfish, and sharks.  As some of the longest-living, largest fish in the ocean, these fish tend to accumulate the most toxins in their bodies.  Because they are also carnivorous, they ingest additional toxins present in the flesh of the food they eat and this further contributes to their high toxicity levels.

Sustainable tuna and salmon, in particular, come widely recommended as a great source of lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids, purported to lower rates of heart disease and boost healthy cell function.  But there are alternative choices that boast the same health benefits:

  • Anchovies
  • Herring
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Trout

These are all great alternatives, in part because they have shorter life spans and don’t accumulate as many toxins as the bigger cold-water fish.  They also provide a great alternative because they rank amongst the less endangered species, breed faster, and eat much lower on the marine food chain.

For a complete list of the good fish to eat and those to avoid, you can visit Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Web site and/or get one of their Seafood Watch Guides, a handy pocket-sized list of fish eating do’s and don’ts that you can take with you wherever you go.

How Was it Caught?

Equally important in your decision-making process regarding the seafood you consume is in knowing the method that was used to catch it.  Many conventional fishers use trawls for catching fish, a type of fishing net that is dragged across the ocean floor, capturing everything in its path. Bottom trawling does irreparable damage to ocean floor habitats and reefs.  Modern "rock-hopper" nets have heavy rubber wheels that do even more serious damage to the places where sea life feeds and breeds. Once damaged, the living sea floor can take centuries to recover.  The widespread destruction of these habitats has played a large role in the depletion and decimation of fish species.

LobsterBy-catch is another serious drawback of trawl-fishing. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, fisheries throw away about 25% of their catch. By-catch is the name for the fish, turtles, dolphins, seals, whales and other threatened fish species caught unintentionally in trawl nets, and which are unnecessarily killed in the process.  Young fish that could mature and rebuild depleted populations are also frequent victims of by-catch. 

By purchasing seafood that has been caught via habitat-friendly methods such as longlining, hook and line fishing, and trap-fishing, you support sustainable fishing practices that are trying to correct the damage done to the marine environment through conventional practices.  It is not always easy to tell the methods which were used to catch the fish you are buying, but it is good practice to ask questions.  If your fish purveyor cannot give you specific answers, do a little of your own research online.  Visit websites from groups such as IATP (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy) and public resource advisory sites such as the EPA and FDA, to assist you in making safe and informed seafood choices. 

By purchasing seafood that has been caught via habitat-friendly methods… you support sustainable fishing practices that are trying to correct the damage done to the marine environment through conventional practices.

Farm Fish

Contrary to the general consensus about farmed fish being a bad thing, the ecological impact of fish farming depends entirely on which species are raised, and how and where they are raised.  Fish farming helps to supply the growing global demand for seafood while allowing depleted wild fish species to repopulate.  But when you’re choosing farmed fish to eat, it is ecologically better to choose sustainable freshwater fish, such as tilapia, catfish, trout, and striped bass.  These fish are farmed inland, eat only plant life, and pose no threat to the marine environment.

Fresh FishAvoid consuming farmed fish that fall into the carnivorous category, as these species require massive amounts of wild fish for feed, and are raised in areas of the ocean cordoned off by nets.  A short list of farmed fish to avoid:

  • Barramundi
  • Branzino
  • Cod
  • Flounder
  • Grouper
  • Halibut
  • Mullet
  • Salmon
  • Seabass
  • Seabream
  • Tuna
  • Turbot

For every pound of farmed salmon, five pounds of other fish are required to raise it.  This is problematic because it subtracts from the supply of food that wild salmon depend on for survival.  Furthermore, raising fish in coastal net pens generates a serious amount of waste.  Whereas the waste of inland fish can be effectively removed through filtration, the waste of coastal fish pollutes the water and spreads disease to wild fish populations.  The antibiotics then used on these fish tend to create drug-resistant strains of disease organisms capable of wiping out entire wild populations.

Cutting back or eliminating your consumption of these fish species helps to reduce the general demand for them to be raised.  Choose inland-farmed fish and farmed shellfish instead.  As natural filters, farmed shellfish are beneficial to the water they are raised in.  Farmed oysters, mussels and clams need no additional food, as they filter plankton.  Because shellfish cannot live without clean water, sustainable shellfish farmers are prone to generate efforts to keep coastal waters cleaner.

Be sure to ask for ocean-friendly seafood at restaurants you frequent and at your local fish market.  Only consumer preference for sustainable seafood can give fisheries incentive to change their practices.  Finding access to a fish purveyor who supports small-scale, sustainable fishing is one way to ensure that you are consuming only the freshest and most sustainable seafood available.

Article Contributors: Julie Reid





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